COMMENTARY: Lawful gun owners pay the price for gang violence (and public ignorance)

Waterloo Regional Police said 22 guns were turned over to them as part of their November gun amnesty program.
Waterloo Regional Police said 22 guns were turned over to them as part of their November gun amnesty program. WRPS / Twitter

Guns. In Toronto. Owned by Torontonians. How could this be allowed to happen?!

That was the tone of a news article I remember reading five years ago, in the Toronto Star. Using federal records, that newspaper had collected information about firearms licences as well as gun registry data (including from the now-defunct long-gun registry). The apparently shocking conclusion was that many people in the Greater Toronto Area were gun owners.

“Think there’s a rural-urban divide on long-gun ownership?” the article began. “Think again. Turns out Torontonians love their rifles and shotguns.”

The article is peppered with astonished little asides like that. Torontonians, we were told, own a “surprising” number of firearms. The situation was referred to as “a proliferation of guns.” “Tens of thousands of urbanites” in Toronto were registered gun owners, and many more in the broader Greater Toronto Area as well.

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This was all very upsetting, you see. At least to the Toronto Star.

I confess, actually, to having been a bit shocked myself, but for a different reason: I couldn’t believe there was that many of us.

Yes, “us.” I’m one of those weirdo gun-owning Torontonians. The Star and I agreed on that point: I’d had no idea I had so much company.

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Still, the numbers were clear: gun owners are a tiny minority in Toronto. The Star held up tens of thousands of us as a shockingly large number; I’d suggest, given that basically, a quarter of Canada’s population lives within an hour’s drive of my backyard, we’re actually a rounding error.

I wish we weren’t. The shooting sports that I enjoy — shooting paper targets well, shooting clay pigeons badly — are a ton of fun, and I’ve met great people through it. I genuinely believe people would enjoy them if they got involved (and the cost of entry is generally quite modest). It’s a shame more people aren’t involved.

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And it’s a shame, I confess, for a more selfish reason: it’s easy to ignore the rights and concerns of a tiny group, especially if you don’t have any connection to it. Canadian gun owners are such a group, and we very much know that we are an easy scapegoat for gun violence. Gun crime in Canada is actually quite rare, with mass shootings even more so, and yet, influenced by our proximity to American news and thanks in part to horrifically low gun policy literacy among Canadian journalists, the public genuinely seems to believe that lawful and responsible firearms owners are a threat in need of urgent measures to address.

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The numbers simply don’t back that up. In 2015, 178 Canadians were victims of gun homicides in Canada — basically one every other day in a country of 35 million people. That’s insanely low. You’re more than 10 times more likely to die in a car crash than be murdered by a gun in Canada. Homicide is not the only crime a gun can be used in, of course, but the point stands — gun violence in Canada is not a major public health concern.

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And yet, according to a recent Ekos poll, a strong majority of Canadians want a “strict ban” on guns in urban areas.

I am a bit skeptical about the poll, to be honest. The company wrote in its release that such a step would inevitably save “hundreds of lives” every year, which is simply insane: there are fewer than 200 gun homicides in Canada per year. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of guns used in crimes in Canada aren’t lawfully possessed by the public and are therefore highly unlikely to be removed by a ban, and not all gun crimes occur in urban areas, anyway.

How does removing some guns from some parts of the country prevent more murders every year than we actually have? The pollsters, who are supposed to be good with numbers, have somehow blown their estimate of saved lives by, what, an order of magnitude here? Nice work, fellas.

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That being said, I’m only a bit skeptical of the poll. Ekos, I think, has it mostly right. I bet a strong majority of Canadians actually do want a “strict ban,” however defined, on guns in the cities.

The problem is, that’s a position born of ignorance. And it’s an honest ignorance. With gun owners a small minority in Canada’s big cities, where Canada’s media is concentrated, it’s not surprising that non-gun owners fear us. They shouldn’t. But I understand why they do. Canadian gun owners keep a low profile, and with no real scale for our recreational activities, the only time guns make the news are when something tragic happens. And considering our cultural and geographic proximity to the United States, those stories are all too common.

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But Canadians are reasonable people, and Canadian gun owners have facts and logic on their side. Murder is rare in Canada, and a third (or fewer) of murders actually involve guns. Burdening and blaming hunters and target shooters won’t tackle the main problems we have with crime.

Canada has strict and generally effective gun control laws. They could be improved and streamlined, but they work well. Our police are well trained and equipped to handle the crimes that do occur. Nothing in the proposed ban would address the problem of black market guns and, short of establishing some kind of border patrol between urban and rural areas, there’d be no real way to enforce it, anyway. Considering that almost-if-not-not-quite half of gun homicides in Canada are directly linked to organized crime and gangs, and they aren’t likely to turn over their guns once a ban goes into effect, is this really the best way to make our cities safer?

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This proposal is, as so much of our gun control system already is, for show. It’s theatre, political posturing at the expense of a small number of Canadians who lack the numbers to warrant much political clout and who are too poorly understood to garner much public sympathy. It won’t save lives, but some opportunistic politician might soon decide it might be popular. The problem is, they’d be right.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Global News Radio AM640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News