Like so much else in Canada, the debate over guns typically happens more quietly than it does in the United States. But on rare occasions, a tragic moment will come along and propel the issue to the top of the public agenda. When that happens, the country abandons the decibel range of polite discourse and begins to argue—loudly—about gun control.
That’s what happened this week after a lone gunman, Faisal Hussein, allegedly opened fire in Toronto’s Danforth neighborhood Sunday night, killing two and wounding 13 more. The ensuing days have been incredibly busy ones for gun-control advocates in Canada. The tragedy has sparked a national conversation, with officials as prominent as Toronto’s mayor pushing for a ban on the sale of handguns. Advocates have seized the moment of increased public attention to argue for tighter gun laws.
But the debate sounds very different there than it does in the U.S. There’s no Second Amendment in Canada, and the Supreme Court has explicitly said that nobody in the country has a right to bear arms—instead, it’s a privilege granted only to those who make it through an intense screening process. Canadians also don’t have a gun lobby as politically powerful as the National Rifle Association. In fact, it’s entirely possible to live in Canada for years without ever hearing of the country’s smaller, grassroots gun-lobby groups.
The last time the Canadian government showed serious resolve about overhauling its gun laws was after a gunman opened fire at a Montreal college, École Polytechnique, killing 14 women. That was in 1989, after which the government imposed new screening and training requirements on gun buyers. A national gun registry was also established to enable police to track individual firearms—but a few years later, under the conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, it was dismantled.
“Now you have a moment when you can attract people’s attention,” said Wendy Cukier, the president of the Coalition for Gun Control, whom I caught between interviews she was rushing to give to various media outlets. “The fact that the mayor of Toronto, who himself was leader [of a center-right conservative political party] at one time, is calling for a ban on handguns—that’s starting to suggest that perhaps the party lines are eroding, and people who in the past might not have been vocal supporters of gun control are now speaking up.”
As Toronto’s city council passed a motion Tuesday to urge the government to ban handguns, the mayor, John Tory, said, “Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?”
About 2 million Canadians own guns, out of a total population of 36 million.* Handguns are usually obtained either through legal purchase or through illegal smuggling from the U.S. (Authorities have not yet announced publicly whether the Toronto shooting suspect legally obtained the handgun he used in the attack.) “Our problem is, because we share a border with you,” Cukier said, referring to the U.S., “even if we ban handguns, we would still have a problem with smuggled guns.” A ban on guns only impacts the legal stream; the illegal steam can continue unabated.
That’s partly why Solomon Friedman, an Ottawa criminal-defense lawyer who has acted as counsel for the National Firearms Association and who identifies as a target shooter and firearms advocate, argues that “further efforts to tighten gun laws have little to no effect on crime and simply penalize the law-abiding.”
Friedman noted that any Canadian who wants a license to own a gun has to complete a safety course, supply two references to the police, submit to a background check and spousal notification, and wait 28 days. “My view is that the people who can legally possess guns in Canada already come from a subset who have been investigated and cleared,” he said, adding that the sorts of people inclined to commit murder will just find another way to do it if they haven’t got a gun. “The burden of proof rests on the party that wants to change the status quo, to show that this will have some positive outcome.”
Cukier believes she has that proof. “Most mass shootings in Canada are committed by legal gun owners,” she said, citing the Polytechnique massacre and the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting among several other examples. (Mass shootings are far rarer in Canada than in the U.S.) It’s not just that those who legally own guns sometimes use them to commit crimes. Those owners also sometimes sell their guns to people who can’t obtain them legally, and those people go on to use them in a criminal context. This practice, called “straw purchasing,” accounts for about 50 percent of all handguns used in crimes that have been traced, according to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
As for Friedman’s claim that keeping a gun out of someone’s hands won’t disincline them to commit murder, Cukier said, “The evidence doesn’t support that. Look at the numbers.” She went on to analyze homicide statistics from 2016: “If you look at the rate of murders not caused by guns and you compare Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, what you see is that it’s roughly the same in all four countries, although the U.S. rate is slightly higher,” Cukier said. In other words, in a scenario without guns, the four populations exhibit roughly similar rates of homicidal behavior.
That changes when you look at the rate of murders that were caused by guns. “As soon as you add guns into the mix, you see that the U.S. has six times the rate of gun murders as Canada has. And Canada has 15 times the rate of gun murders as the U.K., and four times the rate of Australia. It’s very clear that the difference in the murder rates between those countries is a function of the availability of firearms, period.” She added that in 2016, the U.K., with a population of 60 million, had only 27 gun murders. Why? It’s at least partly because, after the 1996 Dunblane school massacre, the U.K. banned handguns.
Although a majority of Canadians support a total ban on guns in urban areas, the country has never enacted one. This may be in part because its gun-violence problem is minor relative to that of the U.S., but it’s also because the anti-gun majority rarely mobilizes politically around the issue, while the minority makes its voice loudly heard among politicians (though not among the general public). In that regard, the NRA has had a major impact on Canada.
“The president of the NRA comes up here once in a while to provide advice and encouragement to the Canadian gun lobby, and there are formal relationships between some of the lobby groups and the NRA,” Cukier said. “What is very profound is the impact of the rhetoric and the strategies, which you can almost cut and paste from the U.S. You find many Canadian gun owners now talking about their rights to own guns in Canada, but there are none! And we see constant, constant, constant rhetoric about our need for self-protection.”
Legislation pushing for increased gun control, including more expansive background checks, is slated to go to the senate this fall. It doesn’t go so far as to call for a total ban, though. At this point, Cukier said, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government seems “more concerned about what the gun lobby says than about what women’s groups and health-care professionals say. … Politicians are scared silly about what the gun lobby says it will do to them.”
Friedman, for his part, said that politicians might overcome that fear in the wake of the Toronto shooting—but that that’s nothing to cheer about. “Politicians see a tragedy and want to do something. They never want to admit that to a certain extent they’re powerless. They have to be seen to be doing something,” he said. He insisted that enacting laws to limit access to guns is ineffective, and to the extent that it seems like an attractive proposal, it’s only because the alternative is much more difficult.
“If you’re at the point where you’re saying, ‘How did the guy get that gun?’ then you’ve already missed the point. You haven’t asked: ‘Why does he feel disenfranchised?’” Friedman believes the government would be better off investing more in preventing and treating mental-health problems. The Toronto suspect suffered from severe mental illness, according to his parents, who rushed forward to offer that account to the Canadian press even as the Islamic State claimed without evidence that the gunman was one of theirs.
Tightening gun laws and investing in mental-health care are not mutually exclusive, despite their use in opposing narratives about what’s really ailing Canada. Both are arguably urgent. In fact, one of the saddest ironies of Sunday’s attack is that Toronto officials had already set aside the day to discuss the problem of gun violence—which they did just hours before the gunman opened fire. The discussion turned out to be a lot more pressing than anyone had imagined.
* This piece originally misstated Canada’s population as 30 million.