When the Liberals unveiled their updated plan to tackle gun violence during last year’s federal election campaign, they made specific mention of one firearm in particular: the AR-15. It was the only firearm identified by name when the Liberals would recite their promise to ban military-style assault rifles: “Including the AR-15,” they repeated, just in case listeners didn’t quite appreciate the stakes the party was trying to convey.
To Americans, the AR-15 is tremendously evocative. “America’s Rifle,” as it is dubbed by the NRA, was the weapon of choice for many of the bloodiest gun massacres in recent U.S. history, including the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
But the AR-15 has no particular significance in a Canadian context, other than as a reflection of the extent to which we absorb American cultural issues. It was not the firearm used by Marc Lépine during the École Polytechnique shooting in 1989 (he used the Mini-14 semi-automatic) nor by Alexandre Bissonnette during the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017 (VZ58 semi-automatic and a handgun), nor by Justin Bourque during the 2014 Moncton shooting (M305 semi-automatic).
Statistically speaking, Canada’s gun crime issue is overwhelmingly a handgun crime issue, and where semi-automatic weapons are involved, the AR-15 doesn’t stand out. It’s an American symbol that really doesn’t mean much in the context of an nonequivalent Canadian problem.
That said, Canada does have its own pressing gun violence concerns. Last year, Toronto saw a record high of 490 shootings, and Regina police reported a 15-per-cent increase in violent incidents involving a gun between January and November compared to the same period the previous year. In Winnipeg, crimes involving firearms increased 66 per cent between 2014 and 2018 and rates of gun violence nationally have been trending upward since 2013.
But unlike the United States, Canada’s problem is less a culture of ubiquitous legal gun ownership than it is our proximity to a country with a culture of ubiquitous legal gun ownership, in both rural and urban communities. To our disservice, we do not have comprehensive data on the sourcing of the guns used in Canadian crimes, but the police data we do have (on firearms that can be tracked at all) suggest a good proportion do not originate in Canada.
Indeed, a 2018 report from Toronto Police’s Firearm Enforcement Unit noted that 70 per cent of guns used in crimes in the city came from the U.S., and Police Chief Mark Saunders recently pegged the proportion even higher, at 82 per cent. Police in Winnipeg, meanwhile, point to the issue of homemade guns as a growing concern, citing it as a major contributor to the city’s spike in violent crime.
Yet forthcoming federal measures to address gun violence, including a patchwork of municipal handgun bans and new list of restricted weapons, will address virtually none of this. Limited handgun bans will only matter to the extent that invisible boundaries control the flow of people and goods, and only to the degree that legal handguns are used in firearm-related offences, anyway.
Prohibitions on certain semi-automatic weapons might make it tougher for the next Marc Lépine to legally get his hands on a firearm that can kill or maim dozens in a matter of minutes, and on its own, that might be a worthy endeavour. But the gun violence problem that afflicts Canada daily is not one of mass shootings, and we’d be remiss to believe a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons – “including the AR-15” – will meaningfully temper the spate of gun violence afflicting Canadian cities and towns.
Applying tougher restrictions on legal gun owners is the easy part. The government already did that to some degree in 2018 when it introduced Bill C-71, which tweaked classification, record-keeping and background check regulations involving firearms. That, combined with a ban on “military style assault rifles” and scattered municipal handgun prohibitions, would be meaningful steps to tackle the gun crisis in a country like the U.S. But in Canada, material solutions are less straightforward.
Thankfully, we don’t suffer from daily mass shootings in this country, meaning the issues of gun violence plaguing Canada are more complex. Our problems with smuggled, homemade and straw-purchased firearms won’t be solved by banning the AR-15, nor will the issues that breed gun violence, including poverty, gang violence and addiction. The danger of looking at Canada’s gun crisis through an American lens is in mistaking grand gestures for impactful policy. Canada’s gun crime problem requires a Canada-specific solution.
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