In wake of New Zealand attack, experts say mass shootings can spur stricter gun control
With New Zealand indicating a willingness to tighten gun control in the wake of Friday’s mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, experts in Canada say these sorts of violent tragedies have previously spurred changes in gun control policy — but it’s not something to be taken for granted.
Fifty people died after a gunman, alleged to be Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, stormed two mosques in Christchurch in what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as an act of terrorism.
In the wake of the attack, Ardern pledged to look into gun law reform in New Zealand, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a safe country despite relaxed gun control laws and a high rate of private firearm ownership.
New Zealand doesn’t have to look too far beyond its borders for an example of a country that changed gun control laws following a mass shooting.
After 35 people lost their lives in a shooting at Port Arthur in the Australian state of Tasmania, authorities in that country oversaw a fundamental overhaul of gun control laws. Australia hasn’t witnessed a mass shooting since.
“What [Australia] did was basically banned semi-automatic guns and handguns,” said Irvin Waller, professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.
“I would imagine that New Zealand will look at the Australian experience and it will actually propose what is already legislation in Australia.”
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Waller said it’s also possible that New Zealand follows Australia’s example by running an amnesty program whereby citizens can sell their unregistered firearms to authorities. Australia held a firearms amnesty in 2017.
“I think New Zealand will be going for banning semi-automatic bump stocks. I think they will buy guns back [from citizens] and we will see whether this means that this is the last massacre that they have,” he said.
He pointed out that bump stocks have been the focus of one of American gun control activists’ biggest legislative victories of recent times. U.S. President Donald Trump announced legislation in December to ban the attachments, which allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns.
The regulation gives American gun owners until late March to turn in or destroy the devices. After that, it will be illegal to possess them under the same federal laws that prohibit machine guns.
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Waller also cited the example of the Dunblane school shooting in Scotland, which took place barely six weeks before the Tasmania shooting.
“Dunblane led to, basically, the banning of handguns,” he said.
Waller pointed out that the broad handgun ban provoked by the Dunblane shooting came less than a decade after the Hungerford shootings in England, which prompted firearm amendments that restricted the use of shotguns and banned ownership of some semi-automatic rifles.
However, he said that handgun bans are unlikely to have as profound an impact on a country like Canada because it’s not an island, making it easier for people to smuggle in illegal weapons from elsewhere.
“We’re not an island — so just as gang members in Chicago can get their handguns illegally from Indiana, people who want to have a gun in Toronto can get their handgun from Detroit or whoever,” Waller said.
Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control and professor at Ryerson University, said that the U.S. — despite being home to a powerful gun lobby — has seen several gun control measures in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre in October 2017 and the Parkland, Fla., school shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.
In 2018 alone, 67 gun safety bills were signed into law in the U.S., according to the Giffords Law Center.
U.S. authorities have also enacted measures against weapons such as the AR-15 assault rifle, which Cukier said remains available for sale as a restricted weapon in Canada.
The semi-automatic Ruger Mini-14, which was used in the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in December 1989, has also not been sufficiently restricted in Canada, according to Cukier.
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“We passed legislation in 1995 as a result of the Montreal massacre… but remember, most of the provisions that were introduced in 1995 were undone by the Conservatives. Even the new legislation Bill C-71 [put forward by the Liberal government in March 2018] doesn’t restore many of the provisions which were in place,” Cukier said.
“So yes, there was immediate action following the Montreal massacre, but then the pendulum swung the other way and Canada is one of the few countries which, in recent years, has relaxed its gun control laws rather than strengthening them.”
“So we don’t have to look south of the border, we can look in our own backyard to see how the gun lobby can hijack the public safety agenda,” Cukier said.
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What makes Canada’s lack of progress on gun control all the more disconcerting, Cukier says, is the overlap between the pro-gun lobby and right-wing extremists.
“There’s no question both from the data, the research, the evidence and also my personal experience that there are clear overlaps between the extreme elements of the gun lobby and right-wing extremists,” Cukier said.
“The same people who are writing about their opposition to gun control are writing about their opposition to immigrants, their hatred of Muslims, of Jews, of women and so on. I think that’s an issue that people have really shied away from,” she said.
Cukier pointed to what she called “the growing trend towards arming for self-protection” in the wake of incidents such as the fatal shooting of Colten Boushie on a farmhouse in Saskatchewan.
“I think that we have to be very, very worried about some of the undercurrents that are intersecting with the gun lobby,” she said.
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However, Cukier suggested that there’s unlikely to be much change in Canada until Canadians follow up on their appetite for gun control by pressuring lawmakers to take action.
“While we know the majority of Canadians support stronger gun laws, they typically don’t do anything about it until, perhaps, they’re directly affected,” Cukier said.
She said that MPs in the House of Commons receive “thousands and thousands of letters” from pro-gun activists but “almost nothing” from people in favour of gun control — this despite polling showing that 90 per cent of Canadians would support a ban on military assault weapons, over 70 per cent would support a ban on handguns and more than 80 per cent favour stronger controls generally.
“It’s been very discouraging to see the lack of progress,” Cukier said. “And as we’re getting close to a federal election, the chances of even the existing proposed legislation Bill C-71 passing are looking dimmer and dimmer.”
But Canadian gun rights activists and firearms industry representatives say they’re firmly opposed to bans on guns, which they say will do little to deter the illegal gun trade.
Blair Hagen, executive vice president of the National Firearms Association, said gun control activists who point to Australia and New Zealand as examples are mistaken.
“The so-called experts who say ‘Look at Australia, look at what [gun bans] have done to prevent shootings’ are betting their credibility on the fact that they will never happen again… they’re saying that because these countries have enacted gun bans, there will not be any more of these shootings,” Hagen said.
“They better hope that they’re right because the moment another one occurs in the future, their credibility is going to be gone.”
Hagen also lamented what he called the politicization of the gun control conversation, which he said has morphed from a public policy and safety issue into a purely political one.
“Unfortunately, it’s [an issue] that Canadians who believe in rights and freedoms — who believe in this Canadian right and cultural tradition of firearms ownership — have been brought to the conclusion that they need to be politically active and elect governments that respect their rights and freedoms, and defeat governments that do not,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the solutions here are political and Canadians who believe in rights and freedoms know that now and are politically active — and are going to express that at the polls.”
Hagen said that the Conservative Party was the subject of “voter fatigue” among the firearms community during the 2015 election, but would likely recoup a lot of those votes in this year’s federal election.
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He also took issue with Cukier’s remarks about an overlap between extremist elements of the gun lobby and right-wing extremists.
“Frankly, that statement is offensive. Wendy Cukier should be ashamed of herself for trying to re-frame the debate on guns in Canada based on issues of racism,” he said. “Some of the biggest gun rights proponents in Canada are not what you would consider traditional Canadians. We come from all segments of society, we are all colours, all sexes.
“Wendy Cukier should educate herself because she’s really setting herself up to look foolish by making such a statement.”
Talk of gun bans in Canada also has the country’s firearms industry worried.
Alison de Groot, managing director of the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, said it makes little sense to punish people who depend on the firearms industry for employment when there’s no link between their businesses and gun violence.
“In Canada, our biggest issue is illegally trafficked firearms coming into Canada from the United States,” de Groot said.
“Our concern obviously as business owners is that there are about 4,500 small businesses in the commercial firearms industry in Canada… and collectively, they employ more than 25,000 Canadians.”
De Groot said most firearms businesses in Canada are located in rural communities, and that business owners feel marginalized from the gun control debate which they feel centres on big-city urban crime.
“The truth of the matter is our business owners are watching the debate in the media over gun crime and they don’t recognize their communities or the environment in which they operate their businesses,” De Groot said.
“And it’s really disheartening to us that it’s of grave concern to lose 3,500 GM jobs in Oshawa or 9,000 General Dynamics jobs in London, but nobody is even considering the 25,000 jobs that are at risk in our domestic sports shooting industry.”
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She added that the heavily polarized environment surrounding the gun debate means the government isn’t doing enough to leverage the expertise of the gun industry.
“We can’t seem to get ourselves out of the pro/anti debate, and for our industry members, we’re trying to have reasonable conversations with the government around policy and policy that’s driven by factual data,” she said.
“It behooves the public and behooves our policymakers to focus on the real issue and the real issue is always — as with any crime — the disparity of income and opportunity for at-risk communities in urban centres.
“The public wants to feel safe, so if they think they can feel safe with the stroke of a pen on a piece of ineffective legislation, they will buy into that. But the truth of the matter is that all crimes — and in particular, violent crime — are much more difficult to solve.”
De Groot cited the example of Alek Minassian, the man accused of killing 10 people and injuring 16 others in a van attack in Toronto last year.
“In the same time frame as the most dramatic example that we have with firearms — the Danforth shooting — we have a gentleman running over individuals with a van,” she said.
“It’s not the [implementation] that’s the problem, it’s the root cause of the disparity and disenfranchisement.”
Border Security Minister Bill Blair said in early February that he was a few weeks away from unveiling new ideas on federal gun control measures.
Blair, the former Toronto police chief, has been studying ways to get handguns and assault rifles off Canada’s streets since August. He said he will soon present a report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his findings.
— With files from Abigail Bimman, the Canadian Press and the Associated Press
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