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Anatomy of the Gun Control Debate
By Wendy Cukier

Heightened interest in gun control in Canada was precipitated by the murders on December 6, 1989, of 14 women at l'Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. The Montreal massacre drew public attention to the state of the current law and led to the creation of a Coalition focused on strengthening firearms control.

The push for stronger gun control on the one hand fuelled the efforts of existing groups opposed to further legislation and led to the creation of new groups aimed at protecting gun owners' interests.

The major force behind the push for further restrictions was the Coalition for Gun Control, founded in response to the Montreal massacre, and its position, formulated in early 1990, remained essentially unchanged through the six years which followed.

It advocated:

  • a ban on military assault weapons;
  • registration of all firearms;
  • controls on the sale of ammunition;
  • stricter controls on handguns.

The Coalition maintained that these measures did not unduly restrict legitimate use of firearms but would help reduce firearms death, injury and crime. Other groups went further. For example, Concordia University collected over 250,000 signatures and endorsements of a host of organizations calling for a complete ban on handguns.

Gun control advocates made a number of arguments. The foundation was that the costs of firearms death and injury are considerable — 1,400 deaths per year — and that reducing firearms accessibility would save lives. The emphasis was on prevention, rather than deterrence alone. They argue that access to guns is a major factor in domestic violence and suicide. They also suggest that legally owned guns are part of the problem and that gun owners must be held accountable for their guns. They maintain that military weapons and large capacity magazines serve no legitimate purposes in the hands of civilians.

In addition to the arguments for the measure, there were questions raised about the opposition. “We register cars and dogs, why not guns?” was a frequent refrain, and “Why should they own guns and keep it a secret?” Gun control advocates also consistently maintained that they were not opposed to gun ownership but wanted improved controls.

One of the strongest appeals was to the polls. While previous polls showed support for gun control, the Angus Reid poll of September, 1993, asked more precise questions and revealed that 86% of respondents supported registration of firearms, 84% a ban on military weapons and 70% a complete ban on handguns. A majority supported these measure in ever corner of the country. While subsequent polls showed higher and lower levels of support and erosion in certain regions the majority of public opinion was on the side of further gun control.

Appeal to Canadian values was also a critical feature with the advocates of further controls. Many pointed to the importance of avoiding the example set by the U.S. and the need to prevent the gun lobby from hijacking the public safety agenda as it had in the U.S. And, toward the end of the debate, some high profile lawyers, including Clayton Ruby, and a range of academics, pledged to support the law, if the provinces or gun lobby launched a legal challenge.

More than 400 organizations from across Canada formally endorsed Bill C-68. They ranged from national groups, through provincial associations to local and community organizations. Prominent players included:

Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police;
Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating itsTermination (CAVEAT);
Victims of Violence International;
Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians;
Council on Suicide Prevention;
Canadian Public Health Association;
YWCA of Canada;
Federation of University Women;
National Association of Women and the Law;
Canadian Bar Association;
John Howard Society of Manitoba;
Victims of December 6th Foundation;
United Church of Canada;
Canadian Jewish Congress;
Canadian Labour Congress.

The groups supporting the Bill passed resolutions, issued public statements and participated in press conferences. There was also a series of letter-writing and postcard campaigns targeted at federal politicians, as well as lobbying individual politicians.

Although the Montreal massacre was the catalyst for the effort to promote further gun control, a number of high profile murders involving guns fuelled concern. The murder of Nina Devilliers of Burlington, Ont., the murders at Concordia University, the drive-by shooting of Nicholas Battersby in Ottawa, and the shooting of Vivi Lemonis at Just Desserts in Toronto continued to focus media and public attention on the problem. Many of the families of victims became actively involved.

A considerable amount of research appeared over the course of the debate which was used to support the position of those advocating stronger gun control. Research on domestic violence confirmed that firearms were the weapon of choice and most of the guns used were legally owned riles and shotguns. An international study by a Swiss criminologist showed the linked among firearms, suicides and murder in 12 countries. Research on the costs of firearms injuries was also used by the health care community to argue that the investment in prevention would pay off. A detailed study of firearms confiscated by 10 police forces showed that the majority (47%) were rifles and shotguns and that, of the handguns used in crime (20%), a large proportion 40%) were at one time legally owned. Suicide prevention experts relied heavily on evidence that showed that guns were a major factor in the deaths of young men. Despite arguments that gun control was an urban phenomenon, several studies showed that gun death and injury rates were high in rural and Western Canada.

In some cases, links between American gun lobby and Canadian counterparts, as well as evidence of extremism, threats and intimidation helped the case for gun control.

The Opponents of Further Measures

Groups opposing elements of Bill C-68 and earlier legislation were by no means homogenous, nor were their arguments. They included hunting organizations, and in the discussions on Bill C-80 and C-17, the Canadian Wildlife Federation played a pivotal role. With C-68, the provincial organizations — the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta Wildlife Federations — were critical. There were also groups of collectors, such as the affiliate of the U.S. National Rifle Association, the Ontario Arms Collectors, as well as dealers, such as the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association.

Local gun clubs echoed their provincial and national groups, such the Ontario Handguns Association, the International Practical Shooting Confederation, the government-funded Ontario Shooters Council and Canadian Shooters Federation, and the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association. In addition, during the last couple of years, a host of new organizations appeared, including the New Brunswick Firearms Alliance, the Responsible Firearms Owners of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and of Manitoba; the Langley Symposium, an umbrella group to co-ordinate action and fund research, and many others, like Albertans Aiming for Truth, which funded a large advertising campaign.

Core to the arguments of the opponents was the claim that there is no evidence to link stronger gun control to improved public safety. In fact, some went on to claim that stricter gun control would reduce public safety by limiting the right of citizens to protect themselves. The case was also made that the proposed measures, particularly registration of firearms, were costly and ineffective and would take police officers off the street. While the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Canadian Police Association supported stricter controls, the Saskatchewan Federation of Police Officers broke ranks and voted against it, as did several RCMP divisions.

It was argued that criminals were the problem, not gun owners and that further measures to restrict "law-abiding gun owners" were intrusive. There was also a considerable amount of attention focused on rural versus urban attitudes to guns and the suggestion was made that the problem of guns in Montreal and Toronto had no relevance to rural communities or the West.

Slogans included "Crime control not gun control" and "Don't Blame Us." Opposition also centred on the criminal sanctions for failure to comply with the law which would “turn law-abiding citizens into criminals.” The American National Rifle Association also entered the fray, threatening to boycott Canadian hunting if registration of firearms was introduced. There were also claims that the real agenda of the government was to ban all guns either directly or by using registration as the first step to confiscation. Parallels with Nazi Germany were frequently drawn. Another tactic was to challenge the definition of military assault weapons and to argue that they were no more deadly than hunting rifles or shotguns.

Opponents also maintained that support for gun controls stemmed from ignorance, that the more people learned about the burden of existing laws the less they were likely to support additional controls. Gun control advocates were portrayed as emotional and misguided, or as political hacks on the government payroll.

Some native organizations — the Inuit Tapirisat and the Six Nations Confederation — played an active role in opposing the legislation, arguing that it infringed on aboriginal hunting rights. The provincial governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and later Ontario, also opposed the legislation on the grounds that it would be costly and ineffective. The brief presented by Alberta Attorney-General Brian Evans to the Legislative Committee was endorsed by more than 30 hunting and shooting organizations, although the major policing and public safety groups in Alberta supported the proposed law. The provinces maintained that they did not believe the law would be effective and warned they might challenge it in court.

The groups opposing stricter gun control also launched heavy letter-writing campaigns, held press conferences, and lobbied politicians directly. By most accounts, the volume of mail, faxes and telephone calls from those opposed to the law far outweighed the support.

Organizations opposed to gun control organized massive rallies across the country and tended to dominate public or town hall meetings on the issue, even in large urban centres. They also placed a heavy emphasis on lobbying provincial politicians, who then, in turn, lobbied the federal government. One rally attracted more than 10,000 persons to Parliament Hill. Another drew more than 3,000 in St. John's, New Brunswick.

Groups opposing gun control also made heavy use of the Internet in organizing and disseminating information and positioned several academics as authorities. A paper published by the Fraser Institute was widely cited by press and politicians, often without any reference to the author's connection to the B.C. Wildlife Federation or the fact that he had previously been funded by the NRA. The shooting groups also published a series of booklets, including Observations on a One-Way Street, which were widely distributed.

Towards the end of the debate, there were growing threats of civil disobedience, leading some politicians to question the value of imposing a law gun owners would not obey and the provinces would not enforce.

Published in Parliamentary Names & Numbers #5, Spring 1996.

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