Angela Wright is a writer, political analyst and an associate with the Toronto-based Zero Gun Violence Movement.
Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to know why anyone in the city needs a gun. And, it seems, a majority of Canadians agree. Now that the federal government has announced it will study a potential ban on handguns and “assault weapons” and has announced it will begin holding public consultations, there’s an opportunity to have a more robust conversation about who in society ought to be armed. If such a ban is supposed to curtail gun violence by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, then why would we still need armed police?
A recent study conducted by Nanos Research showed a majority of Canadians favour a handgun ban, while exempting police and security personnel. It also revealed 72 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support spending more money on police, if that money were specifically directed toward combatting gun violence. The belief that we need armed police to respond to incidents involving firearms shows Canadians – although we make not like to admit it – are similar to our American neighbours. That is, that we need guns to combat guns.
This, however, is in stark contrast to other countries. There are approximately 20 countries around the world that don’t routinely arm their police forces. A diverse group of countries that includes small island nations in the South Pacific, African countries and members of NATO.
In Great Britain, carrying firearms is seen as an obstacle to building trusting relationships between police and communities. Former New Zealand police commissioner Peter Marshall argued that arming police would just lead to more people being shot when the police could have used other methods.
Having an unarmed population isn’t even necessary for having an unarmed police force. In Iceland, a country with a gun-possession rate similar to Canada, police don’t carry guns though its police special forces do. When armed special forces began patrolling public events in downtown Reykjavik there was much public backlash.
With frustrations toward police violence mounting across Canada – particularly in cities such as Toronto and Montreal that have seen many high-profile police killings – building greater trust between police and the communities they serve and ensuring public safety would be beneficial. This is especially important for Indigenous and black Canadian communities, who are significantly overrepresented as victims of police killings. In Toronto, black Canadians are approximately 8 per cent of the population but account for 37 per cent of those killed by police. In Winnipeg, Indigenous people are approximately 10 per cent of the population but represent approximately two-thirds of those killed.
More worrying, even when adjusted for population growth, police killings are on the rise across Canada. The deadliest police force is the RCMP, accounting for over 25 per cent of all police killings from 2000 to 2017. And of the 461 victims killed during this period, more than 71 per cent were shot and more than 70 per cent suffered from mental illness or addiction.
Removing firearms from a police officer’s arsenal creates a situation where other de-escalation tactics can be used – and can be used successfully. During 2016 in London, for example, the Metropolitan Police responded to approximately 3,300 incidents involving firearms without firing a single bullet.
This doesn’t mean that no Canadian police officer would ever have access to a gun. Police forces should still be allowed to have a specialized unit that would only be deployed in specific active-shooter situations – such as the Quebec City mosque shooting or Toronto Danforth street shooting – similar to police special forces in Iceland.
That so many Canadians are in favour of a ban on handguns and “assault weapons,” yet still want to invest more heavily in police, suggests the quest to disarm citizens is driven by anger and a desire to punish the many gun owners for the crimes of the few. It also raises the question of why Canadians are so comfortable with representatives of the state carrying firearms with accompanying legislation that allows them to shoot children and kill unarmed people.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that police forces are not mandated to keep statistics – and many don’t – on their use of force, especially lethal use of force. It took researchers at the CBC six months to compile a list of the 461 fatal encounters between police and civilians across Canada from 2000 to 2017. Their final report, called Deadly Force, was the first such national database assembled in Canada.
A healthy society functions with mutual trust between the state and its citizens. But how can there be trust if the data for the police use of force isn’t standardized or readily available? If the federal government decides to move forward with a ban on handguns and asks law-abiding gun owners to sacrifice and give up their personal property, it should be equally willing to ask police forces across the country to give up their weapons.
It’s undeniable that Canada has a gun-violence problem. And as I’ve previously argued, the country needs solutions that are both innovative and bold. But a limited gun ban driven by a desire for retribution instead of a will to create safer communities for everyone, isn’t one of them. If the purpose of disarming the public is to reduce the number of people who are shot, disarming the police must be a cornerstone of that. Canada can join the ranks of 20 other countries across the world and fundamentally shift the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve.