Will Canada be as brave as New Zealand, and ban the types of guns that facilitate mass killing of humans? It would take an enormous act of political will. It would take a critical mass of people of to advocate against the weapons. It would involve standing up to the country’s vocal gun lobby.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seized this terrible moment, in the wake of a white nationalist shooting that killed at least 50 people worshipping at Christchurch mosques, to act decisively. “What’s important now is that the New Zealand public is galvanized and I hope that politicians are galvanized behind these changes.”
Ms. Ardern’s ban will cover “military-style semi-automatic weapons,” assault rifles, and high-capacity magazines. The government will offer to buy back these weapons from gun owners. According to the New Zealand Herald, there are about 1.5 million guns in the country of five million.
Canada is currently grappling with our country’s relationship with guns, in two important ways. One is the legislation C-71, currently before the Senate, which places certain controls on gun ownership through more comprehensive background checks, transportation requirements, recordkeeping by commercial dealers and licence scrutiny.
The other is potentially much more bold and sweeping: It’s the question of whether we should even allow handguns and assault weapons in this country. The Prime Minister’s mandate letter to Bill Blair, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, asked for such a review: “You should lead an examination of a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians.” Mr. Blair has crossed the country since last summer, talking to people about that very question.
The answer, from a group of citizens who have seen up close what these weapons can do to human bodies, is clear: Get rid of them now.
As Boufeldja Benabdallah, president of the Le Centre culturel islamique de Québec, told the public-safety committee studying Bill C-71, “If there is one thing I want to ask of you today – just one thing – it is that civilians should be prohibited from owning assault weapons. They are weapons of war intended to kill people and not for training or recreational shooting in the woods.”
In January, 2017, six worshippers at the mosque were killed and 19 more injured in a targeted assault. The killer would likely have been able to kill more people if his first weapon, which was legally owned, had not jammed.
“These weapons destroy lives,” Mr. Benabdallah said. “They are military weapons and should not circulate in our society.”
In any debate over gun legislation, there will be questions about what precisely are “military-style” and assault weapons. The government’s engagement paper on the gun-review notes, “'Assault weapon’ is not a legally defined term in Canada’s firearms legislation.” Instead, the Criminal Code recognizes three categories of guns – non-restricted, such as rifles used for hunting; restricted guns, such as semi-automatic weapons and some handguns, which can be owned with special licences and training, and prohibited, which included smaller handguns and fully automatic weapons.
Should handguns and semi-automatic weapons be in private hands at all? Yes, say gun advocates, who want to use them responsibly for target practice and sport. No, say the family members of those killed by gun violence and the doctors who treated those victims. I know which side I favour; if banning handguns and high-capacity weapons saves one life, it will be worth it. Such a ban would likely save many more. (For example, mass shootings have largely disappeared in Australia, which implemented a New Zealand-style ban and buyback after a gun massacre in Tasmania in 1996. There wasn’t a mass shooting in Australia until last year, when a man took the lives of his wife, daughter and grandchildren.)
On April 3, the newly formed group Doctors for Protection from Guns will hold a national day of action calling for the banning of assault weapons and handguns in Canada. It’s asking the government to make use of grief, as New Zealand did, and act decisively. “These types of guns can, and do, cause maximum death and horrible injury to many, many people within minutes,” the doctors write. “They are a threat to the health and well-being of our communities.”
When the doctors’ group was formed, one of its founding members, trauma surgeon Najma Ahmed, was the subject of spurious claims by gun enthusiasts. They flooded the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario with specious complaints about Dr. Ahmed, because of her anti-gun advocacy. Those claims were dismissed, but history shows that the gun lobby will not give up without a long, loud fight.
To give her detractors the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they didn’t know that Dr. Ahmed had spent days operating on the victims of a mass shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto in July, 2018. More than a dozen people were injured, and two were killed: Reese Fallon, 18, and Julianna Kozis, 10. The families of the shooting victims on Danforth have also called for a ban on privately owned handguns and assault weapons. “Privately owned” is a good distinction here: If people want these guns for target practice, why can they not be owned by a secure, certified facility and used there?
Who, then, wants a ban on handguns and military-style weapons? Doctors; survivors of school shootings and mosque shootings and other acts of violence; advocates for women and children’s safety, who point out how frequently guns are used in domestic homicides. A lot of people, many of whom are living with trauma that did not end the day the shooting happened. Now it’s a question of whether there is the will to act, to fight a political battle, before the next tragedy has people sending their thoughts and prayers. It can be done. New Zealand has shown the way.