Noah Schwartz and Tim Thurley: If the commission was aiming to prevent another mass killing, it missed the target
The government has renewed its push on Bill C-21, drawing on recommendations in the report by the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC), which had been tasked with investigating the causes of the 2020 mass killing in Nova Scotia. Yet if the commission was aiming to prevent another mass killing, it missed the target.
One recommended measure was identical to the proposed Liberal amendments banning semi-automatic firearms that were added without consultation into Bill C-21 and then removed following widespread opposition, only to be re-added in a slightly altered form earlier this week. Others include limiting the amount and type of ammunition an individual can purchase and store.
These proposed recommendations suffer from the same problems as the rest of the government’s post-2019 firearms policies: they are aimed at the wrong people, ignore Canadian research and would be almost impossible to implement in the Canadian context.
While loose laws in the United States make guns the weapon of choice for mass killers, the picture is more complicated in Canada, where tight gun-control laws have existed since the 1990s. Indeed, the three deadliest Canadian mass killings in the past three decades did not involve licensed gun owners. Two of the three involved knives and motor vehicles — not guns.
While tragic, mass shootings in Canada are so vanishingly rare, their frequency is actually marginally lower than non-firearm mass homicide rates. The strict vetting process that Canadian gun owners go through to enjoy the privilege of firearms ownership makes them less likely than the general population to commit murder.
Reducing mass homicide is an important goal, yet bans on particular firearm types are unlikely to help achieve it. Recent reviews of the academic literature on “assault weapon” bans have demonstrated a serious lack of evidence for their effectiveness.
The commission’s recommendations are out of touch with the Canadian context. Canada has a long history of safe, legal, regulated gun ownership. It is also a massive country that shares the world’s longest undefended border with a nation that has more guns than people. The Nova Scotia shooter used illegally smuggled firearms. This is a pattern.
Firearms smuggled from the United States are responsible for the overwhelming majority of gun crime in Canada’s major cities and illegal guns have been the weapons of choice for some recent mass murderers, whose violent histories often make getting a gun license impossible.
The most serious problem with the MCC’s firearms-related recommendations is that implementing them would be impractical, burdensome and ludicrously expensive. Three years after banning a handful of firearm models, the government still has not created the IT infrastructure needed to support the ban, let alone implement it.
The rule changes the MCC is calling for could impact millions of legal firearms, would likely dwarf even the lowball estimate of $750 million for the 2020 buyback program, may violate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and lacks solid academic evidence to support its utility.
Worse still, the proposed requirement for hunters to only be allowed to purchase ammunition for the guns the government knows they own would necessitate a new, even more detailed long-gun registry, which even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted was “a failure.”
Limits on the amount of ammunition that gun owners can keep at home may sound like logical policy to someone without firearms experience, but setting a “safe” amount of ammunition is not a science, would not prevent mass shootings and would place an unreasonable burden on hunters and sports shooters, especially in rural areas where getting to a gun shop can take a full day.
Hunters who shoot a lot — such as goose hunters — or who own multiple firearms to hunt different species could easily end up with an illegal “stockpile.”
Policy is about making choices with limited resources. Continuing to pile irrelevant rules on licensed gun owners would be like fixating on a faucet that occasionally drips while ignoring the burst water main flooding your basement.
Canada’s focus should be on putting resources where they will help the most: securing the border, providing mental health support for Canadians and funding evidence-based community programs to divert at-risk youth from gangs. If the government seeks to prioritize public safety, it should not tilt at expensive windmills.
Noah Schwartz is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley and the author of “On Target: Gun Culture, Storytelling, and the NRA.” Tim Thurley earned a master of science from Leiden University with his analysis of the long-gun registry’s lack of effect on Canadian homicide rates and spends much of his personal time researching firearms policy.
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