Scream as they might about the idea of a ban on handgun ownership by Canadians, it is interesting to note that the tactics used by advocates of wide-open ownership of firearms against the so-called long-gun registry combined with the legislative strategy pursued by their allies in the Conservative federal government during its decade in power opened the political space that now makes it possible to consider outright bans.
Last week it was reported that federal Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair had floated the idea of such a ban on handguns after a retreat by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet in Sherbrooke, Que.
In its coverage of Mr. Blair’s hint, the CBC reported that whatever he has come up with is based on several months of consultations about “ways to restrict access to firearms for gang members and other criminals” with stakeholders in all parts of Canada.
Of course, since there is no way to escape the potential for gun violence in a society that encourages widespread gun ownership and includes a fanatical cadre of advocates who see owning firearms as a fundamental right, we are all stakeholders whether we like it or not.
And even if we disagree about the best way to deal with the problem, it is hard not to concede that there is a problem with handgun possession and crime in Canada’s big cities. Fortunately, since Canada’s constitutional history is quite different from that of the United States, there are no constitutional barriers to finding effective solutions to the problem of gun violence.
Readers will recall that when the Liberal Government of prime minister Jean Chretien created the so-called long-gun registry in 1995, there were howls of protest and organized resistance from gun-ownership advocacy groups that modelled themselves on the U.S. National Rifle Association.
Despite a significant reduction in the number of deaths by rifles and shotguns in the years after the establishment of the registry, advocates of wide-open gun ownership portrayed it as an unjustified attack on law-abiding gun owners, a phrase used so often it has come to be abbreviated as LAGOs.
Many of these groups advocated tactics of foot-dragging, non-compliance and outright defiance of the registration requirements.
The Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper seized on this as a good wedge issue in rural regions that might otherwise vote NDP, such as Northern Ontario, and suburban redoubts tempted to vote Liberal.
The Conservatives were abetted in this by the scandalous cost of the registry, about which the Liberals were rightly excoriated. However, that cost arguably made the waste worse when the Harper Government not only shut down the registry soon after it won a majority in the 2011 federal election but ordered, to the horror of most police forces including the one then led by Mr. Blair, that its records be destroyed.
Gun advocates celebrated what seemed to be a decisive victory for them.
Since then, advocates of unrestricted gun ownership continue to use the same tactics – for example, telling long-gun owners to delay registering their weapons with Quebec’s new provincial long-gun registry. And so do the Conservatives – just days ago I received a flyer from my St. Albert-Edmonton MP, Conservative Michael Cooper, complaining tautologically that “when it comes to gun crime, law-abiding firearms owners are not the problem.”
What the Conservatives and the gun advocates may not have yet noticed since their legislative victory in 2012, though, is that the times they are a’changin’, at least as far as gun-safety laws go. Since then – for whatever reasons, and naturally there is plenty of disagreement about that – gun violence particularly involving handguns has come to be perceived by the public as a serious problem in Canada’s big cities. There is an appetite for action.
And this is where the sad story of the long-gun registry – and particularly the vandalistic destruction by Mr. Harper’s government of the data collected in it, regardless of the cost of the database – becomes relevant to the question of how to solve the problem of violence perpetrated with handguns in Canada.
An argument could certainly be made that the problems associated with handgun ownership in big cities could be eased or even solved through more stringent regulation, better registries, regulated storage sites, and so on.
But we know from practical experience with the long-gun registry that some gun advocates will go to any length to undermine such laws, and they will be aided and abetted by the Conservative Party of Canada, which if elected again would undo whatever has been achieved in order to satisfy its Americanized, red-meat base.
This opens the door, thinking practically, to more radical solutions: to wit, an outright ban on handguns that will sweep up large numbers of such weapons, with penalties severe enough to make even defiant gun owners think twice about hiding them around their residences.
Even if a future Conservative government were to undo such a ban, short of a national program to give away pistols it would be hard for them to restore the numbers of handguns to the country that had been taken off the streets by such a powerful measure.
So the success of the wannabe NRAs of Canada and their allies in the Conservative Party could be their undoing if the Trudeau Government has the courage to follow through on a handgun ban – about which, as noted here earlier, I am pessimistic.
Gun advocates and Conservatives will argue that a ban is not the best of all possible solutions, and in an ideal world, that might be true.
But since their base position is wide-open ownership – which inevitably means more guns in the hands of criminals as well as LAGOs, and more LAGOs who instantly turn into criminals with the pull of a trigger – the best of all possible solutions, whatever it might be, is simply not possible.
The best solution to gun violence that is actually possible in Canada in 2019 is an outright ban on handguns. The longer it lasts, even if it is eventually undone, the more good it will do.
NOTE: For reasons previously discussed, the author reserves the right to restrict comments on this post to 300 words.