Canada’s Gun Control Bill Is a Response to Surging Crime

FTwo horrific mass shootings led to the announcement by the government of new legislation. This would drastically restrict handgun sales and establish a program to purchase back semi-automatic assault guns. But the proposed gun restrictions came from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—and the shootings happened across the border in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.

“We need only look south of the border to know that if we do not take action, firmly and rapidly, it gets worse and worse and more difficult to counter,” Trudeau said Monday in announcing the new gun control legislation.

While Trudeau cited the U.S. shootings, experts say the measures are aimed at addressing rising gun violence in the country—and fulfilling election promises to get tougher on guns. Canada’s violent gun crime rate rose by 20% between 2015 and 2020, as compared to the six previous years. “Gun violence is a complex problem but at the end of the day the math is really quite simple; the fewer the guns in our communities, the safer everyone will be,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau made gun control a priority over many years. However, Canadians also closely monitor the violence at gunpoint in the U.S. “Canadians pay a great deal of attention to what occurs in the United States,” says Mugambi Jouet, an assistant professor at the McGill University Faculty of Law in Montreal.

What’s in the Canadian gun restrictions?

This proposed law would prohibit importation, purchase and sale of handguns..The law would also remove firearm licenses for those who are convicted of stalking or domestic violence. The criminal penalties for gun trafficking and smuggling would be increased. It would also create a red flag law, which would permit courts to order people who are considered to be a threat to their safety or the lives of others to turn over firearms to law enforcement.

Perhaps the most direct nod to the violence in the U.S., the Canadian government is also introducing a voluntary program to buy back semi-automatic rifles—including assault weapons like those used in Uvalde, Buffalo, and many other mass shootings. It follows a failed attempt to enact a similar program before last year’s federal election.

This measure, even though it was popular among gun control advocates was unpopular. Gun owners were free to decide whether or not to surrender their guns. “The people who participate in these kinds of campaigns are typically not the people who are rerouting or trafficking guns into the illicit market. So they’re already kind of low risk people to begin with,” says Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “Voluntary buybacks in general don’t have a good track record. They’re not really ever shown to reduce gun violence.” New Zealand implemented a mandatory buyback program in 2019 after a gunman targeted two mosques and killed 51 people.

For some gun violence experts, it still doesn’t go far enough. Lee says the handgun freeze is a “terrible proposal”—more symbolic rather than attacking the root of the problem. That’s because most guns used in homicides in Canada are arriving from the U.S.—often smuggled from states closer to the border to be sold illegally, he says. The measure may fail to address trafficked guns even though it targets legal imports.

“It’s not looking at prevention. It’s not looking at addressing the underlying conditions that are driving at-risk youth to get a gun,” says Lee. He also said that the government is not spending significant on grassroots programs, such as Violence Interrupters.

Conservatives dismissed the proposals as “virtue signaling.” “It’s extremely problematic because it absolutely appears to be going after those that own firearms, but do so legally and are following all of the rules and regulations that are in place,” said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.

Still, the proposals will face less opposition than gun control measure in the U.S. Jouet notes that in general, it’s much easier to pass legislative reforms in Canada than the U.S. Canada’s opposition Conservative Party is also “more amenable to and less adamantly hostile” to gun control than the Republican party in the U.S. “It’s far more difficult to envision reforms in the U.S. because many people conceive of the right to their arms as key to their identity and the identity of the U.S.,” he says.

On July 23, 2018, a Toronto police officer stands guard at the site of an incident in Toronto (Ontario, Canada).

Cole Bustron—AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s gun violence problem

In 2020, Canada’s homicide rate rose to its highest level in 15 years—with police reporting 743 homicides across the country of 38 million people. This homicide rate is significantly lower than that of the United States, which averaged 7.8 per 100,000.

The World Bank’s data on homicides shows that this rate is still higher than the rest of Western Europe, Australia and most other countries. “It’s not as violent as the U.S. But when compared to other rich, wealthy nations, Canada is not faring so well,” Lee points out.

Gun control groups have blamed a relative weakening of national gun control legislation under Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor. “As we progressively strengthened gun control in Canada… we saw the rates of gun violence, particularly suicide, violence against women and so on, fall. And for the last few years, we’ve seen an uptick,” Wendy Cukier, head of the Toronto-based Coalition for Gun Control, told NPR in 2020.

What’s the gun control situation in Canada?

One of the most striking differences between Canada and America in terms of gun ownership is that the U.S. has enshrined gun owners as a constitutional right. Canada did not.

Canada has increased gun ownership checks. “Canadians treat gun ownership kind of like getting a driver’s license,” Young says, explaining that gun owners are required to pass a test, take a safety course and renew their license every five years.

Jouet states that Conservative politics in Canada are also more moderate than those of the U.S. The intensity of the movement for the right to bear arms in the U.S. is “tied to other trends that are also atypical by Western standards” such as opposition to abortion and universal health care, he adds.

Over the last decade, an increasing number of Canadians—about 1.1 million in total—are now gun owners. Between 2010-2020, handgun registrations rose by 71%. A 2018 nonpartisan Small Arms Survey survey found that Canada had 34.7 firearms per 100 inhabitants. That’s far less than the U.S., which has 120.5 firearms for every 100 residents—but still higher than many developed countries.

Lee notes that while Canada may have more effective gun laws than the U.S., the same issues around gun violence occur there, too—albeit at a lower frequency. Six people were killed by a gunman using a semiautomatic rifle or pistol at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.

After 22 victims were killed in a shooting spree in Nova Scotia, the government passed a ban against more than 1,500 assault-style weapon models. Canada is a country where gun violence has disproportionately impacted Indigenous and Black Canadians. “It mirrors the U.S. in a lot of ways,” Lee says.

While recent mass shootings in the U.S., may have made this moment politically opportune for Trudeau to push new gun control measures, Canada’s rising gun violence has cemented the issue as a domestic priority.

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