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?”
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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.