When the Liberals think about gun control, they are haunted by the long-gun registry debacle.
Created in 1995, six years after the École Polytechnique murders, the Canadian Firearms Registry was an expensive and unpopular bit of bureaucracy that required gun owners to register all their weapons, even ones designed solely for hunting.
The Conservatives railed against the registry and ended it in 2012, after the Harper government won a majority. For the Liberals, the cost came in lost support in rural Canada – a blow that has tempered their stand on guns ever since.
During the 2015 election campaign, even as they promised to toughen Canada’s gun laws, they made it crystal clear that they wouldn’t bring back the registry of non-restricted guns like hunting rifles. And this time around, as the Liberals propose to ban assault rifles – but not handguns – the party has again promised it will not bring back the dreaded registry.
But in the intervening years, something in Canada has changed. The Firearms Registry, which continues to track restricted and prohibited guns, has tallied an alarming surge in handguns.
In 2013, there were about 660,000 registered handguns. In 2017, the number neared 950,000 – an increase of 40 per cent in four years. This proliferation has happened as shootings, mostly related to gangs, are becoming more common in Canada’s large cities. Handguns now account for almost two-thirds of murders in urban areas.
This page has previously made the case to ban handguns. The Liberals, after studying the issue, say that doing so would be unduly expensive and not effective, given the steady influx of illegal handguns coming from the United States.
But that belies the fact that domestic guns play a significant role in crime. In just one example, a pistol used in the 2018 murders on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue had been stolen two years earlier from a gun shop in Saskatchewan. A handgun ban would not be a panacea, but it would help reduce access to these weapons.
The Liberals are instead proposing a ban on “military-style assault rifles,” including the deadly AR-15 that has been used in so many mass shootings in the United States. The Liberals would spend about $500-million to buy back 250,000 such weapons.
This narrow ban skirts the more pressing issue. According to a recent Globe and Mail investigation, so-called assault rifles account for less than 1 per cent of homicides or attempted homicides. The real problem is handguns.domest
The Liberals do make a nod in that direction, promising to work with provinces and cities to “further restrict and ban handguns.” But that is a half-step, and the patchwork nature of the plan is problematic. Civic bans would do little or nothing to reduce the number of handguns in Canada.
In the Conservative platform, the first mention of the word gun comes in a promise to repeal Bill C-71, which became law this year. The bill tightens rules around non-restricted rifles, including deeper background checks that extend to a person’s entire lifetime and not just the previous five years, and a requirement for gun sellers to keep a record of every sale. The Conservatives disingenuously call that “a backdoor gun registry.”
When it comes to guns, the Conservatives’ focus is gangs. The party wants to toughen rules around bail, parole and sentencing for gang members, and to amend the Criminal Code to identify known gangs as criminal organizations, similar to the way terrorist organizations are named.
The Conservatives would also make it a specific criminal offence to knowingly possess a smuggled handgun, with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. The Liberals, too, would increase penalties for gun smuggling but don’t offer any specifics.
Both parties would expand programs that focus on at-risk youth – the Liberals more so than the Conservatives. That’s an acknowledgement of the roots of gang membership, and crime generally. Poverty is one of the primary factors behind crime and violence in Canada’s cities. Violent crime is not a career chosen by those with better options.
On guns, the Conservatives are sticking to their tough-on-crime brand. The Liberal plan better reflects recent changes in handgun ownership but, thanks to the ghost that haunts the party, it is too timid.