Much of the public discourse in Canada about gun control in Canada over the last few years has revolved around the gun registry and the conflict between those who support it and those who didn’t. Although the registry has merits and I’ll address it below, the fact that it was the focus of so much debate clouded other options for controlling guns in Canada. And there are other options…
I will attempt to discuss different tactics for controlling guns and hopefully curbing gun violence.
I’m trying to balance some sensitivity to the concerns of hunters, farmers, sport shooters and others with the need to ensure public safety. This is importantly because opposition to the long-gun registry was based on in part on the idea that the registry targeted hunters, sportsmen and farmers who had legitimate reasons to own guns while doing little to address criminal firearm owners. Furthermore, for political reasons, sensitivity to rural concerns about gun control is needed for any proposals to gain the public and political support needed for success.
Of course, this is intended as an introductory discussion and this shouldn’t be considered absolute endorsements of any of these policy options. Nor should this be considered exhaustive research, I’m sure there are other options and for these options there may be aspects that I have not considered. My goal is to start a conversation about gun control options, not to be the definitive source on the topic…
What follows is based on a simple premise: Jurisdictions that have higher and more rigorous forms of gun control have lower rates of gun crime. Warren Kinsella’s column this week does a great job of articulating that fact, and if you aren’t sold on this premise I recommend you read it(http://m.torontosun.com/2012/07/23/poverty-and-inequality-the-triggers-to-more-gunplay). Or I could recommend some academic studies … there are a lot of research that supports this premise.
In addition, I take the stance that individuals in Canada do not have an inherent legal right to own guns codified in the constitution or in common law. Therefore, restrictions on gun ownership cannot, in my opinion, be opposed on the ground that they violate personal liberty. (For an interesting discussion on whether the right to bear arms is a fundamental natural right, see this Economist article)
Revisiting the Registry
Now that the Conservative government has killed the registry, those of us who support gun control have two options: we can attempt to rewind and rebuild the registry as it was created in 1997, or we can move forward, make a revised registry and chart a new course for gun control in Canada.
I could attempt to debunk the myths about the gun registry like that the fees were simply a tax grab or that it wasn’t used as a crime fighting tool, neither of which were true. However, that would make for a very long post.
The fact is that the old registry is no longer in effect and the data may or may not be getting destroyed. Another fact is that the official opposition party in Canada has pledged to recreate the registry. So this debate isn’t over, it wasn’t stopped and I’m not the one restarting it.
While, as is often said, criminals don’t register their guns, the database of legal Canadian guns allows investigators to trace a firearm involved in a crime back to the original source. Recent crime statistics suggest that at least a third of firearm offenses are committed with legal or formerly legal (i.e. stolen) firearms so this is not an insignificant benefit (Source 1)(Source 2).
Thomas Mulcair recognizes, as Jack did before him, that the Long Gun Registry had flaws, but the point is to fix them, not scrap the system because of them. (Read more about how the NDP tried to find a middle ground here)
Sporting Use Test for Guns
Great Britain has codified a test to determine if a specific gun should or shouldn’t be banned. It’s called the “Sporting Use Test” and it’s based on a simple principle: if a gun isn’t likely to be used for hunting or recreational shooting, it should be banned. Charlie Angus had a 2010 private members bill (Bill C-580) that attempted to introduce such a test in Canada.
Critics say that the rule is too tightly enforced in the UK but on the flip side Great Britain has a much lower crime rate than in Canada. If we could ensure that the ‘sporting use’ rule wasn’t abused, it could balance the concerns of rural Canadians and hunters with the obvious public safety concerns.
For an example of this type of test: It is illegal to use a handgun to hunt in Manitoba (Source), Ontario (Source), Alberta (Source), and BC (Source PDF). Of course some handguns might be used for sport shooting, but this framework would allow a case-by-case decision on which guns should be allowed under a ‘sporting use’ rule.
A Sporting Use Test for Gun Owners
Similar to the sporting use test for guns, the only people who should be allowed to get licences for guns in Canada are those people who have a legitimate ‘sporting use’ for them, meaning hunting or recreational shooting. Since individuals have to get hunting licences and permits from the government to use firearms, it should be rather simple to track who has used their licenced firearms for hunting.
This option would include a requirement for individuals renewing gun licences to show that they have legitimate sporting use for their firearms. This would include showing that they have had hunting permits during the time of the previous licence, a membership in a recreational shooting club or that they have agricultural uses for the firearms.
One attractive element of this approach is that by only targeting people who aren’t using firearms for what are generally assumed to be acceptable uses. And since farmers, hunters and sport shooters would be exempt, it could avoid backlash from rural voters.
Gun Control Zones
Astute followers of Canadian Politics will remember that in 2008 the NDP platform included creating urban handgun bans.
Specifically, the NDP promised to empower individual municipalities or provinces to decide if handguns would be banned in their communities. At the time, Jack Layton said, “In our cities and major communities the only people who should be carrying a handgun are law enforcement officials.” Those who wished to own handguns and happened to live in an area that had banned them could have them stored in the country, at a recreational range or an armory.
This is similar to proposals that Layton made at Toronto City Council in 1991 asking the federal government to allow the city to ban all gun storage in private residences or businesses in urban areas. The logic follows that if hunters living in urban areas need to travel to hunt anyway, it would be reasonable for them to store their firearms out of the city anyway. Of course, this rule allowed for storage in secure, licenced armories in urban areas as well (Source: City council meetings February 4th-5th, 1991).
Since this would only be implemented in urban areas it could attempt to address gun crime while not offending rural voters. Furthermore, since each local community would be able to decide whether it would have such a ban, it would be an expression of the democratic will of the people.
“We don’t target practice in the home, so there’s no reason to keep them [guns] there”
Ammunition Based Controls
When I was working on a paper on gun control earlier this year I came across a US article examining policy options for ammunition based gun control (The essay is here if you’re interested –PDF). The main ideas presented were to imprint serial numbers on ammunition sold and to ban dangerous types of bullets. It’s a type of gun control we should consider. While marked ammunition would increase the cost of bullets, it would make it easier for police to find criminals after the fact. More importantly it might discourage a few people from committing gun crimes in the first place if they know they will be more likely to be caught. Canada already bans certain types of ammunition, but those rules should be reviewed.
Furthermore, Canada has stronger rules about buying ammo than the US but they may not be fully enforced. In Canada, individuals are required to have a gun licence to buy ammunition and they can only buy ammo for the type of guns they are licenced to have. Gun control opponents like to say that criminals use guns outside the regulatory framework for firearms however the only way to get ammunition is within the legal framework. Given that criminals who do not have licences have been able to get ammunition it is clear that either they are getting from sellers who aren’t checking permits or from permit holders who are buying it and passing it on to non-permit holders.
We can strengthen the rules around ammunition without offending hunters or facing major backlashes from opponents of gun control. First, we should make selling or re-selling ammunition illegally more of an offence. Under the Ammunition Regulation Act, it is currently a finable offence to sell ammo to someone without a gun permit; we should make that a criminal offence. Secondly, this should be enforced regularly so anyone who can legally deal ammunition will know that the risk involved isn’t worth a quick buck. Finally, we should consider anyone that who knowingly sells ammunition to someone without legal reasons for having it an accessory to any crimes committed with that ammunition under Section 21. (1)a of the Canadian Criminal Code.
Following the Montreal Massacure, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Big City Mayors’ Caucus ran a gun control public awareness campaign that included a limit to the number of guns that single FAC holder could possess. In 1991, as a Toronto City Councillor Layton supported that proposal saying, “The risk of theft and the need for safety outweigh any aesthetic rights of collectors who hold arsenals in their homes.”
Quantity based controls might cause some criticism from people who own guns for hunting or recreation but a lot would depend on what the limit was. I’m not sure that there is a legitimate reason to have a large number of working firearms.
Although such a might reduce the number of guns stolen and then used in crimes; it isn’t directly targeting gun crime.
Stopping the flow of illegal guns into Canada
While there is evidence to suggest that a statistically significant percent of guns used in Canadian gun crimes actually come from Canada, the fact that some guns are smuggled into Canada can’t be ignored.
Short of closing the borders (which I would not suggest) it may be impossible to fully stop the flow of illegal guns into Canada, however that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do to reduce it.
In 2006, the NDP proposed a four-year minimum sentence for gun smuggling. In the recent Conservative Omnibus Crime Bill, the minimum for this was set at 3 years. Personally, I feel that supplying a criminal with a gun to commit a crime is empowering that crime and needs punished harshly. Whether this is a large enough punishment for the crime, is something that should be discussed.
More important than punishing gun smugglers is finding them (in part because if you don’t find them, you can’t charge and sentence them). This means more of a focus on border patrol. Unfortunately, Canada’s Conservative Government is taking us in the wrong direction in this regard. Recent news reports suggest that some reason to believe that the latest budget cuts will make it harder to stop guns at the border, since the agency in charge of the border is being cut.
Also fun fact: In 2004, 1,099 firearms were seized by the Canadian Border Services Agency. In 2008, that was 523.
There are ways that we can increase gun control and fight gun crime while respecting hunters and the rural tradition of gun ownership in Canada.
Although some people, including former Toronto Mayor David Miller, support a national handgun ban, at this point no one is calling for a larger ban like the one created by Australia in 1997 (where a large range of guns including almost all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns were banned and destroyed by the government).
We don’t want an outright ban.
We just want more restrictions.
I’d say that’s a reasonable request.
This is the first of three posts exploring the issue of gun control, today’s dealt with Policy options for gun control
Part 1 discussed why now is the time for action and debunked the myth of politicizing tragedy. It can be found here.
Part 3 will recognize that violence and crime have other root causes than just guns, so I will address crime at large and will offer a progressive response to the conservative framework of fighting crime. I plan to post this on Monday, July 30th.