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Amid 'summer of the gun,' Canada sees US firearms debate creeping north

Why We Wrote This

For most of the world when it comes to gun control, Canada is America's responsible neighbor. But as high-profile shootings and gun deaths rise in Canada, the gun debate there is increasingly resembling the US one.

Andy Clark/Reuters
Jeff Wright waits his turn while trap shooting at the Vancouver Gun Club in Richmond, British Columbia, in 2013. The country has a long history of sport shooting and hunting. But as high-profile shootings and gun deaths rise in Canada, its debate sounds increasingly like the US one.

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It has been a "summer of the gun" in Canada. A spate of high-profile shootings and a surge of handgun-fueled gang violence in Toronto have the country steeped in debate over the increasing role of firearms in Canadian society. The streets in Canada are much less violent and its debate about guns much less virulent than those in the United States. But many see an American “creep,” both in the prevalence of guns and the polarization around them. Government figures showed 223 homicides by firearm in 2016, which was the highest number since 2005. There are also simply more guns today: The number of lawfully registered restricted weapons, predominantly handguns, rose from 660,000 to 840,000 between 2013 and 2016. As the government weighs tighter restrictions, some are calling into question the comfort Canada has long taken in its relative peace compared with the US. “We've been sliding in the last few years,” says Peter Donolo, director of communications to former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whose government introduced a now dissolved national firearms registry. “Instead of looking smugly [at the US], we should look in the mirror.”

A shootout on a summer evening in July killed a high school graduate and a 10-year-old girl. In August a sniper in an apartment complex shot dead four people, including two police officers, at sunrise.

This might sound like a familiar storyline in the United States. But the tragedies have mounted in Canada – these latest respectively in Toronto and Fredericton, New Brunswick – part of what has been dubbed a “summer of the gun” here.

Not surprisingly, it has spurred a debate on the increasing role of firearms in Canadian society. But the conversation is taking place in a newer context.

While streets in Canada are much less violent and its debate about guns much less virulent than in the US, many see an American “creep,” both in the prevalence of guns and the polarization around them. As the government weighs tighter restrictions, some are calling into question the comfort Canada has long taken in its relative peace compared with the US.

“We've been sliding in the last few years,” says Peter Donolo, who was director of communications for former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose government introduced a now-dissolved national firearms registry for unrestricted guns. “Instead of looking smugly [at the US] we should look in the mirror.”

Chris Helgren/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the site of the mass shooting at Alexander the Great Parkette on Danforth Avenue in Toronto on July 30.

The evolving debate

The arms landscape in Canada has been shifting in recent years. Government figures showed 223 homicides by firearm in 2016, which was the highest number since 2005, the original “summer of the gun” when gang violence flared as it has this summer.

There are also simply more guns today. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the number of lawfully registered restricted weapons, predominantly handguns, rose from 660,000 to 840,000 between 2013 and 2016. In Canada, “unrestricted” guns, which include rifles and shotguns, require licenses but their purchases are not tracked. “Restricted” guns, on the other hand, have steep requirements for legal purchase and must be registered with the government.

Gun control advocates say the current laws aren’t sufficient. “Handguns are supposed to be hard to get,” says Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. “The most obvious explanation is we have just not been applying the criteria as rigorously over the past decade.”

Canada has a long tradition of guns used for hunting and trapping. Blake Brown, author of “Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada,” says that in the 19th century some advocated that citizens practice target shooting in case of a potential American invasion.

It was with handguns that the cultures took a significant turn, with much tighter restrictions and checks leading to far fewer guns than in the US. There is no constitutional right to bear arms, no narrative about settling the West with arms, and no equivalent to the NRA either. But “a lot of urban Canadians I think underestimate the number of gun owners in Canada, and the passion with which the people in some parts of rural Canada value their firearms,” Mr. Brown says.

That goes some way to explain why restrictions have been relaxed over the past decade. The most visible change came with the 2012 dissolution of a registry under the Conservative government. It had been introduced in the 1990s for rifles and shotguns after a 1989 massacre at a Montreal university in which 14 women were gunned down. But critics painted it as a misuse of funds that targeted law-abiding gun users without addressing public safety.

And gun regulations only partially address Canada's handgun crime, as a significant portion of weapons are illegally smuggled from the US.

Blair Hagen, a board member of the National Firearms Association gun lobby, says the debate in Canada has become louder, which he dates back to the controls established in the '90s. “That is when we really saw, frankly, the gun debate in Canada become more aligned with the gun debate in the United States,” he says.

Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is proposing new legislation, to be taken up this fall, for stricter background checks and record controls, though he has repeated he will not reinstate the registry. Many say the proposals don’t go far enough.

“There is a bit of mythology that grew that somehow the gun registry was fatal for the Liberal Party's electoral chances,” says Mr. Donolo. “And I think that’s one reason in my view that [Trudeau] hasn't been very aggressive on the gun control front.”

A less knowledgeable public?

Because of the relatively low rates of crime, gun control hasn’t been a salient issue for voters. A poll by public relations firm H+K Strategies earlier this year showed that only one in five Canadians say they are knowledgeable about their country's gun laws.

Ms. Cukier points to this spring’s March for Our Lives in the US after the Parkland shooting. “You had Canadians going to Washington marching. You had marches in solidarity in major cities across Canada calling for a ban on the AR-15 in the United States, among other things,” she says. “Most of those people did not know, I think, that the AR-15 is sold as a restricted weapon in Canada.”

She says Canada also too often looks only south, when it should set its standards beyond the gun troubles of the US. In a ranking of industrialized countries, Canada sits at fifth place in homicides with firearms. “When we compare ourselves to the United States we look good,” she says. “But we very seldom compare ourselves to European countries.”

She sees more urgency infusing the public debate, however. In the days after the rampage in Toronto’s Greektown, Mayor John Tory asked: “Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?”

It's led to a vote in Toronto City Hall for a ban on handguns in city limits. This week Montreal said it would push for a federal ban on them, which would be a major turning point. Trudeau said Wednesday he is “listening.”

Distinguishing itself from the US on gun culture has been a constant theme in the Canadian debate since the last third of the 19th century, says Brown, but the concern mounts. “I think these episodes drive some Canadians to say, ‘we don’t want to become like the United States.’”

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