As the shootings spread during Toronto’s long weekend of the gun, it became hard to keep count of the number of victims. “I’ve got 13 people right now in the city that have been shot, that have a bullet in them,” Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said on Monday afternoon. He spoke too soon: Within hours, four more people had been hit in three other acts of gunfire.
That’s 17 people shot in Canada’s largest city, in multiple incidents, over less than 72 hours. The only saving grace is that none of those with bullets in them is dead.
It’s not yet clear what kinds of firearms were used in each of these cases, but we know which type is usually involved. That’s why it’s time to look at banning these sorts of guns, which are increasingly employed in violent crime in Canada’s cities, and increasingly involved in homicides.
These firearms are small, portable and easily concealed. They’re also relatively inaccurate, and have few legal uses. They’re unsuited for, and forbidden to use in, this country’s main legal firearms activity, which is hunting.
They’re good for shooting targets at close range. That, and not much else.
They are handguns, and it’s hard to find a reason why anyone other than a police officer would need one.
Yes, Canada already has a solid regime of gun control, including prohibitions on certain high-powered and high-rate-of-fire weapons, and the screening all purchasers must pass. The current gun-control rules work and contribute to lower violence, but they could work better, and do more. It’s time to beef them up, with a focus on incidents such as those in Toronto over the weekend. Canada has to reduce the availability of the type of gun most commonly used in urban shootings: the handgun.
In England and Wales, which have lower murder rates than Canada, and stronger gun control, only 5 per cent of murders are committed with a firearm. In Canada, in contrast, firearms were responsible for roughly four out of 10 murders in 2017. Firearms have become Canada’s most common homicide tool.
And among firearms, the Canadian murderer’s gun of choice is the handgun.
In 1961, only one in six murders was carried out with a handgun. But handgun murders spiked in the 1990s. In each year over the past two decades, at least half of all firearm murders were carried out with a handgun. And whereas rifles and shotguns were the most common firearms used in rural murders, a handgun – easy to carry, easy to hide, easy to whip out when needed – is the preferred weapon in city violence, used in 63 per cent of urban firearm homicides.
Handguns are currently classed as restricted weapons, which means that someone who wants one has to go through the mandatory screening and training necessary to buy a non-restricted weapon, like a hunting rifle, and then submit to additional screening to obtain a restricted possession and acquisition licence, or RPAL.
Reclassifying handguns as prohibited weapons would mean that those who own them would be grandfathered and could keep them, but handguns could no longer be bought or sold. The many Canadian stores and websites legally selling firearms, including handguns, would henceforth only be allowed to sell long guns, such as hunting rifles.
We confess that it’s not clear how much of an impact this would have on crime in Canada – and the reason is the border. Unlike Britain, we sit next to a country awash in guns. Handguns can be smuggled into Canada, and they are. And evidence suggests that there may already be a lot of illegal handguns in this country, some secreted in from overseas and some diverted out of legal stocks.
In other words, making handguns legally unavailable will not cause the crime rate to plummet overnight, nor will it lead to an abrupt collapse in the murder rate.
But could it help? And could it do so without inconveniencing any of Canada’s millions of hunters, who use long guns, not handguns? Yes.
Canadian gun control has been a story of reasonable compromises, aimed at protecting legitimate users and weapons, while restricting and banning what is beyond those categories. Handguns should be placed in the beyond, because they have no legitimate purpose outside of policing. There is no reason for civilians to own them, particularly in cities and suburbs, where the vast majority of Canadians now live.