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.
- 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
Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police;
Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating itsTermination
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
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
Published in Parliamentary
Names & Numbers #5, Spring 1996.
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