One spring evening in 2020, a gunman dressed as a police officer and armed with automatic weapons sparked a shootout in rural Nova Scotia that left 23 people dead.
Days after Canada’s worst mass shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised quick action, announcing an immediate ban on approximately 1,500 makes and models of military-grade and “assault” weapons in the country.
“These weapons were designed for one and only purpose: to kill the greatest number of people in the least amount of time. There is no use or place for such weapons in Canada,” he said. “Effective immediately, it is no longer permitted to buy, sell, transport, import or use military-grade assault weapons in this country.”
Trudeau’s actions have sparked minimal debate and met relatively little political resistance – in stark contrast to the United States, where the latest mass shootings have once again exposed the calcified nature of the gun control debate. in a country that is unwilling or unable to deal with gun violence.
But gun control experts and advocates warn that Canada’s relatively strict laws don’t fully protect it from violence of the kind plaguing the United States.
A country where hunting is common, Canada has one of the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the world. According to the 2018 Small Arms Survey, there are approximately 34.7 firearms for every 100 people. Canada still lags far behind its southern neighbor in both gun ownership rates and gun-related incidents.
Part of that is attributed to a gun ownership regime that mandates extensive background checks and requires guns to be locked and unloaded. There are no comparable “open carry” laws in the country, gun owners must be licensed, and all handguns and most semi-automatic weapons must be registered with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“When you consider us next to the United States, which is so heavily armed it’s almost unbelievable, we look pretty good. But compared to other democratic countries, we could do a lot more to close the loopholes in the system,” said Ken Price, a gun control advocate whose daughter Samantha was injured in a mass shooting. in 2018 in Toronto which left two dead and 13 injured.
And the 2020 shooting in Nova Scotia joined a list of incidents proving that even Canada’s relatively tight restrictions haven’t fully protected it from the horrors of gun violence.
In 1989, a gunman targeted women at the École polytechnique in Montreal, killing 14 people and injuring 14 others.
In 2017, a young man entered a Quebec mosque with a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol, killing six people and injuring 19. Even the man behind the Toronto van attack that left 10 people dead. is inspired by an American mass shooter.
But unlike the tragedies in the United States, these events are largely isolated – and have prompted changes to the country’s gun rules.
After the Polytechnic massacre, Parliament passed laws that led to the creation of a national gun registry. And Trudeau’s ability to ban certain weapons with little political opposition highlights the different way guns are viewed by much of the Canadian public.
“The Second Amendment plays a big role in the arena of American public discourse. Americans, in general, are suspicious of the state restricting their freedoms or telling them what they can and cannot do,” said Jooyoung Lee, associate professor of sociology at the Center for the Study of the United States of America. the University of Toronto.
But advocates like Price say loopholes remain in the Canadian system that allow events like the Nova Scotia shooting to happen.
Neighbors had previously raised concerns about the behavior of shooter Gabriel Wortman, to the point that police had already investigated him. Officers also knew he had a history of domestic violence and owned a number of firearms.
“You don’t just need legislation to tell you what kinds of guns and ammunition you can own. You also need institutions to have the capacity to educate and intervene,” Price said. “Police should be able to move quickly and remove weapons when they suspect there is a risk.”
And while headlines often focus on mass shootings, the majority of shootings in Canada involve handguns in major urban centers.
“The bulk of incidents occur in racially marginalized communities. So in Canada, marginalized people are the first victims of gun violence, just like in the United States,” Lee said.
A recent poll found that a majority of Canadians, especially those in urban centres, fear that gun violence is increasing in their communities – a reality reflected in Statistics Canada data. Firearms incidents in 2020 were double those of 2010.
Although buying straw and thefts from gun stores are a problem in Canada – the gun that injured Price’s daughter was stolen on the other side of the country – experts say a number large number of firearms are illegally entering Canada across the border from the United States.
“Increasingly, in many ways, the gun problem in the United States is becoming the gun problem in Canada,” Lee said. “Even though the United States has become an international poster boy for gun control laws gone wrong, there is a lot more commonality here in Canada than people would be willing to admit.