In one of those coincidences that editorialists like, last week brought simultaneous news stories about stricter firearm registration laws in Canada, and a dog that busted a gun smuggler.
In the first story, Ottawa last Wednesday brought in rules that will require as of May 18 that all commercial and private sales or transfers of nonrestricted firearms – sport and hunting rifles, and shotguns – be recorded by the seller, and that the seller also verify with the federal registrar of firearms that the buyer is licensed to acquire the weapon.
In the second one, Pepper the Yorkshire terrier’s swollen bladder prompted him to wake his owner in the early hours of April 29 so he could go outside for relief. There, in a backyard along the St. Clair River – whose far shore is in Michigan – Pepper and his owner startled a stranger, who ran off.
Police later discovered that the intruder had been trying to recover a drone whose payload was 11 illegal handguns airlifted from the United States.
Here are two stories in one week that illustrate, each in their own way, the multipronged approach that’s needed to continue keeping Canadians relatively safe from gun violence – and which taken together are symbolic of the political divide over gun control.
For many Conservatives, learning that drones are being used to smuggle handguns into Canada is proof that stronger border protection is where the federal government should put its gun-control efforts – there, and in cracking down on gang violence.
For Conservatives, the problem isn’t guns or legal gun owners, it’s criminals. The party was quick to say last week that, with its latest rules, the Trudeau government was resurrecting the long-gun registry that the Harper government abolished in 2012.
That’s not true; the records of sales will be kept by the sellers, not the government, and police will have limited access to them, often requiring a judicial warrant. But for Conservatives, law-abiding gun owners ought to be left alone to buy, own and enjoy firearms, with no need for more screening or recordkeeping. Focus on criminals, they say, and stop policing guns in the hands of ordinary citizens.
The Liberals, in contrast, mostly want to talk about rules on legal guns.
Their latest measures are part of a gun-control platform that they have repeatedly campaigned on. It includes a ban on many semi-automatic assault-style rifles brought in after the 2020 mass shooting that claimed 22 lives in Nova Scotia, and deeper background checks for licence applicants.
To prevent gun violence, Liberals want to reduce the number of guns on the streets, while Conservatives want to get criminals off the streets. It’s a political divide, and a skirmish in a long-running culture war that pits West versus East, and rural versus urban.
So who’s right? Both.
Ottawa needs to spend more time and money tackling what appears to be a growing gun-smuggling problem. It also needs to put more effort and resources into reducing gang crime and remedying the social conditions that can lead to it.
But anti-crime efforts undertaken in the absence of gun laws would not have gotten Canada to a place where, in a bad year, it records 277 firearm homicides, as it did in 2020.
Countries like Canada that have more restrictive firearm laws tend to have lower gun ownership rates and lower gun deaths than places with few restrictions.
An independent Swiss group called Small Arms Survey estimated that, in 2017, there were 120 civilian-held guns for every 100 people in the U.S., compared to 34 per 100 people in Canada. (The Canadian figure is, note well, second-highest in the developed world.) In the U.S. in 2020, 79 per cent of murders involved a firearm, compared to 37 per cent of Canada’s much smaller number of homicides.
Preventing gun violence is not a zero-sum political game, where we must either carefully vet people who apply for a licence and keep records of gun sales, or we must crack down on crime and smuggling, but not both at once.
That would be like saying that, to make our roads safer, we can either license drivers and register their vehicles, or we can set up speed traps and random stops for drunk drivers – but not both.
Which means when it comes to guns, the Liberals and the Conservatives are each right. More “all of the above,” please.
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