A.J. Somerset is the author of Arms: the Culture and Credo of the Gun.
In a Throne Speech mostly devoted to far more important matters, the Liberals committed to pressing ahead with the least rational and most disposable of their election promises on guns: their promise to empower cities to ban handguns.
Gun control organizations tell us this is a dumb plan: Any gun laws we make must be uniform across the country, lest we follow the United States in creating an ineffective patchwork of laws and loopholes. Canada’s gun lobby is also adamant that it is a dumb plan, for the same reasons. Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair deserves congratulations: He has achieved the impossible, crafting a gun control proposal on which both sides agree.
The Liberals can take comfort in that favourite refuge of politicians, the middle-ground fallacy. If everyone is dissatisfied, you must have arrived at a fair and reasonable balance. Alas, it’s also possible that you have come up with a bad plan.
Municipal handgun bans are an innovation 45 years behind the times. In 1975, Washington banned handguns. Chicago followed suit a few years later in 1982. And although the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller ultimately overturned both, the intervening decades showed that for a city to declare itself an island was essentially meaningless. A municipal boundary is a line on a map, and drawing a line on a map will not prevent violence.
Crime guns migrate. The handgun used in the Danforth shooting found its way to Toronto from a Saskatchewan gun shop break-in. The American experience is plain: In a patchwork of differing state laws, guns flow wherever demand takes them. Chicago’s strict gun laws are undone by a simple road trip. Guns still flow across our porous border with the United States. What deterrent are the fearsomely defended crosswalks of Steeles Avenue, which divide Toronto and the neighbouring York Region?
It’s not even clear how cities can ban handguns. No such ban in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver can succeed without provincial co-operation. But the provinces have joined other stakeholders in the consensus that this is not a wise plan. Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have voiced public opposition to any ban on handguns, and the Saskatchewan government has even made a law to stop its cities from regulating firearms.
Any attempt to work around the provinces can only lead to the Supreme Court. If nothing else, it’s a laudable job creation plan – someone has to keep the nation’s hungry lawyers in buttons, bows and BMWs.
About the only people outside the Liberal cabinet who want municipal politicians to have this power are municipal politicians themselves. Shootings put mayors and councillors under pressure to do something – anything – to make people feel safe. But gang violence, arising out of poverty and drug profits, defies easy solutions. Policing it is an endless game of Whac-A-Mole. Conservative politicians promise to win with more police, tougher laws and a bigger hammer – although Black Lives Matter and calls to defund police have made that approach much less fashionable recently. Doing something about guns themselves is a convenient alternative.
Symbolic moves against guns are nothing new. In the aftermath of the Danforth shooting, Toronto City Council passed a long list of useless resolutions, including a decision to thoroughly audit the operations of the Toronto Revolver Club in the apparent hope of finding some punishable transgression. In 2008, to attack its own vague notion of “the culture of guns in this city,” Toronto essentially evicted the Toronto Sportsmen’s Show from the CNE. Three years later, the Sportsmen’s Show was forgiven, after rancorous debate. Councillor Josh Colle said the symbolism merely made “downtown … white people feel better that they’ve done something.”
We don’t think about guns; we feel about guns. Guns are symbols for violence as much as they are instruments for doing it. For most Canadians – including those gun owners demanding “facts and logic” – the conclusions go before the evidence. The majority of Canadians are entirely comfortable with a handgun ban, and are uncomfortable with guns in cities. The future is already written.
So the Liberals will throw cities a bone. If mayors later petition for a countrywide ban, the feds can just shrug and say, “We gave you the tools you need.” If the provinces won’t play ball, the heat will be on the premiers. Surely the Liberals hope that Erin O’Toole, who has already aligned himself firmly with the gun lobby, will dig in: When your opponent has been bathing in gasoline, why not hand him a match? And gang violence will continue, and Canadians will continue to die, but we will all rest assured that we have done something.
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