A year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to his cabinet to douse two fires that threatened to send the Liberal brand up in flames at election time: a surge in asylum seekers at the border and gun crime in Canada’s largest city.
While the issue of border crossings has largely faded from the headlines – particularly in Quebec, where it risked hurting the Liberals most – the problem of gun-related crime in Toronto has continued unabated and the city’s mayor, trauma surgeons and community leaders continue to call on Ottawa to do something about it, and fast.
The number of shootings and shooting victims are up again so far this year. According to Toronto police statistics, there were 244 shooting incidents and 365 victims between Jan. 1 and Sunday night. And those figures do not include the early Monday morning shooting at a nightclub in North York that left seven people wounded, including one of them critically.
In his mandate letter to Mr. Blair, the Prime Minister asked his new Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction to undertake an “examination of a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians.”
As the former chief of police in Canada’s biggest city, Mr. Blair probably had a pretty good idea then what yet another study of a handgun ban would conclude. Without a sweeping and costly plan to buy back the 1.4 million legally acquired handguns already owned by law-abiding Canadians, and a perhaps even more expensive effort to crack down on illegal handgun smuggling from the United States, a ban on future handgun sales would be largely symbolic.
Mr. Blair likely also knew that Liberals were unprepared to incur the wrath of gun aficionados, who made their opinions known during a public consultation conducted by the government. About 135,000 self-selected Canadians completed an online questionnaire on the topic, indicating an especially high degree of mobilization among gun owners and their supporters.
Fully 81 per cent of survey respondents opposed further action to limit access to handguns, while 77 per cent were against measures to curb access to assault weapons. Opposition to a ban on handguns was highest in Quebec at 95 per cent. Only in Ontario, where 34 per cent of respondents favoured a ban, was there even modest support for prohibiting handgun sales.
In June, Mr. Blair said that the Liberals would not proceed with a handgun ban, after all, declaring it “would be potentially a very expensive proposition” and “would not in my opinion be the most effective measure” given the cross-border smuggling problem.
You have to wonder whether the Liberals had simply been going through the motions.
Mr. Blair did hold out the possibility of a ban on certain assault-style weapons if the Liberals are re-elected in October. But he was so vague on the details that Nathalie Provost, a Quebec gun-control advocate and survivor of the 1989 Montreal École Polytechnique massacre, resigned in protest from the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee, saying she had felt used.
Still, the mere prospect of a ban on certain assault weapons has some Conservatives riled up. In July, Quebec Tory MP Pierre Paul-Hus was photographed at an Ottawa-area gun range holding an AR-15. He was the guest of Tracey Wilson, vice-president of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, whose group had accused Ms. Provost of staging a “temper tantrum.”
Canada’s pro-gun lobby operates largely below the radar of the mainstream media. But it is well organized. And its members make a point of going after politicians who play to the anti-gun lobby. A fair number of Liberal MPs went down to defeat over the Chrétien government’s now-defunct long-gun registry. And many Grits who currently represent ridings outside Canada’s biggest cities know their party must tread softly on the issue of gun control, lest they be accused of wanting to take good people’s guns away from them.
As Toronto Mayor John Tory reiterated his call for a handgun ban in the wake of a weekend that had seen 14 shootings rock his city, Mr. Blair continued to play coy. “There is no option we will not consider, and if we are to take additional measures to address the threats posed by gun violence, we will need a mandate to do so,” the minister said on Tuesday.
No one could accuse the ever-cagey Mr. Blair of shooting from the hip.