Skip to main content

The sight of children being loaded into hearses tends to focus the public mind. And when young people have died of gunshot wounds, as a 10-year-old and an 18-year-old did on Sunday night on a Toronto street lined with restaurants, a lot of people find themselves sharing the thought uttered by the city’s mayor, John Tory: “Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?”

Leaders around the world have asked that question after kids have died in mass shootings, and many countries have responded by outlawing most civilian ownership of firearms.

The real question is: Would a ban work? Or would it be an empty political gesture that hassles legal gun owners instead of criminals and extremists?

The case in favour of a ban is that a lot of the weapons used by mass killers and terrorists are legal. Canada’s most horrific firearms crimes have mostly been committed with legal weapons. The 2017 Quebec City mosque massacre was carried out with the shooter’s legal rifle. So was the Moncton mass shooting of 2014 and so was Richard Bain’s 2012 attempt to assassinate Quebec premier-designate Pauline Marois. The awful Dawson College, Concordia University and École Polytechnique massacres in Montreal were all committed with weapons purchased legally. The La Loche, Sask., school shootings in 2016 and the Edmonton gun massacre of 2014 involved legal firearms taken by the shooters from their neighbours.

Related: As Toronto says goodbye to shooting victims, Trudeau says Ottawa will study handgun ban

Read more: Odds of stanching illegal handgun flow low for police and lawmakers

Reports suggest that the pistol used by the 29-year-old Toronto shooter was part of this pattern – a weapon (legal or otherwise) taken from a Canadian owner. Indeed, Toronto’s police chief says half of the firearms used in criminal offences are legal Canadian weapons that have been sold by or stolen from their owners. A B.C. government study last year found that 60 per cent of the weapons used by criminals there were legally and domestically sourced.

So Canadians are arguing that we could reduce tragic deaths by banning a major source of firearms. How has that worked when other places have tried it?

Australia was aghast when a man opened fire with a legal rifle on families at a tourist attraction in 1996, killing 35 people, including several children. Twelve days later, federal and state governments all agreed to a near-complete ban on modern rifles and shotguns and very tight restrictions on sporting firearms. To get a licence, Australians must prove they have a “genuine reason” for a weapon. The government spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying back 650,000 firearms (the majority of the country’s stock), followed by a second gun amnesty in 2016.

That ban worked. National statistics show that deaths by firearms plummeted after the ban and kept falling at a faster rate than deaths by other causes. The gun-homicide rate fell to a level far lower than Canada’s (and lower than other causes of homicide), and Australia enjoyed a 20-year period without any mass shootings.

Germany was shocked in 2002 when an expelled student shot up his former school in the eastern city of Erfurt, killing 16 people – students, staff, police and himself – in the first school shooting in the country’s history. A very strict new gun law followed, requiring psychiatric and anger-management tests by counsellors for many people seeking licences. After another shooting in 2009, Germany put harsh restrictions on ownership of more than one weapon. Firearm killings in Germany fell sharply, from more than 100 to about 50 a year (one of the world’s lowest rates), and experts attribute the decline to the strict gun restrictions.

Britain was sickened in 1996 when a man used his legal firearms to kill 16 five- and six-year-olds and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland. The Conservative government passed a law the following year, which was strengthened a few months later, that banned all civilian ownership of handguns.

At first, it didn’t seem to work. Both homicides and gun crimes rose for a few years afterward – the latter in part because legal owners had become illegal owners. Starting in 2013, police began to better enforce the law, with gun buybacks and raids. The gun-violence rate and the overall homicide rate immediately plunged and have continued to fall; Britain has a much lower rate of both gun crimes and overall murders than Canada. Whether the gun ban played a major role is a matter of debate; Britain has generally become less violent and criminal over the past 20 years (recent spikes in knife crimes have not had a major effect on deaths).

Would Canada fare as well? Some weapons will always creep in from the United States. But a ban would take care of half the supply and raise the price of black-market guns. History suggests that, in the long run, it would lead to fewer dead kids.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe