REACTING to recent acts of random violence that have shocked millions of Canadians, Canada's federal government is weighing whether to make owning a handgun illegal for all but soldiers and police.
Justice Minister Allan Rock first unveiled the proposal April 11 and since has been hit by a barrage of criticism from Canada's gun lobby - as well as about half the members of his own Liberal Party. Despite the battering, Mr. Rock has not backed off.
The minister said again last week that active proposals include one to ban all guns in Canadian cities and ban handguns nationwide. Aboriginals who survive by hunting and farmers would be allowed to retain rifles and shotguns, he says.
But Rock sees no need for guns in Canadian cities and remains convinced more must be done to halt random urban violence. ``I do not want to find Canada falling into a cycle where people believe they have to acquire a weapon for protection of themselves,'' he says.
The triggers for government action were three highly publicized murders that brought calls for the government to do something before Canada's cities become like those of its violent neighbor to the south. Two were marked by their randomness.
First there was the drive-by shooting late last month in Ottawa of British engineer Nicholas Battersby, who was shot on the street with a rifle from a jeep. Three youths are charged.
But while the Battersby shooting shocked many, it was the April 5 murder of Georgina Leimonis in Toronto that provoked outrage. She was shot with a sawed-off shotgun during an armed robbery in an upscale Toronto cafe. News media coverage of the crime and police search for assailants was intense.
``The growing number of tragedies committed with illegal guns, in crowded places, in broad daylight, is an outrage that has rocked Canada,'' says Priscilla de Villiers, who heads CAVEAT, a national antiviolence group.
Canadians were severely shaken after the Dec. 6, 1989, massacre of 14 women in Montreal by a man with a now-banned semi-automatic gun. The Montreal tragedy led to Canada's toughest gun-control act, which became fully enforced Jan. 1, 1994. Yet many say that even the requirements of a written test, several permits, a 28-day waiting period, and police checks would not prevent the Montreal murderer from legally obtaining a weapon.
Public fears over violent crime
Public fear of violent crime - more than any other single area of public concern - has risen steadily in the last decade, according to Donna Dasko, a researcher with Environics, a national polling firm. Public approval for even tougher gun-control laws runs around 80 percent or more of those polled.
Some, however, suggest that public fears are far out of proportion to the actual danger. ``There are some reasons to be concerned, but they've been grossly overblown by politicians and the media,'' says Philip Stenning, a University of Toronto criminologist who specializes on the impact of gun control on crime. He says there is ``no evidence that use of guns is increasing'' in homicides, and ``in fact slightly the opposite.''
Violent crime in Canada is far lower than in the United States. In 1992, the last year in which data was available, there were 732 murders in Canada, a rate of 2.67 per 100,000 population, according to Statistics Canada. In the US, 23,760 people were murdered, a rate of 9.3 per 100,000. The disparity grows when only cities are considered. In Toronto, there were 62 murders in 1993. By comparison Boston, whose metropolitan area is about the size of Toronto's, saw 98 people murdered that same year. In Washington, 710 people were murdered in 1993.
``There's no evidence that people are any less safe on the streets of Toronto than they were 5 or 15 years ago,'' Professor Stenning says, and yet, ``This [Leimonis] killing is being amplified to say we're going to rack and ruin, and that Toronto is becoming like Detroit.'' What is causing concern, Stenning says, is that while the use of guns overall is not increasing, handgun use in crimes is increasing. There is a greater likelihood today than five years ago that a homicide will involve a handgun, he says.
Whether banning handguns will help reduce violent crime in Canada is unclear. Police say hundreds, possibly thousands, of handguns are smuggled yearly from the US to Canada where they fetch up to C$500 (US$365). A nine-month police undercover operation, Operation Gun Runner, last year ended with 243 illegal guns seized and 17 people charged in connection with gun smuggling in southern Ontario. Few other numbers exist on gun smuggling, a subject the Justice Ministry has only begun to study.
In the meantime, Canadian customs agents at border crossings are using scanners on license plates that a computer cross-checks against suspect plate numbers and X-ray machines that can penetrate door panels, where guns are often hidden.
``The media is in a feeding frenzy over this,'' says David Tomlinson, president of the Calgary-based National Firearms Association. ``Rock wants to put a sticker up in the window of every Canadian home that says: 'I do not own a firearm. I do not have any way to protect myself. I rely entirely on the telephone to summon assistance.'''
But Wendy Cukier, president of the Toronto-based Coalition for Gun Control, says the old self-protection argument will not wash. There are more than 200 million guns in the US, compared with 6 million or so in Canada. ``Someone once said Canadians are like Americans, only with universal health care and no guns,'' Ms. Cukier says. ``I suppose if arming for self-protection worked, the US would be the safest country in world.''