A.J. Somerset is the author of Arms: the Culture and Credo of the Gun.
For a month, anything that’s not COVID-19 related has been confined to parentheses. But the murders of 22 people in Nova Scotia last weekend have, for now at least, reminded us of the Canadian gun-control debate and politics as usual. Justin Trudeau, recalling his planned assault weapons ban, promised that “we have every intention of moving forward on that measure”; Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair, in stiff Cabinet Ministerese, said, “it is my intention to bring forward the measures that will fulfill our commitment to Canadians.” Translated: that ban remains the plan.
But as details emerge, the deadliest mass shooting in modern Canadian history may expose the shortcomings of Liberal gun control plans. At present, we don’t know that the Nova Scotia shootings involved an assault weapon, however “assault weapon” may be defined. It has been reported the shooter owned two handguns and a police-style shotgun. Eyewitnesses have said he carried a handgun; if he carried a long gun, there is no indication it was a semi-automatic rifle. When the facts come out, handguns, not assault weapons, will likely be the focus of debate.
Arguably, an assault weapons ban that did not also address handguns would have little effect. Assault weapon bans intend to reduce mass shooting risks, but mass shooters often use handguns. When his rifle jammed, it was a handgun Alexandre Bissonnette used to murder six people at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. And it was a handgun Faisal Hussain used to kill two and wound 13 on the Danforth in Toronto.
“Unless legislation also addresses the handgun ownership policies that permit too many handguns in retail stores and in the hands of private individuals, then we will continue to be at risk,” says Ken Price of Danforth Families for Safe Communities, whose daughter Samantha was wounded in the Danforth shooting. “We need to change the ownership model for both handguns and assault-style rifles.”
But the Liberals have shied away from action on handguns, which is politically more difficult than an assault weapons ban. A clear majority of Canadians support banning handguns, but that support has been falling steadily since the 1980s. Today, fewer than 300,000 Canadians own handguns, yet they own almost a million of them, which makes the cost of a buyback daunting. And most handgun crime is gang-related, and will scarcely be affected by new laws.
A handgun ban would likely have little effect on crime statistics. But if it makes sense to ban assault weapons to prevent mass shootings, it makes equal sense to move on handguns also. And the Liberals seem to be leaving that possibility open. Mr. Trudeau vaguely referred to “other measures” the government might take, and Mr. Blair also suggested that any new measures would wait on the RCMP’s investigation and would be “evidence-based.”
It will be some time before we know what that evidence may be in Nova Scotia. There are 16 separate crime scenes, and it is likely the gunman used more than one weapon. But Canadian police are reluctant to share information at the best of times, citing the danger of prejudicing court proceedings or ongoing investigations. Information reaches the public long after the fact, if at all: We still don’t know what gun was used in an August, 2018, mass shooting in Fredericton, which killed two police officers and two civilians, because the matter has not yet come to trial.
Must we wait two years to learn the facts on which the Liberals intend to base their evidence-based policy? How are we to assess that policy, absent those facts? Some of those facts are available now. The police can confirm whether the shooter held a firearms licence within hours, a fact that cannot conceivably prejudice any Serious Incident Response Team investigation. Yet the RCMP has not released this information.
Whether the past weekend’s rampage in Nova Scotia will prove to be a pivotal moment in Canadian gun control remains to be seen. In a video shared to Twitter Monday by Canada’s National Firearms Association, former U.S. National Rifle Association TV personality Colion Noir suggested the Liberals were exploiting a tragedy to push an anti-gun agenda. And the political opportunity for the Liberals to act has surely arrived. But it is less clear that whatever action they take will form a sensible and coherent response to the problem of mass shootings in Canada.
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