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Erratic policies have shattered the trust between the gun community and the government, experts say

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This is part two of The Hub’s latest three-part series on gun control policies in Canada. You can read part one here.

Who uses guns in Canada? What does and does not prevent gun violence? The answers have been misshapen by our reliance on American media

“The image of Canadian gun owners is entirely shaped by our view of the United States,” says the University of the Fraser Valley’s Dr. Schwartz. “Prime Minister Trudeau often accuses the CPC or pro-gun advocates in Canada of being tied to the NRA when I’ve come across no evidence of that. Politicians use those misconceptions to sell policies in ways I feel are unscrupulous.” 

In America, guns have a metaphysical connection to national identity. There is no Canadian equivalent to that intangibility. 

“Canadian gun owners tend to think of gun ownership in practical terms,” Dr. Schwartz says. “This is a tool for hunting, for sporting competitions. Whereas American owners tend to see guns as an expression of political values.” 

And so while Americans tend to see guns as objects they are entitled to, in Canada they are a privilege to earn.

“They’ve only ever been granted to those with the time and money to take the required courses and tests,” says Calibre Magazine editor Daniel Fritter. “The licensing process takes great lengths to drill it into every gun owner’s head that owning a gun is a privilege and can be rescinded at any time by the authorities. The people that successfully navigate this process feel they’ve passed a purity test.” 

American gun owners are generally proud the government cannot regulate them; Canadian owners are generally proud they obey regulations. Non gun owners generally fail to appreciate the difference. This, then, is why guns are an easy political target, yet also why there was a backlash to C-21, the government’s gun control bill that passed the House of Commons earlier this year. Gun owners dutifully followed the rules, and then the rules changed.   

“Gun owners see themselves as highly scrutinised citizens, and these bans represent a betrayal of the deal they made with the government,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Background checks are very invasive. And they feel like after they go through them they should be allowed to keep the firearms they’ve owned and used safely for decades.” 

Tools can be misused, and if legal gun owners were suddenly committing reams of crimes there would be an argument for rescinding their privileges. But legal firearms are generally not the source of Canada’s gun woes.

“The popularity of these policies stems from their simplicity,” says Dr. Schwartz. “When you see Prime Minister Trudeau make some of these announcements, there’s a photo of him standing at a podium and he’s got a picture of a scary-looking rifle with a big X through it. People are familiar with the iconography from watching the American news, they don’t really know much about how the laws are different in Canada. So it’s a very easy sell to say ‘Let’s ban these rifles.’” 

The Sig Sauer MCX, used to murder 49 people in Orlando in the deadliest attack on LGBT people in American history, and the AR-15, used to commit more mass shootings in America than we have the space to name, are illustrative examples. Both, thanks to their murderous American reputation, were highlights of Canada’s 2020 ban. But unlike their American counterparts, both were regulated by several Canadian laws, including a high-capacity magazine ban. It appears the last time an AR-15 was fired criminally in Canada was in 2004 when a botched drive-by left a bystander paralysed. 

Conversely, the SKS rifle—used in the 2018 Fredericton shooting, the 2019 BC spree killings, and the 2022 murder of two Ontario police officers—was ignored in the 2020 ban, hit by the late 2022 amendment to C-21, then given a new lease on life after that amendment was rescinded. As a popular hunting rifle, it will remain legal, in an example of the complexity—or, less generously, the meandering inefficacy—of targeting specific firearm models.   

The 2022 amendment to C-21 attempted to define “assault-style firearm,” which the government had previously used without meaning, making gun talk nebulous and open to criticism from across the political spectrum. However, the proposed definition encapsulated a variety of firearms popular with hunters, including those used by Indigenous subsistence hunters, who were not consulted on the amendment. Hunting rights, Dr. Schwartz argues, are the closest Canada has to America’s Second Amendment, in that encroaching on them mobilises otherwise indifferent voters. Roughly three million Canadians own firearms. That is not a trivial voting bloc, which is presumably one reason the cheap and popular SKS was ultimately left alone despite its role in several high-profile shootings. 

“The C-21 amendments were mismanaged,” Dr. Schwartz says. “The Liberals didn’t consult with the NDP or Bloc. They came out of nowhere. I don’t think popular support always makes for good policy, but from a political perspective [C-21] did have a lot of support. And they seemed to have squandered that. Carey Price coming out and using his celebrity to voice his opposition, I’ve never seen a celebrity speak out on the pro-gun side before.” 

If you don’t own or care about guns, it can be easy to shrug and say a ban will not affect you. But research indicates bans of specific firearms will accomplish little—one rifle is not inherently deadlier than another. And even if you are indifferent to the feelings of gun owners, there are practical and logistical obstacles to yanking hundreds of thousands of firearms out of circulation. 

“The 2020 order that banned 1,500 models of so-called assault-style firearms, three years later it hasn’t been implemented, there isn’t even an infrastructure in place, it’s going to prove much more expensive than the government initially pitched,” says Dr. Schwartz. “So these are not costless policies. And when you’re a policymaker you have to think about how to get the most public good while investing a level of resources that is responsible.” 

To understand why C-21 feels aimless, we must understand what does prevent gun violence. In 1993, Canada banned high-capacity magazines as part of the response to the 1989 École Polytechnique shooting, limiting semi-automatic rifles to five rounds per magazine. Based on several American studies, this appears to limit the lethality of misappropriated firearms. 

Dampening the power of civilian firearms struck a simple and effective balance between allowing guns as a tool while limiting them as a threat, but controlling who we allow to own a gun is ultimately more effective than controlling what guns we allow someone to own. For example, a disgruntled Canadian cannot visit a gun dealer and walk out an hour later equipped to commit a shooting spree.

“Canada has the most important gun control laws, as far as preventing mass tragedies and gun violence, in that we have licensing,” Dr. Schwartz says. “All guns are dangerous if they’re in the wrong hands. The licensing system Canada has does a good job of looking at peoples’ backgrounds and doing that risk assessment and stopping bad faith actors from getting access to guns within the legal market.” 

According to Fritter, the last three years of erratic policies have shattered the trust between the gun community and the government, and he worries we’re getting “farther and farther from reconciling” as laws continue to tighten.  

“I think there has to be a way forward, but I have serious concerns about our ability to get there,” Fritter says. “Guns are part of identity politics now, and those are so hard to disentangle. I think the easiest route towards a Canada where gun owners have a functional relationship with the government is if the NDP adopts a more pragmatic approach. They can just say, ‘Nope, we’re not going down this road.’ Jack Layton did, and it worked phenomenally to everyone’s benefit. But the Liberals seem so entrenched, and the deeper they dig, the harder gun owners will demand the CPC answer back.” 

Canada’s gun control debate has been Americanised and the consequences are real

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On May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old murdered two teachers and 19 children in Uvalde, Texas with two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles he legally purchased six days after his birthday. It was the ninth deadliest shooting in American history. One week later, Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the sickness seen “south of the border” when announcing a national freeze on handgun sales. 

The freeze was the latest in a series of gun control measures, most of which were collated in Bill C-21 which is now under consideration in the Senate. Politico noted at the time of its tabling, “The Canadian government is hoping for speedy passage of new firearm-control measures meant to fight rising gun violence,” a fantasy that failed to materialise as C-21, introduced in November 2021, continues to engender debate over its scope, intent, potential efficacy, and impact on hunters, sport shooters, and Indigenous Canadians. 

Gun control is, in theory, an easy win for the government. Statistics vary, but a March 2021 Statista survey, which found that 66 percent of Canadians support stricter gun control measures, is typical. Tellingly, analysis of Canadian statistics is often framed in an American context, such as this 2022 Angus Reid survey that opens with a reminder of the Buffalo shooting, in which an 18-year-old White supremacist murdered 10 Black Americans. 

Mass shootings are America’s national disease, and it is unsurprising that their shock and tragedy would penetrate the border. More than three quarters of Canadians say they follow American news closely, and no story is capable of dominating the news cycle like the infuriating despair of a shooting. But we have grown increasingly unable to divorce American stories from the Canadian reality, to the detriment of our ability to rationally discuss guns and the laws we implement around them. 

“I would say most Canadians follow American news more closely than they do Canadian news,” the University of the Fraser Valley’s Dr. Noah S. Schwartz tells The Hub. “American news about guns dominates how the public understands this issue. It’s very easy for political actors to take that understanding and use it to push legislation that’s not in the public interest. The literature on banning specific types of weapons shows pretty clearly that it’s not effective.” 

An American framing also affects how Canadian media reports on guns. 

“Whenever I was asked for comment after a shooting in the U.S., the most common question I heard was, ‘Why does that happen so often down there, and so infrequently up here?’” Daniel Fritter, the editor of Calibre, says. “I haven’t heard that question for years. Now the most common questions parrot those of U.S. interviewers: ‘How can we prevent this from happening? Who needs guns anyway?’” 

Canadians consume American news, Canadian media reports through an American lens, and politicians take advantage of both to present palatable but ineffective gun control initiatives. “When the government announced the handgun freeze, they referenced the Uvalde shooting, even though handgun control in the U.S. versus Canada is night and day,” Dr. Schwartz says. “The licensing process in Canada for someone to own a handgun is strict. So I think politicians can take advantage of that American news cycle. Many Canadians don’t appreciate the differences between gun regulation here and there.” 

Before the freeze, a Canadian looking to buy a handgun had to complete a safety course, take multiple tests, prove their status as a collector or shooting range patron, provide the approval or contact information of every partner they’d lived with in the last two years, apply and wait at least 28 days for a firearms permit, complete an extensive background check, and register their handgun with the police. The American process varies by state, but at minimum a prospective handgun purchaser must be 21, provide a driver’s licence, and complete a simple background check that can be processed in 10 minutes. If you don’t have the patience or acceptable personal history for the three-page document, background checks are not required of gun show purchases. Canada, in short, is far better than our neighbours at keeping legal firearms out of the hands of 4chan-addled neo-Nazis. 

This is one of several reasons there are roughly 72 million handguns in America, part of an estimated 393 million gun arsenal that sees civilian firearms outnumber people. Conversely, Canadians own about 1.1 million handguns, out of about 7.1 million civilian firearms. America’s 120.5 guns per 100 people nearly laps their closest competitor, while Canada’s 34.7 makes our nearest national peers Uruguay, Montenegro, and Cyprus. Canadians do not closely follow Cypriot news. 

Not coincidentally, experts argued the handgun freeze would be ineffective as the vast majority of handguns used in Canadian crimes are smuggled from the United States. Canadian gun violence has risen since the 2010s, but its causes, outcomes, and potential solutions are uniquely Canadian, and to pretend we are simply Diet America does not help us find solutions. Canada and the United States have radically different firearm cultures. We must understand Canadian gun culture and the causes of Canadian gun violence, not cynically point at American headlines and decree that we will put an end to the problems of another country. The former is difficult and would require a tremendous amount of political capital. The latter is empty posturing that threatens to trap us in an unproductive spiral of blame and waste. 

“In Canada, the level of mass shootings is so small that I worry when people make policy statements based on them,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Nowadays, with the level of gun control we have, it’s so rare. We need to be looking at what are the most common forms of shootings, and the shootings we’re seeing now are related to gangs and the drug trade. That’s the day-to-day face of violence, that’s where we have to target our policy solutions.” 

Gun violence in Canada decreased by 5 percent in 2021. Of the 788 homicides committed in Canada that year, 297 were committed by shooting, of which 46 percent were gang-related. Men and lower-income Canadians are more likely to be victims, and Indigenous Canadians remain disproportionately represented. Canada has 2.0 homicides per 100,000 residents; the United States has 6.5. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has cited mass shootings and domestic violence against women as major drivers of C-21, but firearms were present (not necessarily used) at 0.006 percent of cases of intimate partner violence in 2019. Mass shootings, meanwhile, remain exceedingly rare in Canada. We had no mass shootings in 2021; the United States had, according to the Gun Violence Archive’s definition, 693, for a total of 703 fatalities and 2,842 injuries. That may serve as a cold comfort if a loved one has been a victim, but the Nova Scotia shooter smuggled their firearms from Maine, while the Danforth shooter acquired his smuggled gun through a gang connection. Other recent mass killings have been committed with a van and knives. 

Meanwhile, we are slowly importing another element of American gun culture: the virulence of our conversations surrounding guns. 

“Unfortunately, Canadian gun owners are taking up a lot of American rhetoric because they’re hearing a lot of it directed their way,” Fritter says. “When Trudeau stands up and bans guns, the public saw a bunch of scary guns, but gun owners saw a bunch of guns they own. So, convinced the media isn’t interested in reporting the truth and feeling attacked by American rhetoric based on American acts, they respond with more American rhetoric.”