Skip to main content

David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer.

Open this photo in gallery:

Police officers and paramedics survey the area of a shooting in Fredericton, N.B. on August 10, 2018.Keith Minchin/The Canadian Press

Our collective consciousness is constantly evolving, often propelled by momentous events. After the Fredericton shooting, it’s increasingly clear that a ban on firearms in urban areas is the next logical step forward.

Introducing sound new policy for the good of communities as a whole inevitably involves some thoughtful restriction of pre-existing individual liberties, which naturally generates opposition among those accustomed to enjoying them. New policies are therefore always, to some degree, controversial. But the key to any successful new policy is that the restrictions to individual liberty are carefully tailored, and outweighed by the collective benefits they bring.

For example, nobody opposes a ban on the sale of tobacco to children – those whose liberty is restricted are would-be profiteers seeking to promote a deadly habit, which makes the appeal to liberty immoral and empty.

If you apply this simple logic to urban guns, a tipping point emerges. Unlike rural guns owned by hunter-trappers, or farmers challenged by wildlife, urban guns have zero social utility, because effective professional policing and declining violent crime have long since overtaken the notion that private homes and businesses must also be armed fortresses. Urban guns are now at best used for recreation or competition. But recreational or competitive shooting is easily accommodated by guns stored at shooting ranges, used there and left there after the fun or sport end. And urbanites who enjoy hunting can readily work with rural-based hunting guides who have lawful access to firearms for that purpose. Any incidental inconvenience to this demographic is certainly not worth the unspeakable agony wrought by each new urban shooter.

Compare this approach against the inherent deadliness of urban guns in the wrong hands, the density of innocent targets in city settings and the demonstrated impossibility of limiting urban gun possession to responsible users: The Fredericton shooter was a licensed gun owner, which teaches that even licensing systems are fallible. Oh, and don’t forget how concern about the prevalence of urban firearms ramps up the tension between police on the street and the marginalized people they often deal with. So on a balanced view, banning urban guns is great policy.

Now introduce the liberty argument: We have a long and entrenched history of freedom to own guns, regardless of how necessary or useful such ownership may be. We can expect the liberty argument – divorced from the contextual realities of guns – to be run up the flagpole with vigour and persistence. But for how long can the liberty argument prevail? Stripped to its essence, the idea that “as it has been, so it always should be, dangers be damned,” is a socially inert knee-jerk assertion. That argument may have some weight in the United States, which is unfortunately saddled with a bizarre interpretation of a constitutional amendment from the musket age about the right to bear arms. But such backward-looking social and legal orientations, oblivious as they are to mounting contemporary outrage over the continuing carnage of innocent people, has no traction outside the unique legal and cultural context south of the border. Instead of the right to bear arms, our Canadian Constitution holds at its core the more pedestrian, but sensible, pursuit of “peace, order, and good government.” This is fertile constitutional soil for boosting urban safety with a firearms ban.

Those favouring liberty around guns will be quick to invoke the slippery slope argument in aid: If gun-ownership is restricted now, what precious liberty is next? But this argument is sleight of hand. The slippery slope is an illusion that distracts us from grim realities we do face by stoking fear of an imaginary alternative bogeyman. A slippery slope is just a metaphor with an equally powerful counter-metaphor: Ice-axes and crampons give all the nimbleness on a slippery slope we need to navigate safely. In other words, a single measured policy step is simply not the same as an inevitable slide into extremism.

The liberty argument for deadly firearms carried weight in a by-gone era when proper human stewardship over gun safety was assumed; when Canadians were mostly rural folks for whom guns were necessary tools for subsistence and livestock protection and management; and when the death and suffering from gun misuse was acceptably suppressed or ignored. But of course none of that is urban reality today, so yesterday’s arguments wither to weightlessness.

Interact with The Globe