Angela Wright is a writer, political analyst and former Conservative political staffer at the House of Commons.
It’s become a tragic ritual: Whenever gun violence strikes, there is a conversation about gun control.
And in that conversation, certain “success stories” invariably come up. After 35 people were killed in the Tasmanian city of Port Arthur in 1996, Australia banned certain guns, established a registry and implemented tighter restrictions. The firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 per cent in the seven years afterward. Canada, too, is often cited as a haven, especially compared with the United States.
But Canada saw 249 gun-related killings in 2018. And Toronto – where a fifth of those killings occurred – endured another spate of violence this summer evoking fears of 2005’s “year of the gun.”
For people truly looking for a better approach on gun violence, Australia is not a fair parallel. Allowing provinces to decide to implement a handgun ban, along with a prohibition on military-style “assault weapons” – as the Liberal party proposed, in its campaign platform last week – won’t work if that’s the extent of its gun policy. And a better example lies on an affluent island nation that’s closer to home.
In the early 1970s, a spate of high-profile murders in Bermuda – including the assassination of the governor – prompted the government to confiscate firearms, resulting in one of the world’s strictest gun regimes. Today, only certain members of the Bermuda Police Service are authorized to use handguns; all others must receive authorization from the police commissioner, and that’s usually reserved for the military. Members of licensed rifle clubs may possess firearms with a licence that must be renewed annually, and Bermudians cannot keep ammunition at home.
Bermuda, meanwhile, also shifted its economy to focus on international business. It is now the world’s “risk capital,” and the largest underwriter of catastrophe reinsurance to the United States. As a result, it now enjoys one of the world’s highest per-capita incomes.
But despite all these changes, Bermuda was rocked by the worst period of gun violence in its history, spurred by feuding gangs, starting in 2009. By 2010, there was a shooting every 10 days, on average. The murder of Kimwandae Walker was described by police as one of the “most heinous"; he was killed at a school field on Good Friday in front of his children.
It turns out a blunt ban wasn’t enough. Guns weren’t really off the streets; as a hub for air travel, cargo ships, cruise ships and private yachts from the United States, Bermuda remained vulnerable to firearm-smuggling. And the guns found their way to communities affected by deeper traumas and societal inequalities that a gun ban didn’t address.
"We did not realize that in our communities we were taking this dysfunction from generation to generation,” said Wayne Caines, Bermuda’s Minister of National Security, in a phone interview with The Globe and Mail. Amid alcohol and drug addiction problems, abuse, incarceration, and parental absenteeism, he says this particular generation’s dysfunction is manifesting as gang activity.
Other societal forces helped drive young Bermudians to crime, too. Bermuda’s explosion in gun crime coincided with a recession, triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. The country’s gross domestic product declined for five consecutive years, and the unemployment rate in 2010 was 158 per cent higher than it was a decade earlier.
Bermuda’s history of racial segregation and disenfranchisement meant that the crash affected some more than others. The lack of a four-year university there meant that only those wealthy enough to study abroad – or workers who came from away – could access the high-paying, specialized jobs in the reinsurance industry. And so black Bermudians, who make up approximately 55 per cent of the population, disproportionately worked lower-paying and precarious jobs that required less education, in industries that experienced the worst of the shocks: construction, manufacturing and retail services. “For a long period of time, we did not invest in our young men,” Mr. Caines admits.
But to Bermuda’s credit, it has shifted gears. The government conducted a survey of 10,000 students to identify the young people most vulnerable to these crimes; it found that 4 per cent, or approximately 400 students, fit that definition. The Gang Violence Reduction Team began providing mediation and support sessions in schools. A Violent Reduction Unit took aim at anti-social behaviour while offering mediation, de-escalation, and a prison outreach and rehabilitation program. Its Inter-Agency Gang Enforcement Team holds monthly meetings with police and customs officials, as well as with the departments of education and child and family services. They also adopted a few measures that help people avoid the prison-system funnel: mental-health courts, drug treatment courts, and the decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis. The goal was to move away from locking up the majority of black men who commit lesser crimes.
Since then, there’s been a gun-violence miracle. Over the past four years, the Bermuda Police Service has registered a 45-per-cent decrease in gang murders and gun violence. In 2018, Bermuda saw three firearms deaths, down from nine in 2017 and 14 in 2016.
The government did undertake an initial short-term plan to arrest and convict those directly involved in shootings and homicides, Mr. Caines admitted, but insisted that such an aggressive approach alone wouldn’t have solved the problem, and that a more long-term plan was needed to ensure young people stayed connected to society. “We accept and acknowledge that we could have done differently,” he said. "Now we are in the process as a community of coming to grips with some of the failings of our past.”
Canada may not boast Bermuda’s tropical climes, but we share surprisingly similar circumstances. Indigenous, immigrant and refugee families carry unaddressed intergenerational trauma. People of colour, who disproportionately experience poverty, have been historically disenfranchised and marginalized. A Hospital for Sick Children study found that refugee youth had a 43 per cent higher chance of becoming victims of firearms assault than Canadian-born children.
Unlike Bermuda, though, Canada seems unwilling to acknowledge its failings and pursue anything but a gun-violence strategy centred on police action and blunt restrictions.
“Don’t focus on the gun,” Mr. Caines offers up as advice. “Focus on society’s challenge … and put mitigating factors and life-changing factors that allow our young men to get connected to society.”
As Bermuda marches toward an era of zero gun violence, the question remains whether politicians in Canada have the willpower to do the same. The latest round of high-profile gun policy suggests that’s unlikely.