Moncton shooting: Just the latest tragedy in Canada's rocky gun debate

The man believed to have killed three police officers was caught today. But his rampage is reigniting debate over the effectiveness of Canada's strict gun laws and firearm registry.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters
Flowers and tributes are left on the steps of RCMP headquarters in Moncton, New Brunswick, today. Canadian police have arrested a man suspected of having shot dead three police officers and wounding two more in Moncton: one of the worst shootings of its kind in Canada, where gun laws are stricter than in the US and deadly attacks on police are rare.

Canadian police in the early morning today apprehended a man who killed three of their own on Wednesday evening in Moncton, New Brunswick, putting an end to the city's lockdown during the manhunt.

But while the immediate crisis is over, the shooting has stirred Canada's ongoing debate over gun control – particularly the repeal in 2012 of part of its national firearms registry.

Though often overshadowed by the all too frequent shootings and ensuing debate over gun control in the United States, the history of gun control and gun violence in Canada is just as heated – and sometimes as violent – as that in its neighbor to the south.

'Montreal Massacre'

Prior to 1989, Canadians only had to pass a safety course and carry a license to use a gun. Other restrictions were brief and reactionary: Suspect immigrant groups had their guns taken away during World War II, and militant Quebec separatism led to restrictions in the 1960s.

But in December 1989, a young man entered a Montreal engineering school with a legally obtained rifle. He shot 28 people, claiming he was “fighting feminism.” He killed 14 women and himself in just 20 minutes, in what has become known as the "Montreal Massacre."

Those shootings sparked tighter gun laws. A survivor of the massacre started what remains Canada’s most active gun control group. And five months after the shooting, the Conservative party introduced a bill to require stringent license screening, a ban on military-grade weapons, and penalties for unsafe storage.

But the bill prompted almost unprecedented pushback from among the Conservatives, which included many rural voters who favored gun ownership. The party dropped the bill briefly, but reintroduced it a year later.

Amid five months of debate, the committee working on the bill heard from gun owners, doctors, and feminists who said gun control is needed to prevent violence against women. Police chiefs also testified, calling for a national registry to aid investigations and warn them which residences held guns. A bill enacting some restrictions – but no gun registry – passed in December 1991.

Then, in August 1992, a Montreal university professor shot four of his colleagues. Picking up from the prior hearings, a bill to enact a national registry was proposed in 1993. It came into effect in 1995, requiring registration for all firearms – whether restricted, prohibited for the general population, or non-restricted.


But while the government billed the registry as a self-sufficient program funded by license fees, it quickly descended into a costly bureaucratic scandal, with millions spent on hardware and advertising.

The database was found not credible enough for court proceedings. Some gun-rights groups boycotted the program, while many waited until the registration deadline to flood the system. And seven years in, registry costs hit $1 billion, with only one-tenth paid by fees.

The program was particularly despised in Alberta, the bedrock of Canadian conservatism. Political scientists often cite the registry as a key impetus for the launch of the Reform party, a libertarian protest movement that became a powerful populist voice and ultimately merged into what is now the Conservative party.

After his election in 2006, Prime Minister and Conservative leader Stephen Harper tried twice to end the registration requirement for non-restricted firearms, known as long guns. Both bills failed, with the first introduced just months before a young man yet again took firearms to a Montreal college campus and shot 20 people.

In 2012, Mr. Harper’s government finally passed a law scaling back the registry to restricted firearms only, and erasing records of non-restricted firearms in the system. Gun owners and fiscal conservatives celebrated the move, while the families of the Montreal Massacre victims protested.

The Quebec government opposed the new law and immediately filed an injunction requesting the data be turned over for a new provincial registry program. The injunction is still undergoing appeals. To this day, Quebec residents still have to register all firearms, and their records remain on file. Its case against the federal government is still being heard. And while other long-gun registrations were destroyed in 2012, some media outlets obtained data sets beforehand, with names redacted, through freedom-of-information requests.


The long-gun registry has been one of the most contentious issues in Canada, and its effectiveness remains unknown.

There are still no clear figures on how often the long-gun registry was used. Police claimed there were thousands of daily queries, but gun advocates point out that the registry was automatically searched during address and vehicle license plate checks. Homicide rates have been falling in Canada since the 1970s, and it’s unclear whether the registry is a factor.

Nonetheless, the registry debate sparked animosity along the fault lines of Canadian society: urban vs. rural, communitarian Quebec vs. libertarian Alberta, indigenous hunters seeking autonomy vs. police who claim the registry enhances public safety. Each vote on the registry created a split in the social-democratic party between their main voting blocks – rural, socialistic farmers, and urban pacifists.

And the debate flares up again every Dec. 6, when the Montreal Massacre is remembered on a national day focused on violence against women, and federal buildings all fly the Canadian flag at half-mast. The gun control debate regularly has a particularly feminist angle, with feminist groups pointing to a disproportionately male gun-ownership rate, and the fact that men have committed all of Canada's mass shootings.

While there are 89 guns for every 100 Americans, that number drops to 31 in Canada, according to 2007 figures from the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that 7.8 million firearms were registered in the database at the end of 2011, and 90 percent of those are non-restricted firearms. According to the RCMP, the registry now contains almost 850,000 restricted and prohibited firearms.

The US homicide rate is almost double that of Canada. Chicago records 650 homicides a year, while Toronto nets 60 with the same population. In both cities, many of these homicides are gang-related shootings, but police increasingly link Toronto shootings with unregistered guns illegally smuggled from the US.

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