People pray and pay their respects at the makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting that killed 22 people at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 6.
In this 1989 file photo, a police tactical squad enters the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal to find that a lone gunman has killed 14 young women.
Toronto Police display some of the guns acquired as a following a Gun Buyback Program in June.
At some point, usually early in our lives, we are wrenched from the artificial bang-bang gun violence of the movies, TV and gaming into the terrifying, permanent and traumatizing reality of gun violence in our societies.
Children today experience it via news of near-daily fatal shootings in the United States. Perhaps it first pierced their consciousness the day a killer snuffed out 51 lives at two New Zealand mosques last April. Or maybe it came more recently with the shootings of a young couple, Chynna Deese and Lucas Fowler, in northern B.C.
For me, it was the murder of 14 young women guilty of nothing more than studying engineering in Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique on a December night in 1989. Humans, erased, because an angry, aggressive person was able to obtain a gun.
In my mind, very little has changed about the fundamentals of the gun control debate in the ensuing decades. I don’t understand why people need guns for purposes beyond hunting, sport or if they live in remote areas where a call to 911 is no guarantee of immediate help, to protect themselves or their animals. I don’t accept that registering weapons, or submitting to thorough, even invasive, background checks represents an undue imposition when it comes to obtaining such instruments of death.
And yet I respect that not everyone shares my view. There are those, including in Canada, who argue for more guns – in the hands of security guards, for example – as a way to make our communities safer.
Against the backdrop of another recent burst of gun violence in Toronto, the debate on guns in Canada is cravenly shifting from best policy to best politics.
On that front, Justin Trudeau’s party may find itself operating from a newfound place of strength, should it decide to take real action. Gun control issues aren’t exactly winners for the Liberals: the Jean Chrétien government was dogged for years by those opposed to the long gun registry created after the Montreal slaughter. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper later abolished it.
This spring, perhaps haunted by the registry’s political ghost, the Liberals botched a “consultation” on the issue of gun control with a self-selected “survey” in which anyone could participate and nearly 135,000 “respondents” did. It’s impossible to know how many were people and how many were bots. But the results skewed overwhelmingly against limiting access to handguns or assault weapons.
A scientific survey by the Angus Reid Institute in late May revealed something quite different: a majority of Canadians – even those who currently or in the past owned weapons – favoured bans on civilians owning assault weapons, the type described by the government of Canada as semi-automatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition designed and configured for rapid fire.
Most Canadians also support a civilian ban on handgun ownership, though most past and current firearms owners do not. The latter may represent a motivated cohort of voters. But others are motivated too. Women, for example, emphatically support an outright ban on handguns. So do people in urban centres.
These demographics represent the voters the Liberals wooed in 2015 and must win this year. Rather than being hostile to a civilian handgun ban, most men (59 per cent) over the age of 55 – traditionally a group that overwhelmingly chooses the Conservative Party – are supportive. Aging men in this country are angry with Trudeau about a lot of things, but a handgun ban isn’t likely to be on the list.
While majorities support such a ban, they are less inclined to believe it will impede criminals from obtaining handguns anyway. Any ban would have to be bolstered with a properly resourced crackdown on the illegal import of weapons from the U.S.
This is already shaping up to be a campaign where strategists have decided the politics of division and difference will be key to motivating their own bases to vote. In limiting, or indeed banning handguns and assault rifles in Canada, the Trudeau Liberals have a rare opportunity to unify significant segments of the voting population. They should make the most of it.
Shachi Kurl is executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.
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