Hey! It’s Samantha and Jack, the editors of Well-Versed. We’re happy that you’re joining us. We’ll be with you right up until the federal election. Each week, we’ll break down a new political topic. This week, we’re getting you well-versed on gun policies.
While Canadians are more likely to associate gun violence with our neighbours to the south, we aren’t immune to mass shootings and gang violence. The 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting and 2018’s shootings in Fredericton and on Toronto’s Danforth are just some of the recent, painful reminders of how close to home gun violence can be.
The number of gun deaths across Canada continues to climb. By the end of 2018, the number increased to 249 (up 60 per cent from 2014). Shootings in Toronto last year hit a record high of 428. Just last weekend, multiple gunmen unleashed 100 bullets in Mississauga, leaving an innocent Grade 12 student dead and five others injured.
So what can be done, and what do politicians say they want to do?
What do you think the gun-control debate is missing? Canadians are split on gun control − both what it should look like and if they want it at all. Where do you stand? Write a comment or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, age and city if you’re comfortable, and you could be featured in Thursday’s edition of Well-Versed. If you’re reading this through a browser, you can subscribe to the newsletter.
A quick history lesson on Canadian firearms regulation
The first gun-control measures stem from after Confederation, when Parliament enacted a law requiring government permission to possess firearms and ammunition in the Northwest Territories. In 1934, the first firearm registration laws were introduced for handguns, requiring gun owners to register their guns with police forces and provide personal information about themselves, such as their address.
In 1995, after the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, the Firearms Act (Bill C-68) was passed, replacing the existing licensing system (1991’s Bill C-17) with a new one that mandated across-the-board gun registration, banned short-barrel and small-calibre handguns and required a licence to buy ammunition.
The registration of long-guns defined in Bill C-68 became law in 2003, when it became illegal to possess an unregistered firearm. After years of political debate, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government passed legislation to abolish the long-gun registry in 2012 and erase its records.
The path of a gun
The Globe and Mail just released an investigation into firearms tracing, seeking to answer the question of where the guns used in crimes come from. Its biggest finding: Canada’s political debate has largely focused on assault-style rifles, but data shows that these aren’t the biggest problem. A ban on those weapons would not in itself adequately combat gun violence in Canada.
Patrick White and Tom Cardoso spent the past year working on this piece, and their investigation is required reading for anyone looking for a thorough understanding of the origins of gun violence.
They found that handguns are by far the most-used weapons in firearm-related homicides. In addition, counter to the popular narrative that most guns used in crimes are smuggled in from the U.S., many handguns, including the one used in the Danforth shooting, are in fact legal weapons stolen in Canada or sold into the black market by legal owners.
A lack of data
Part of the problem in deciding on effective legislation − and what made The Globe’s investigation so difficult − is that the data on where guns used in crimes come from is limited.
White and Cardoso filed more than 40 access-to-information requests to governments and the largest metropolitan police forces in the country to build a national picture of crime-gun sourcing. They write, “The data showed how often guns were seized, what kinds of guns were used in crimes and how often police could match crime guns across different cases – but nothing about where they were coming from.”
Police do have the capacity to trace where a gun used in a crime came from, but tracing is expensive and often does nothing to help solve the crime at hand. This means police often don’t bother to use tracing and, even when crime guns are traced, the process can take months. The Globe found that in almost all cases, police-level tracing information – when it existed – was kept as written reports attached to individual case files, rather than being kept in a centralized data base.
White and Cardoso tried to get their hands on those individual files regardless, but “the police forces said they would have to spend hundreds or thousands of hours to find, scan, redact and release each tracing report for the thousands of firearms they seize each year.”
What Canada’s gun laws look like today
Shortly after the Danforth shooting, Bill Blair, Minister of Organized Crime Reduction and former Toronto police chief, led public consultations on firearms in the fall of 2018.
The resulting report outlined that Canadians were not overwhelmingly anti-gun. But the survey received a lot of critique, and public surveys since then have found that more Canadians are in favour of a handgun ban than the government suggested. (Regardless of the exact data, it’s clear that Canadians are polarized on this issue.)
Blair told The Globe this summer that he had rejected the possibility of a full ban on handguns. saying it would be overly expensive and ineffective, given the easy flow of illegal handguns across the border.
The government did, however, pass Bill C-71 this past June, tweaking Canada’s existing gun laws to expand background checks for gun purchasers, require gun sellers to keep detailed transaction records and place further restrictions on firearm transportation.
Gun control doesn’t simply focus on firearms − it often involves a multifaceted approach that includes increased law enforcement, addressing the socioeconomic conditions that can lead to gun violence, funding community projects and other tactics.
Buyback programs are one potential remedy for gun violence. They typically involve an aggressively advertised campaign asking citizens to give any guns in their possession to authorities for reimbursement (Toronto did one earlier this year). The idea isn’t that anyone with a gun poses a threat − it’s that taking guns out of community circulation contributes to community safety.
Speaking just after the funeral service of 18-year-old Reese Fallon, who died in the Danforth shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said multiple times that he and his policy makers are looking abroad for examples of success. After the massacre at two New Zealand mosques in March in which 51 died, the government of Jacinda Ardern launched a $141-million ban-and-buyback program for semi-automatics. But so far, the results have been mixed. As of August, the government had collected just 15,000 weapons, dispersing $27-million. That puts the compliance rate at lower than 10 per cent.
The 2018 government survey on gun control found that poverty, a lack of education or employment opportunities, a lack of mental-health support and social exclusion are all potential contributing factors to gun violence.
Where the parties stand
- Liberal Leader Trudeau pledged Friday that if his party is re-elected, it would ban and buy back up to 250,000 military-style assault rifles. (Watch a video of the announcement here.) Notably, it stopped short of backing a national ban on handguns − a policy that victims of gun violence have been loudly calling for. The Liberals would also support municipal powers to ban handguns, suspend gun licences of people suspected of posing a danger to their families, toughen gun-storage laws and crack down on straw buyers, those who purchase guns legally and resell them into illegal markets.
- The Conservatives are opposed to a handgun ban but have promised to enact new firearm regulation measures with a focus on criminals. The party says it will ensure prison time for people who knowingly possess a smuggled gun, crack down on straw buyers, create a firearms smuggling task force, implement temporary gun seizures for detained mental-health patients and a lifetime ban on firearms ownership for violent and gang criminals. In addition, the party would set new penalties for selling guns to prohibited users. Leader Andrew Scheer has also vowed to repeal C-71, rolling back the Liberal expansion of firearms background checks.
- The NDP says that it would give municipalities the choice to ban handguns in their own jurisdictions. The party hasn’t been explicit about advocating for a sweeping handgun ban, but its platform says it would “work to keep assault weapons and illegal handguns off our streets and to tackle gun smuggling and organized crime.” They plan to pair this with community funding for “anti-gang projects” in an aim to address a possible root cause of gun violence.
- The Green Party is in favour of banning both handguns and assault weapons and launching a confidential buyback program to aid them in doing so. Its platform says the party wants to “ensure illegal handguns are intercepted and kept out of our cities.” The Greens say they would also redirect more Canada Border Services Agency resources to weapons smuggling.
Like many major policy problems, gun control is complicated. Regulation could involve a combination of registries, restrictions and policing efforts. Any type of firearms ban could gain praise from anti-violence advocates and scorn from responsible gun users who may otherwise agree on political issues. As this debate intensifies, and the parties continue to make promises, we encourage you to think: Why do or don’t you value the idea that Canadians should be allowed to own handguns? Assault weapons? At what cost and for what gain?
What do you think the gun-control debate is missing? Canadians are split on gun control − both what it should look like and if they want it at all. Where do you stand? Write a comment or send us an e-mail at email@example.com. Include your name, age and city if you’re comfortable, and you could be featured in Thursday’s edition of Well-Versed.
IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Gun violence impacts communities across the country, but the fact that firearm regulation is part of federal criminal law means that communities have little ability to create their own gun control. Several parties say they would allow municipalities the jurisdiction to ban handguns in their communities. It should be noted, though, that it’s unclear how the implementation of municipal bans would work. For example: Mayor John Tory has been pressing Ottawa for the authority to ban handguns, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said he would oppose such a measure.
Last week, two photos and one video of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing brownface and blackface surfaced, dominating conversations about the election and drawing international attention and condemnation.
“I’m asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did,” Trudeau said in an initial apology. “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better but I didn’t and I’m really sorry.”
Trudeau apologized for a second time in Winnipeg on Thursday, where he said he couldn’t be “definitive” about the number of instances in which he wore blackface or brownface because he hadn’t remembered the third occasion, released by Global after his first apology.
The leaders from each political party have weighed in. Singh and Trudeau will be sitting down for a meeting (private at Singh’s request because he said that he doesn’t want to be used as a political prop for Trudeau’s forgiveness). Trudeau has promised to personally apologize to Singh, the first member of a visible minority to lead a federal party.
But what does the public think? Trudeau now must face the voters, a Globe editorial said: “The question is what Canadians think of what they’ve seen, and what they want to do about it.” Singh says that the blackface controversy involving is not about Trudeau in the end but rather the Canadians of colour who face racism and have now been mocked by their Prime Minister.
If you’re a Globe subscriber, be sure to also sign up for our regular Politics Briefing newsletter, written every weekday by deputy politics editor Chris Hannay. He will be ramping up his election coverage of all the big headlines and campaign trail news to keep you informed.