Sunday’s shocking attack on unsuspecting people enjoying a summer’s evening in Toronto has raised one question that needs asking above all others: How did the shooter, whose family has since said suffered from an extended period of serious mental illness, acquire the handgun that he used to murder an 18-year-old woman, a 10-year-old girl, and injure 13 others?
The question is made more urgent by the fact that Toronto has seen a spike in gun violence this summer, most of it related to gang activity. As of Monday, there had been 228 shootings that killed 29 people and hurt at least 150 more.
“There are far too many people carrying around guns in our city and our region who should not have them,” Toronto mayor John Tory said on Monday. “Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?”
The mayor was expressing a sentiment felt by many, and Ottawa should listen. There are reasons to worry about the ability of our gun-control regime to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.
For instance, it is entirely conceivable that Sunday’s shooter was the legal and licensed owner of the handgun he is seen firing, with some level of proficiency, in a brief video of his rampage.
Under the law, the fact that he suffered from psychosis and depression should have ruled him out as a legal gun owner. All applicants for a licence to own a handgun undergo a background check that includes a self-disclosure about any mental-health issues in the previous five years.
The problem is that it is easy to lie about one’s private medical history. Alexandre Bissonnette, the man who pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder in the attack on a Quebec City mosque in 2017, omitted from his licence application the fact he suffered from depression and severe anxiety, and had contemplated suicide. He used a legally owned and registered weapon to kill six men.
The Trudeau government has tabled legislation to tighten Canada’s gun laws that includes a provision for background checks that go deeper than five years into an applicant’s personal history.
But that doesn’t address the sticky issue of an applicant’s ability to lie about their mental health. There is a proper balance between a person’s right to privacy and the need to protect the public that hasn’t been struck in this case, and the government should rethink whether its reform goes far enough.
There is also a possibility, of course, that Sunday’s shooter obtained his gun illegally. Here, too, there is reason to worry about our gun laws.
The perception in Canada has long been that the handguns used in crimes are smuggled into the country from the United States, a country awash with the things. And that used to be true. But there has recently been a dramatic shift: Where 75 per cent of the guns used in crimes in Canada in 2012 came from the United States, last year it was only half, according to Toronto Police Services.
A police task force in British Columbia discovered the same thing last year: that almost 60 per cent of the guns seized in B.C. were purchased, traded or stolen in Canada.
In other words, legal handguns – which Canadians can buy in any quantity they choose – are falling into the hands of criminals.
And not just through theft. A detective in Toronto’s guns and gangs squad said this week that some legal handgun owners have been selling their weapons illegally, often at great profit thanks to a beneficial combination of market scarcity and a huge demand in the criminal world for more weapons.
This is made even more worrisome by the fact that there was a dramatic and unexplained jump in the number of registered handguns in Canada between 2013 and 2016 – from 660,000 to 840,000, according to the RCMP’s Commissioner of Firearms.
Ottawa must address this shifting landscape. It appears there are more registered handguns than ever in Canada, and a lucrative and growing black market for their resale.
Put in that light, what appears on the surface to be a random spike in gun violence in Toronto this summer might in fact be the inevitable outcome of gun-control laws that aren’t up to the task of protecting Canadians.