Canadians celebrate sharing the world’s longest undefended border with the United States, and take comfort in an imagined wall that keeps out American gun politics. That wall may now be crumbling.
In November 2022, Canada’s federal government introduced amendments to draft gun control legislation that would permanently ban military-style assault weapons, fulfilling a campaign promise that contributed to Liberal Party electoral victories in 2019 and 2021. The amendments sought to accomplish three goals: enshrine in legislation the ban on more than 1,500 types of assault weapons put in place following one of Canada’s worst mass shootings in Portapique, Nova Scotia in 2020; add some firearms that had been excluded previously, including a military rifle used in several recent shootings of police in Canada; and incorporate an evergreen definition to prevent gun manufacturers from skirting the ban in the future.
The changes are supported by public health science. They have been called for by Canadian health professionals, gun violence survivors and their families, women’s groups, and community leaders alarmed by rising firearm violence, which has been on an upward trajectory in Canada over the past decade. They would bring Canada’s gun control laws closer in line with other peer nations.
But they have met with a well-organized campaign of disinformation and division from Canadian gun lobby groups, reminiscent of the rhetoric and tactics of the NRA. One that, this time, has not fallen entirely on deaf ears. In early February 2023, a political impasse forced the minority Liberal government to withdraw the assault ban amendments for further study. Opposition parties, particularly the Conservative Party that had been echoing gun lobby talking points, rushed to claim victory.
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Canadians—and the world—should be concerned. The country has long sought to draw clear distinctions with their American neighbors on the issue of guns. There is no constitutional right to keep and bear arms in Canada. Most Canadians support strong gun control laws. When it comes to military-style assault weapons, 82% favor a complete prohibition. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien once noted that gun control was a “core value” that helped define the “differences between Canadians and Americans.”
Canada must be wary of such firearm exceptionalism. Between 2006-2016, Canadians saw an erosion of gun control laws, as other peer nations in Europe and elsewhere progressively moved to strengthen theirs. Canada has the fifth highest rate of gun ownership in the world according to the most recent Small Arms Survey. Access to guns in the home has consistently been shown to be a risk factor for firearm injury and death. Canada now has the third highest rate of firearm homicide among populous high-income countries, after the U.S. and Chile. Worldwide, it has the ninth highest age-standardized rate of firearm-suicide among men, which at 2.87 per 100,000 is more than twice the global average. In the past decade, the country has experienced 15 mass shooting events. During the same period, and with almost twice the population, England—which has prohibited military-style automatic and semi-automatic weapons since 1988—recorded two.
Gun control has been back on the political agenda in Canada under the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. After legislative changes in 2019 including lifetime background checks, and the 2020 ban, the government created a community-focused fund to address social determinants of gun violence. Legislation now under consideration, Bill C-21, would freeze the sale of handguns, seek to address cross-border gun smuggling, establish a “Red Flag Law”, and further restrict non-powder firearms. It was to this Bill that the amendments banning assault weapons (as well as dealing with ghost guns) were introduced. Together, the legislation addresses different aspects of gun violence. The assault weapons ban—first introduced in response to one mass shooting—aims to prevent further such events.
The latest retreat on an assault weapons ban is not only a Canadian concern. As more Americans, including President Joe Biden, call for similar bans in the U.S., the ability of Canada to take decisive action to prohibit these guns is of regional importance.
The gun lobby’s interventions in Canadian politics are not new, but in recent years their rhetoric and tactics have more closely mirrored America’s gun lobby. Social media has extended this reach and amplified messaging. “Stay in your lane” is a catch cry of the NRA, in response to American doctors undertaking research on firearm harms and gun control policy. The slogan was quickly adopted by a Canadian gun lobby group and used against Canadian physicians advocating for an evidence-based, public health approach to reducing mass shootings, firearm injury and death in their own communities. Targeted campaigns have sought to discredit firearm victims and their families, doctors and public health experts alike who have spoken out about firearm harms.
Canada needs to re-center the public health imperative amidst the politics. Fair criticism has been levied at the government for the way they introduced the amendments on assault weapons. Key stakeholders, including Indigenous groups and hunters, should have been consulted early on.
What should not be up for political debate is the public health science underpinning the proposed bans.
Scientific evidence and public health consensus supports that comprehensive gun control laws are effective at saving lives. Assault weapons are designed to inflict maximal harm to the human body in minimal time. The now-withdrawn amendment, and a definition still favoured by advocates, includes firearms capable of discharging centre-fire ammunition in a semi-automatic manner, with high-capacity (more than five) magazines and detachable magazines that allow a shooter to quickly reload. It covers firearms with high destruction potential (based on bore diameter and muzzle energies), beyond the limits required for legitimate civilian use. Policy analyses from other countries demonstrate that similar bans decrease both the overall number of mass shootings and per-event fatalities and injuries.
To be most effective, assault weapon bans must be comprehensive, restrictive, and durable. They must cover both the firearm characteristics and magazine capacity. Loopholes and limitations can substantially weaken the public health impact—as was seen with the US assault weapons ban in ‘94-’04. It saved lives but was not as effective as it could have been, permitting grandfathering and allowing for copycat models to enter the market.
Most hunting rifles in common use in Canada are neither the target of, nor were affected by, the proposed changes. Experts from the Canadian Firearms Program testified to this during study of the proposed amendments at a Parliamentary Committee. Yet the ‘banning of hunting guns’ has been an effective cry from gun lobby groups. Historically, hunters in Canada have distanced themselves from American-style gun lobby politics. Hunting practices and firearms legislation have not been seen as mutually exclusive. Anti gun-control activists are working hard to turn this narrative.
Canadians must not fall victim to disinformation. Comprehensive bans on weapons that can injure and kill many people in a short period of time can and do save lives. The proposed assault weapons ban would bring the country closer in line with other peer nations, including Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Japan and the United Kingdom. In these countries, assault weapons bans introduced as part of comprehensive firearm legislation have led to a reduction in the number of mass shootings, and in some instances reduced firearm-suicides and homicides. Politicians concerned about the response from their voting base should be reassured: in other countries the bans enjoyed widespread bi-partisan public support after they were introduced. They did not dampen hunting cultures. Moreover, they placed citizens and politicians alike on a permanent path to viewing firearm law not as a threat to personal freedoms, but as the foundation upon which public health responses to gun violence—with the end goal of safer communities—are built.
Amendments permanently banning assault weapons are expected to be re-introduced in the coming weeks. In the interim, politicians across the partisan divide must use their time wisely, listen closely, especially to First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities who have a constitutional right to engage in traditional hunting practices and decision making, and challenge gun lobby disinformation. Most importantly, they must prioritize public health and safety over private interest.
In doing so, Canada could once again become a model of gun control action for the U.S., rather than the other way around.
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