Guns are among the Liberals’ three favorite issues, along with abortion and race. These concerns rally a progressive base against the conservatives; it usually works every time. But due to several gun myths, this strategy may fail here.
First, Canada the gun-related death rate is higher than many peer countries, at just over two per 100,000 inhabitants per year. Our figures are about six times lower than those of the United States, which is number one among the rich countries and has nearly 400 million weapons within its borders, i.e. 1.2 per person. We have nearly 13 million firearms, about one for every three Canadians.
Our firearm homicides have increased since 2013, according to Statistics Canada. However, it is the distribution of ownership and use that reveals much of the absurdity of Liberal gun policy. Firearm-related violent crime is highest in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the territories. Rural men are much more likely to die by suicide than the Canadian average.
Our problems are getting worse, but rifles are almost as dangerous as handguns. Rural and small town Canadians are much more likely to die from gun violence than residents of large cities. We are faced with the reality that most firearm deaths in Canada are the product of social realities like family violence, desperation and alcohol, not drug traffickers.
A second reality is that reducing access to firearms, particularly semi-automatic weapons, is likely to reduce gun deaths, but banning them will not work. What would help is a 200% incentive to hand them over, against proof of the purchase price. Long guns are available at hundreds of sporting goods stores. Why not end this trade or tax it to death? Handguns are widely available on the streets and their illegal importation is a more lucrative business than drugs. Banning them won’t stop that flow; the profits are too rich. (Years ago, “The Fifth Estate” demonstrated that a gun bought in the United States can be worth much more when smuggled into Canada.)
Why not make using a gun a riskier bet? Possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime can warrant a certain prison sentence, whether or not the weapon was used. Why not require handgun owners to report the use of their gun on an annual basis, with proof from a shooting club or shooting range? And the penalty for not having safely stored weapons confiscation and a heavy fine.
Stopping the flow of illegally imported weapons is much more difficult, but again there are probably several deterrents. One can be expelled and banned for life from re-entry for a variety of offenses – why not make illegal possession or transportation of firearms one of them? We uselessly X-ray the shoes and change of air travellers, at the cost of millions. Wouldn’t X-raying vehicles at major border crossings be a better use of that money?
However, the most effective way to reverse the rise in firearm deaths is through prevention.
Many years ago, progressive Canadian police leaders invented what are now called Community Safety Hubs, bringing together police officers, teachers, social workers and everyone else involved in supporting people and to families at risk. They share warning signals concerning their customers in the strictest confidentiality. They are looking for patterns and predictors of social breakdown – a death in the family, a child abandoning, reports of increased family violence, a sharp increase in alcohol and drug use.
This gives them a priority list of those who might urgently need additional support. The program was a huge success and is now copied around the world. By focusing on the risk of firearms in a family or neighborhood, the centers would undoubtedly reduce our death rate.
A policy of responsible gun ownership, increased investment in blocking illegal trade, and the use of social indices to help prevent gun deaths could be appealing to a clear majority of Canadians, including gun owners. But politics used as a political wedge to punish “bad” gun owners and reward “good” anti-gun activists will only divide us. Worse, it won’t work.