Peter Donolo is vice-chair of H+K Strategies and former director of communications to Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Once again, Canadians have watched another American gun tragedy unfold – this time, the massacre of 17 students and educators at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
We’ve felt a predictable mix of emotions: above all, horror and disgust – but also, if truth be told, a distinct form of Canadian smugness. The United States is hopelessly awash in gun culture. Its legislators are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association. They are a society paralyzed from curbing gun violence. We are so different, we tell ourselves.
This conceit is fed by the perceptions of others – primarily Americans. Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine celebrated our supposed “gun-free” safety. The New York Times points out that “gun homicides in Canada are about as common as deaths from alcohol poisoning in the United States.”
In fact, according to a poll conducted by H+K Strategies last week, two-thirds of Canadians believe gun control constitutes one of the biggest differences between Canada and the United States.
But any smugness on our part is sorely misplaced.
When it comes to gun violence, the United States is in a class of its own among developed countries. However, when the gun-sick United States is factored out, it is clear that among developed nations, Canada has a bad – and worsening – gun problem.
Among other OECD countries, Canada has the fourth highest rate of death by firearm – more than twice the rate of Australia, and 10 times that of Britain. Much of this is due to one of the highest suicide-by-firearm rates in the developed world. Homicides by firearms are also on the rise – for the past three years in a row.
Moreover, as reasonable and effective gun controls were systematically destroyed at the federal level in this country over the past decade, the number of guns in circulation in Canada has exploded. So has the toxic gun culture that goes with it.
The Harper government’s war on gun control is best remembered for its triumphant elimination of the national Firearms Registry, along with the destruction of records on more than five million registered weapons (except in Quebec, whose provincial government went to court to prevent the destruction of gun-registry records in that province).
But that was just the beginning. The Harper government overruled the RCMP when it tried to ban several military assault weapons (including one reputedly used in the Quebec Islamic Centre massacre). When they scrapped the registry they also also eliminated the legal requirement that sales of rifles and shotguns (unrestricted firearms) be tracked, a requirement in place since the late 1970s. Now, anyone with a gun license can buy as many unrestricted guns as they want – with no record kept. This includes sniper rifles which are sold as unrestricted firearms as well as the infamous Ruger Mini 14 used to kill 14 women in the Montreal Massacre of 1989. Gun owners can now avoid screening with automatic six-month license extensions. And police lack the resources to enforce the law. In so many ways, thanks to this relentless assault on decades-old common-sense gun rules, it is now much easier in Canada to own a gun than to drive a car.
Predictably, this laxness has created a growing market for guns. From 2012 to 2016, the import of guns in Canada almost doubled from the previous four-year period, from just more than one million to just under two million. This includes almost 300,000 handguns and restricted rifles which, contrary to popular belief, are not banned in Canada.
And along with the increased flow of guns into Canada has been the saturation of American-style gun culture. Conservative MP Bob Zimmer has petitioned to lift the restricted status of AR-style rifles like the one used in both last week’s Parkland massacre and in the 2016 Orlando Pulse night club attack. And groups such as the Second Amendment-sounding Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights and the more frankly titled Canadian Gun Nutz have grown more assertive and bellicose.
It is no wonder that in this environment the current federal government, despite a number of minimal 2015 campaign commitments on gun control, has become – to use an apt term – gun shy.
But Canadians can’t have it both ways. There was a time when we could look at ourselves with pride for rejecting the gun-sickness that infects the United States. But that pride has morphed into the smugness of self-delusion. And until we do something to reverse the decade-long erosion of gun control in our own country, we have nothing to be smug about.
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 22, 2018