s the United States tears itself apart over whether, in the face of an epidemic of mass shootings, to impose even minimal controls on the purchase and possession of firearms, Canadians should avoid the temptation of smugness.
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Of course, our own gun laws are far more robust and sensible than those of our southern neighbour’s, and our debate happily less fraught, but there is still much room for improvement. And here, too, despite the support of a majority of citizens, the prospect of tighter restrictions is threatened by a small but outspoken opposition with outsized political power.
As the Trudeau government reportedly prepares to table new gun-control legislation, it should not be swayed by our own loud gun lobby or by the caucus’s “nervous Nellies,” as Jean Chretien used to call them. It should instead finally deliver on its promise to address a burgeoning gun problem here at home.
In 2011, the year Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority, Statistics Canada reported that the country was seeing “the lowest rate of firearm homicides in Canada in almost 50 years.” This was likely at least in part the result of tighter gun controls introduced in the wake of the massacre at the École Polytechnique. Yet despite the apparent success of these policies, Harper began to chip away at them.
Most infamously, the Conservatives eliminated the long-gun registry, ignoring the warnings of law enforcement agencies that this was an important investigatory tool and, against all pleading, ordered that all of the registry’s records be destroyed.
This was by no means their only step back on gun control. For instance, they deep-sixed the longstanding requirement that gun dealers maintain sales records, though this is the law even in Texas, Arizona and other gun-loving jurisdictions. They inserted a loophole that relieves sellers of the responsibility to validate a buyer’s licence at the time of purchase or transfer. And they delayed the implementation of important new rules meant to help law enforcement identify the country of origin of imported firearms.
In the years since, we have seen a steady rise in gun homicides. While it would be reductive to chalk this up to the loosened restrictions alone, advocates and law-enforcement agencies have made a compelling case that the phenomena are linked.
The Trudeau Liberals rightly promised on the campaign trail to undo many of the Harper policies and to introduce a number of new measures as well, including expanded background checks to help law enforcement more quickly identify people unfit to own guns due to mental instability or a criminal past. But they have been slow to act, no doubt in part because of the inevitable blowback.
The gun lobby is of course right that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding and that the government should be careful not to demonize them or to inadvertently infringe on their legitimate use of firearms. But they are wrong when they say that stricter gun control would do nothing to combat rising gun violence.
Almost every mass shooting in recent Canadian history was committed using a legally owned firearm. Moreover, under the current law, individuals can buy dozens of restricted firearms within a single year without raising a red flag. As Mayor John Tory has recently argued, this laxity has contributed to the rapid growth of a domestic black market and, in turn, the rise of gang violence in this city and elsewhere.
In anticipation of the coming legislation, the gun lobby and some in the Liberal caucus have expressed dismay. Trudeau should push ahead. “Better than the U.S.” is not good enough.
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