Reality check: Would Toronto council’s proposals dent gun crime?
In Toronto’s first city council meeting after Sunday’s mass shooting on the Danforth, it was understandable that gun control topped the agenda.
Even before the Danforth attack, Toronto’s gun killings were well above normal levels.
But while it seemed like the obvious thing to debate, very few aspects of Canada’s gun control system fall under municipal authority. So in a series of votes Tuesday, large majorities of councillors – 41-4, 40-5, 41-4 – voted for measures that other levels of government, mostly the federal government, would have to carry out.
“It is frustrating,” says downtown councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam.
“City Council is doing the best we can with the limited powers we have.”
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Wong-Tam sees Toronto’s council as providing a counterbalance to what she sees as pressure from gun rights advocates to water down the Liberal gun control package at the federal level.
“The Liberal government is under tremendous pressure from their rural caucus,” she argues. “The MPs who represent urban centres … understand that far too many people have access to guns, but they are under pressure within their own party to cave in to the interests of the rural MPs.”
Among the motions passed Tuesday:
Banning all handguns and semi-automatic long guns across Canada
Wong-Tam‘s motion calling for a national ban on civilian ownership of handguns and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns passed by 40 votes to 5.
If carried out, it would be the most sweeping gun control measure in Canadian history.
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How many firearms would it affect? With the long gun registry a thing of the past, it’s hard to know, but in 2012, when it included long guns, the national firearms registry showed:
- 701,710 handguns of all types
- 899,836 semi-automatic rifles
- 332,430 semi-automatic shotguns
That’s a total of about 1.9 million firearms.
It would be several times larger than Australia’s vast gun expropriation of the late 1990s that followed the Port Arthur massacre. Australians passed a special surtax equivalent to $738 million in 2018 Canadian dollars, and used it to buy about 640,000 guns from their owners. (Australia’s murder and suicide rates both fell after the expropriation.)
Given what the Australians spent, a compensation budget well over $2 billion would be realistic for such a program.
“Perhaps there would be some modest compensation,” Wong-Tam says. “We would have to work that out.”
“I’m sure that if there was a business case analysis of the cost to overall Canadian society of the tangibles that are directly related to gun violence, it would outweigh anything we would have to pay to eliminate and remove guns from our streets and across the country.”
Not having a long gun registry would make parts of a mass confiscation harder than it might be, she concedes. (Gun rights advocates, for their part, saw this as one advantage of getting rid of it.)
At the moment, crime guns are divided about half and half between guns smuggled from the U.S. and those bought or stolen from legal Canadian owners, police say.
But that proportion has changed before and could change again. It’s possible to imagine a future in which all handguns are banned in Canada, but criminals have an easy ongoing supply of handguns smuggled from the U.S. Unlike Australia, Canada shares an 8,800-kilometre border with the United States, which has roughly one firearm per person.
“There are always things being smuggled across the border,” Wong-Tam says. “We don’t [stop banning] narcotics because the drug dealers will still smuggle it into the country.”
Storing privately owned guns in licenced arsenals
Scarborough councillor and former Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis’s motion to urge Ottawa to create a national system of “gun repositories” where firearms would be required to be stored when not actually being used for hunting or target practice passed 35-10.
A measure like this brings out the difference between urban and rural firearms.
In a city, it might possibly reduce gun theft, if the arsenals’ inventory control and security were perfect (which is a major assumption). It might also reduce firearm suicides, and simplify the safety issues in houses where there are both children and firearms.
But it’s harder to see how it would work in rural or northern areas. For example, a sheep farmer who needs to kill coyotes to protect his stock can’t be expected to go to a distant arsenal to sign out a rifle whenever it’s needed, and return it afterwards.
Banning the sale of handguns and pistol ammunition in the city
Downtown councillor Joe Cressy’s motion to ask the federal government to ban handgun sales in Toronto, and for Ontario to ban handgun ammunition sales in Toronto, passed 41-4. (The city lacks the power to do this directly.)
As gun writer A.J. Somerset pointed out, it’s hard to see how this would limit gun crime:
Wong-Tam, who voted for the motion, says it was “symbolic.”
“I said, Joe, I don’t think it’s going to be effective. And he said he wanted to do it anyway.”
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