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How Canada Got Tough on Guns
Within weeks of a mass shooting, the Canadian government passed a ban on assault-style weapons despite widespread firearms ownership and vocal gun rights groups.
MONTREAL—Less than two weeks after a gunman went on a rampage in Canada’s eastern province of Nova Scotia, killing 22 people in the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s modern history, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a long-awaited announcement: His government would ban “assault-style” firearms in Canada—a demand gun control advocates had spent decades pushing for.
On May 1, Trudeau enacted new regulations to ban the use, sale, and import of more than 1,500 models of firearms and their components. “Canadians deserve more than thoughts and prayers,” Trudeau said, echoing the fatalistic refrain of many U.S. politicians after every mass shooting.
“These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. There is no use and no place for such weapons in Canada.”
Canada is by no means an anti-gun country. On the contrary, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research project, there were 12.7 million legal and illicit firearms in civilian hands in Canada in 2017, or 34.7 firearms per 100 residents—the fifth highest rate in the world. In 2018, nearly 2.2 million people had licensed firearms in Canada, with Ontario and Quebec leading the list of provinces and territories.
As with all gun-related policies, the response was swift and divided: Gun rights groups lambasted Ottawa for what it called its “flawed and dangerous” decision and accused Trudeau of carrying out a “gun grab” that would divide Canadians.
Gun control advocates welcomed the changes but wanted more: A firearm buyback program must be mandatory, they said, and Canada also should enact handgun restrictions and stricter border controls to prevent weapons from flowing in from the United States.
But Canada’s assault weapons ban could nevertheless provide a lesson about what it takes to get gun control measures enacted and serve as an example for Canada’s closest ally, the United States, which remains a global outlier with a staggering level of gun violence.
To understand how Trudeau passed new gun control regulations, it’s necessary to understand the system governing gun ownership in Canada and how Canadian gun laws were passed over the past several decades.
Firearms fall into three categories in Canada: non-restricted (most rifles and shotguns), restricted (handguns), and prohibited (specific handguns, sawed-off rifles and shotguns, automatic weapons). Each comes with specific regulations.
Assault-style firearms are not legally defined, but the federal government points to a U.S. Justice Department definition to describe them as “semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire.”
Previously in Canada, “a lot of civilian versions of assault rifles were categorized as non-restricted,” explained Francis Langlois, an associate member at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
By comparison, some “semiautomatic assault weapons” were banned at the federal level in the United States between 1994 and 2004, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a U.S. advocacy group, “but currently there is no federal law regulating these highly lethal weapons.”
Trudeau campaigned in 2015 on a promise to strengthen Canada’s gun laws, and three years later, in 2018, his government introduced a law strengthening firearm background checks, among other things. Gun control advocates welcomed the legislation—known as Bill C-71—but said it didn’t go far enough, while gun rights groups said the law unfairly harmed law-abiding gun owners and targeted the wrong things.
But with a majority in the House of Commons, Trudeau was able to push the changes through despite opposition from the Conservative Party and pro-gun organizations.
Langlois said Canadian gun lobby groups, while less powerful than their U.S. counterparts, especially the National Rifle Association (NRA), have for years been able to successfully prevent gun regulations from being passed.
He pointed to Canada’s long-gun registry, which was part of the 1995 Firearms Act and later dismantled by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government in 2012, as a good example of the gun lobby groups’ effectiveness.
“They transformed it from a public security issue to a public management issue,” he said. “They were saying the government doesn’t have the capacity to run its own program, it’s losing money. … The debate was not around the effect of the gun registry on the population or the security of the population.”
Still, Langlois said Canadian gun lobby groups do not compare to the NRA—and that’s partially why gun control measures have had more success north of the border. “Here in Canada the gun lobby is good, but it’s not as good as the NRA.”
Canada has faced gun violence in the past. Heidi Rathjen witnessed a mass shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. The misogynistic attack left 14 female engineering students dead, shook Quebec and Canadian society, and prompted a nationwide movement for stronger gun laws.
That early advocacy led to the 1995 Firearms Act, which set out rules around the registration, licensing, and categorization of firearms in Canada and which Rathjen described as a “balanced, moderate, reasonable approach to gun control.” But she said the law was “so flawed that the market ended up being flooded with new assault weapons, and successive governments failed to address the problem.”
Now the coordinator of Poly Remembers, a group of Polytechnique survivors and victims’ families, Rathjen pointed out that the gun used in that shooting—a Ruger Mini-14 rifle—was among the 1,500 types of weapons Canada outlawed this month.
She said few Canadians were aware that assault weapons that have been used in mass shootings in the United States had been legal in Canada up until Trudeau’s announcement. The AR-15 rifle, which was used in the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, is only now prohibited in Canada, for example—evidence, too, of the fact that mass shootings are so rare in the country. “Now the public is aware, and so I think support for a ban on assault weapons is going to become even stronger,” Rathjen said.
Recent polls show that most Canadians support these types of gun control measures: Nearly 4 in 5 Canadians say they support a ban on assault weapons, while 61 percent say they are in favor of banning handguns. A large percentage of current gun owners—who make up about 13 percent of Canada’s population, according to the Angus Reid Institute—also support bans on assault weapons (45 percent) and handguns (39 percent), an April poll showed.
Rathjen urged the government to institute a mandatory buyback program and turn its regulatory changes into law. The assault weapons measure was passed through an order-in-council, which does not require parliamentary approval.
A voluntary buyback program would mean that “it’s not a buyback program to us because then people can decide to keep them,” she said. “The point is to remove the guns from circulation.”
Joseph Blocher, a law professor at Duke University who studies gun rights and regulation, said a “rhetoric of hopelessness” surrounds the issue of gun control—and that rhetoric is more prevalent in the United States than in Canada “given the comparative size of our gun violence problem.”
In 2016 in Canada, 130 homicides were committed with a handgun, the most since 2005, according to Statistics Canada, which amounts to about 3.6 handgun homicides per 1 million people. By comparison, according to FBI statistics, 7,105 homicides were committed with a handgun in the United States that same year—or 21.9 handgun homicides per 1 million people.
Accounting for the population difference between the two countries, the handgun homicide rate is about six times higher south of the border. The United States also had more then 400 mass shootings last year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent research group that defines a mass shooting as an incident in which at least four people were shot or killed.
U.S. gun control advocates have voiced frustrations at how it appears that that no amount of gun violence or mass shootings has led to stronger gun laws at the federal level.
Some current and former officials are pushing for tougher measures, though. During his failed bid for the Democratic nomination, ex-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled a gun control plan that would have strengthened background checks and restricted gun ownership. A string of state governments has also pushed for, or enacted, stricter gun control measures in recent years, including in Florida, where Republican then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a new gun law in 2018 after the deadly mass shooting in Parkland.
“What you’re seeing really is a growing divergence between states like California and New York, which have tightened their gun laws, and places like Texas, for example, which have continued to loosen them,” Blocher said.
Another reason gun laws are tougher to pass in the United States has been organizational; gun lobby groups “are better organized and more intent in their participation in local, state, and federal politics than the gun violence prevention groups have traditionally been,” Blocher explained.
He also pointed to the Second Amendment, which guarantees U.S. citizens’ right “to keep and bear arms,” as a factor for why the gun debate in Canada can appear so different. In Canada, there is no constitutional right to own guns.
Recently, Americans stormed state legislatures and marched through city streets carrying rifles and other firearms, angry over shelter-at-home directives aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19; it’s a scene that would be unthinkable in Canada.
“Some portion of gun rights advocates are gun rights absolutists and don’t believe that the right can be regulated at all, and that’s just not how we treat constitutional rights. All constitutional rights—whether it’s freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free exercise of religion—they’re all subject to regulation,” Blocher said.
Despite Trudeau’s swift move, some critics are questioning whether Canada’s assault weapons ban is really a ban at all and whether the government has targeted the wrong thing if it really wants to reduce gun violence.
Since 2009, about 6 in 10 firearm-related violent crimes in Canada involved handguns, according to the national statistics agency, and critics point to that figure to say assault weapons regulations would do little to address the real driver of the violence.
Others say the government should be putting more money and attention to stopping firearms from coming over the U.S.-Canada border or on dealing with underlying issues that drive gun violence, such as domestic violence, poverty, and socioeconomic inequalities.
Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who studies the causes and consequences of gun violence, said he was encouraged by Canada’s new federal gun regulations, especially as someone who grew up in the United States.
But he said he hoped it would not make people complacent or allow the government to stop there. “I hope that people don’t assume that this policy is somehow going to end gun violence in Canada because that would be naive,” Lee told Foreign Policy.
He said there is a lack of data about where firearms used in crimes in Canada are coming from but what “scant evidence” does exist shows they primarily originate in the United States, “which is like a global exporter of firearms.”
It’s hard to say just how many guns are smuggled over the U.S. border into Canada. For the 2018-2019 period, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) seized 696 firearms at the border, and the CBSA and Canadian police departments have received millions of dollars to try to stem cross-border smuggling. But police also say “a growing number of guns are bought legally in Canada and resold on the black market, or made here illegally,” CBC reported last year.
According to Rathjen, the work of gun control advocates in Canada is far from over.
She said Canada still has “a long way to go” if it wants to match New Zealand or Australia, which instituted national firearm buyback programs after incidents of mass gun violence. In a year between 1996 and 1997, more than 640,000 prohibited firearms were surrendered as part of Australia’s program, for example.
The country’s then-prime minister, John Howard, a conservative who was less than two months into his mandate when 35 people were killed in a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in April 1996, pushed the measures through amid opposition from gun lobby groups and more right-wing politicians. “I just felt that … what’s the point of having a huge majority if you don’t do something with it,” Howard said at a press conference in late 2018.
In that respect, gun control measures in Australia and Canada appear to have something in common: They came in the aftermath of deadly attacks and were pushed through by majority governments (or coalition governments) despite fierce opposition.
Relegated to a minority government after the October 2019 federal election, Trudeau used an order-in-council to bypass Parliament to ban assault weapons this month. That means turning his new regulations into law will take the backing of opposition parties, and the prime minister has said the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois are on board.
Whether his strategy could become a blueprint for a new administration in the United States is less certain. In the United States, “it’s always easier to stop the law than to get one passed,” so there is “an inertia that has to be overcome” to enact any meaningful, federal-level gun control laws, Blocher argued. With the United States especially polarized these days, it appears unlikely that anything can get done in Congress.
But lawmakers and gun control advocates should not be discouraged. With about 100,000 Americans shot and some 30,000 of them dying from gun violence every year, what appears to be a minimal change can end up making a huge difference.
“If a gun law changes that by even 1 percent,” Blocher noted, “that’s 1,000 fewer people shot, hundreds more still living—those are enormous, enormous figures.”