“The Devil in the Details – by Dr. TS Harrison
“The Devil in the Details – why Trudeau’s ban on assault weapons might not be effective to reduce gun crime after Canada’s largest mass shooting in Nova Scotia”
Social worker Tim Landon isn’t your typical gun owner. A self-described social justice advocate he witnessed a violent gun crime as a young adult. He’s now an unlikely opponent of the Canadian government’s recent ban on 1,500 military style “assault weapons”.
Yet that’s exactly where he finds himself in the gun control debate, reignited by Canada’s largest mass shooting on the East coast last April.
Landon became a firearms advocate after moving to British Columbia two decades ago, where he perceived a more accepting attitude to ownership. He also wasn’t opposed to earlier regulation, so happily complied when he later took up sport shooting.
But he says new restrictions, introduced swiftly last spring under existing legislation following a rampage that resulted in the deaths of 22 people in Nova Scotia, goes too far.
“What it means is that no gun owner in Canada can ever own a modern rifle”, he says, since the restrictions will apply to weapons that have already been used for decades by hunters and sport shooters.
He also thinks that criminals will not follow the new laws, observing the recent East Coast shooter was widely reported to be in illegal possession of prohibited weapons, several of which are believed to have come from the US.
“We live beside the most heavily armed nation on Earth”, says Landon pointing out the easy access to a supply of firearms which can readily be brought across the Canadian border.
But those who support the new restrictions see firearms as a significant threat to community security. For them there is a direct connection to reducing gun crime: less weapons here equals less violence involving firearms.
Others suggest that both sides over-simplify an issue that depends on context.
Blake Brown, a Professor of legal history at St. Mary’s University in Halifax says regulating firearms has a long history that can be traced in Canada back to the 17th century. Real concerns arose with “the mass production of weapons like pistols” and the misuse of handguns in the late 1800’s. He notes that even then it was not uncommon for Canadian politicians to turn a wary eye to gun violence in the United States.
And some Canadians have always thought that, like our southern neighbours, people should have legal rights to own a gun. Even if in Canada the Supreme Court said in a 1993 decision that there is no constitutional right to bear arms, some continue to make the pro-gun legal argument.
In May, an advocacy group called the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights (CCFR) started a legal proceeding before the Federal Court arguing that the direct imposition of new gun regulations last spring was unconstitutional. Their lawsuit also seeks to overturn the new federal ban on the basis that there is “no persuasive evidence" that re-classification of the guns as prohibited firearms will achieve the desired purpose of “decreasing mass shootings or otherwise increasing public safety.”
Aside from the argument about ‘rights’, the CCFR’s position relies on evidence that does not draw a direct connection between crime and firearms regulation. A 2018 report from Statistics Canada shows overall crime in Canada has been on a sustained downward trend for three decades, since peaking in the early 1990s. While there has been a small uptick in the last few years, overall more severe crime, including offences that involve guns, have also been declining, putting firearms offences near historic lows.
Whatever the actual rate, public perceptions about the relation between crime and guns also varies greatly depending on context. A 2014 StatsCan study showed most Canadians feel safe, but that this sense of security is not evenly distributed. Higher levels of concern are common based on where people live, especially for those in large urban centres and on the prairies.Social situation also affects attitudes, with minorities and women displaying higher levels of anxiety.
Dr. Rebecca Bromwich, a former Crown Attorney and adjunct law professor at Carlton University says perceptions of social context also influence how the perpetrators of gun crime are characterized. In the 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill, for example, the shooter was described as a ‘terrorist’ of ‘Middle-Eastern descent’, though he was Canadian born.
She says this portrayal “foreclosed public conversations about gun control” and ultimately led instead to new Federal security legislation.
“This is an interesting contrast to the 2020 shootings in Nova Scotia, where gun control measures were enacted swiftly. There, the shooter was not described as a terrorist, and interestingly, was white.”
Bromwich notes similar characterizations may be in play in the attack on the Governor-General’s home at Rideau Hall on July 2, 2020. There, an armed white male, who is reported to have engaged with right-wing conspiracy theories online, is alleged to have rammed his truck through wrought iron gates blocking a pedestrian entrance, to then evade police on the grounds of the official residence for many minutes.
Despite what one commentator later described as an attempted “assassination”, initial reports focused on sympathetic details such as those that highlighted the suspect’s background as a small business owner, active volunteer in his community and as a veteran Army Ranger, who just “gained access” to the grounds, in order to talk to the Prime Minister.
The different contexts around gun control have influenced public policy and perceptions in Canada for decades. In the end, while the debate about regulation is often presented simply, the problem is complex, says Professor Brown. He notes too, that the challenge is neither new nor easy.
“It’s a big complicated question,” he says.
For now at least, it appears Canadians have settled on an answer. In the wake of last spring’s new Federal government ban, an Angus Reid survey showed the vast majority, 4 in 5 Canadians, support limiting access to military ‘assault-style’ weapons such as those that are now prohibited.