Newtown shooting cranks up Canada's gun-control debate

The massacre in Newtown comes just a week after the anniversary of the 'Montreal Massacre' that inspired Canada's strict gun laws – which the current government has been easing.

Trevor Hagan/AP/The Canadian Press
Friends, colleagues, and supporters attend a vigil on Monday in Winnipeg, Canada, in memory of six-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene, the daughter of a former University of Winnipeg therapist and victim of Friday's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. The Newtown shooting comes amid an ongoing debate in Canada over its own gun laws, which the government has eased in recent years.

Though the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last week has drawn sympathy from all over the world, it has a particular resonance in Canada.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 26 victims dead, including 20 children, comes just a week after the 23rd anniversary of Canada's own "Montreal Massacre," which reshaped the country's gun laws. Moreover, it occurred even as Canadians recently renewed calls for stricter controls on firearms access here amid ongoing efforts by the Conservative government to ease firearms laws.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences to the Newtown victims' families while calling the shootings “senseless.” But critics here accuse Mr. Harper's government of practically standing alone among Western nations in rolling back gun-control protections in recent years – most noticeably by scrapping the "long-gun" registry, which logged all of the country's rifles and shotguns, in 2011.

“It has been a useful issue for the Conservative government over the last few years; the registry for a long time was a symbol of government waste,” says Blake Brown, an associate professor of history at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and the author of “Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.” [Editor's note: The original version misnamed Mr. Brown.]

There are an estimated 8 million legally owned guns in Canada, representing about 18 percent of Canadian households. Canada's gun laws are more strict than those of the US. Canadian federal law requires that all restricted and prohibited weapons – including all handguns – be registered with the government. Canada also requires licenses to buy, own, and use firearms.

Canada's strict gun regime, including the now repealed long-gun registry, was introduced by the Liberal government in the mid-1990s, in large part prompted by the Montreal Massacre, in which, on Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women at the Montreal's École Polytechnique before killing himself.

Montreal was also the setting for another school shooting in 2006, at Dawson College, where one student was killed and 19 were wounded before the killer turned his guns on himself. And Toronto has increasingly been the setting in recent years of messy gun battles and shootings in crowded public places, often with guns that have either been smuggled in from the US or stolen from registered gun owners.

Has gun-law relaxation gone too far...

Canadian gun-control advocates argue that still more restrictions are needed. They point out that the type of hunting rifle used by Lepine in Montreal is sold by Canadian Tire, an iconic Canadian chain of hardware stores – much as critics of America’s gun culture note that the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, used in the Sandy Hook shootings, is readily sold by chains like Wal-Mart.

And Heidi Rathjen, who witnessed the Montreal Massacre in 1989 and is now part of a group of survivors and family members of the tragedy who advocate for stricter gun controls, says that rifles, shotguns, and many assault-style weapons remain easily accessible in Canada.

To Ms. Rathjen, the Harper government has done more to erode gun laws than simply scrap the long-gun registry: “They’ve weakened provisions around licensing. While it remains true that you need a license to purchase a gun, a seller no longer has to check the validity of your permit.”

“The fact that there’s been terrible shootings and gun-related deaths has never made a difference. They’ve been very uncompromising in their position, they’ve done everything they could to please the gun lobby, and they plan to do more,” adds Rathjen.

Still, the government has shown signs that there are limits to how far it'll go. Earlier this month, on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, the prime minister distanced himself from several recommendations of the government-appointed Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee – a group comprised almost entirely of gun enthusiasts and advocates – when it was reported that the committee recommended eliminating all together the most restrictive “prohibited” category of firearms – which includes automatic assault rifles.

“The government has absolutely no intention of weakening that category of protection,” Harper was quoted as saying in the Toronto Star.

Another conservative recommendation that would see gun licensing go from five-years to a 10-year renewal term – which opposition critics pointed out would provide less opportunity to do background and mental health checks of registered gun owners – was later dropped. And mental health and gun ownership have gained renewed traction as details of the Sandy Hook killer come out.

... Or not far enough?

But to Canada’s gun lobby, the existing licensing and registration regime is restrictive enough. According to Blair Hagen, with Canada’s National Firearms Association, if the government recognized the right of citizens to bear arms, it would make any debate about their safe use and ownership a lot easier.

“All of the emphasis has been put on controlling and limiting the access to the firearms, and in some ways I can understand that,” says Mr. Hagen. “But the effects and failures of that system have to be accounted for now. How can you stop a determined person from getting access to these things? Seems to me if they’re determined, no law is going to stop them.”

Like their southern counterparts, the US National Rifle Association, the NFA is reluctant to talk about gun control in light of the Newtown tragedy. “Is this the time to talk about those things, after a massive tragedy like this? I don’t think so. I think it’s got to be done a lot more rationally, and done with a purpose rather than a reaction,” says Hagen.

But Rathjen questions whether the NFA and others opposed to gun control will ever commit to such a discussion willingly. She points out that Harper took a hard line on an assault-weapons ban – but only after the CFAC’s recommendations came to light after gun-control advocates pressed the matter, and in the midst of Canada marking the anniversary of its saddest chapter of gun violence.

“I don’t know if this makes any difference to them – the human tragedy of the Sandy Hook shootings – because they’ve ignored the evidence, they’ve ignored the opinions of experts that say that the long-gun registry is essential, that say that it saves lives, that it helps reduce gun-related crime,” she says.

To Dr. Brown, it’s not inconceivable that the Harper government may want to further weaken gun regulations in deference to its base, but Sandy Hook may prevent this.

“They wouldn’t dare try and do anything because of the horrific nature of this shooting," he says. "But time will tell.”

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