The Myth of Arming for Self-Protection

The gun lobby, in the U.S. and in Canada, has argued that an armed nation would result in less crime. Good citizens with guns would be equipped to prevent armed robberies and mass shootings. Women with guns in their possession can better protect themselves from an assault. Widespread gun ownership would force people into behaving decently, as an armed society is a “polite” society. Some even argue that depriving citizens of the ability to defend themselves using firearms infringes our right to security of the person (section 7 of the Charter).

In Canada, citizens are rarely permitted to carry concealed weapons on their person. So what if all law-abiding citizens carried guns? Would we be safer? Would we even feel safer?

Consider the United States as an example of this theory in action. In the year 2011, the rate of death in the United States was 10.3 per 100,000 people, as compared to 1.97 in Canada that same year. Looking specifically at homicides involving firearms, the United States saw 3.00 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012, which was six times the rate seen in Canada that year (0.49 per 100,000). Among incidents involving concealable handguns, the homicide rate in the U.S. totalled 2.16 per 100,000 – nearly 7 times that of the rate in Canada (0.31 per 100,000). To put things in perspective, the U.S. homicide rate for incidents not involving firearms (1.33 per 100,000) was only slightly higher than the Canadian rate of 1.07 per 100,000.

Any potential benefit of keeping a gun for self-protection is offset by the many risks associated with doing so. It is true that “criminals” can obtain guns illegally, but all Canadians are capable of using firearms irresponsibly. The potential for impulsive, irresponsible behaviour motivated by such factors as rage or alcohol would increase significantly with the widespread availability of firearms made available for self-protection. The potential for guns to fall into the wrong hands multiplies exponentially with the widespread availability of firearms.

The assumption that all citizens are armed can actually endanger victims, as potential assailants would be more likely to fatally wound a victim knowing that they are armed. A rational criminal would shoot before the victim has the opportunity to reach for a gun. One study found that an assault victim carrying a firearm is 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an altercation, with their odds of being killed being 4.2 times greater.

Citizens are also not trained law enforcement officials with the ability to make proper judgment calls and fire accurately. Many lives would fall to impulsive individuals who incorrectly assessed a situation or targeted the wrong victim.

In real life, there is no clear distinction between good and evil. It is too simplistic view of society to suggest that we would be better off if good people possessed the ability to kill with the pull of a trigger. If the situation in the United States is any indication, an armed society would lead to anything but a safer society.


Disarming the Impulsive and Suicidal

Over the 2014/15 holiday season, a mass-murder in Edmonton and a gang-related shooting at an Ottawa shopping outlet once again dominated headlines. Shortly thereafter, the Charlie Hebdo incident occurred in France. These are the stories that we most often read about, and often drive the gun-control discussion.

But with most of the attention given to mass shootings and street crimes in the debate over public safety, it is easy to overlook the incidence of gun-related suicides. In reality, suicides account for over 70% of gun-related deaths in Canada.

It is true that guns are not the only means of committing suicide, nor are they the most common method in most countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) released its first ever report on suicides in 2014, in which it stated that hanging accounts for 50% of suicides in high-income countries, compared to 18% of cases involving firearms.

However, when focusing on the Americas alone, firearms account for 46% of suicides.

The report identifies a number of relevant interventions for health system and societal risk factors, including the restriction of access to means of suicide. There is a correlation between proportions of households owning firearms and proportions of gun-related suicide. Furthermore, restrictions on gun ownership in several countries have led to a reduction in gun-related suicides in those countries.

Firearms provide a reliable, quick and painless means of committing suicide for impulsive individuals with little chance of recovery and re-evaluation. Dr. Alan Drummond of the Canadian Association for Emergency Physicians had this to say in his support of keeping the long-gun registry:

“Suicide, contrary to public opinion, is often an impulsive gesture. Keeping guns away from depressed people is essential. In the assaults and murders I have seen that have involved guns, the perpetrators acted on impulse and the unsafely stored long gun was readily available.”

Unsuccessful suicide attempts using firearms, while rare, often leaves the individual with serious and irrecoverable injuries such as permanent brain injury, blindness and paralysis.

Common-sense arguments aside, the empirical evidence suggests that gun laws work in reducing the number of suicides. The Institut national de santé publique du Québec submitted that since the Firearms Act came into force, the number of suicides in Canada has dropped by an average of 250 per year. Michael Bryant, a former attorney-general of Ontario, has also made it known that he believes a gun registry lowers the rate of suicide in Canada:

“Suicides dropped dramatically in Canada thanks to the federal gun registry. Not only do statistics prove as much, it stands to reason that with improved gun safety comes decreased gun fatalities; with fewer tools-of-choice for suicides available, fewer suicides occur.”

Mr. Bryant also raised a legal issue in response to the then-proposed abolition of the long-gun registry: would the courts uphold a law that eliminates proven safety measures?

The relationship between gun laws and suicide is apparent, and should not be overlooked in the debate for tougher gun restrictions.


The Contentious Relationship between Public Safety and Civil Liberties

Civil liberties, the fundamental freedoms which are protected from government intrusion, are integral to the functioning of a free and democratic society. Such freedoms are protected in Canada by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, subject to reasonable and justifiable limitations (section 1). They include, for example, the right to free expression (section 2b), to equality (section 15), and to life, liberty and security of the person (section 7). Civil liberties matter to all of us, but they have been raised in the context of debates on firearms legislation from both sides of the issue.

It is important to consider that civil liberties are not absolute or consistent across jurisdictions. In Canada, not only is the right to bear arms excluded from constitutional protection, but so are property rights in general. Property rights are only referenced indirectly by certain provisions of the Charter, such as the unreasonable search and seizure of property (section 8) and the existence of pre-Charter common law and other rights (section 26).

The right to bear arms is not guaranteed in Canada’s constitution, as some argue it is in the United States. As such, firearms regulations are not technically a matter of civil liberties in Canada. As the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2005, the “possession and use of firearms is not a right or freedom guaranteed under the Charter, but a privilege.

Some opponents of Canada’s current gun control measures argue that the regulation of firearms is an undue restriction on our civil liberties. For example, the president of the National Firearms Association contends that there is no public safety concern in firearms, and that gun laws are merely restrictions on property rights and personal freedoms without merit:

“Frequently we are told that if some law or new regulation would improve public safety, then we shouldn’t have a problem with it. I haven’t run into a firearms law yet that actually does what it claims in terms of providing more security other than a false sense of it. I have seen many firearms laws that reduce freedoms and personal rights all in the name of public safety and like many firearms owners I have a significant problem with that situation.”

Conversely, the Courts and proponents of gun control alike have agreed that the regulation of firearms is in relation to public safety. In Reference Re Firearms Act, the Supreme Court ruled that:

“…the effects of the law suggest that its essence is the promotion of public safety through the reduction of the misuse of firearms, and negate the proposition that Parliament was in fact attempting to achieve a different goal such as the total regulation of firearms production, trade, and ownership.”

In recent years, challenges have been filed questioning the legality of some laws restricting the use of firearms. For example, the Ontario Court of Appeal recently found that a 3-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for possession of a loaded restricted or prohibited weapon constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited under section 12 of the Charter. The Supreme Court of Canada has approved leave to hear an appeal.

Some opponents of Canada’s gun laws argue that they infringe our right to security of the person (section 7) by disarming citizens from a method of self-defence. Such arguments suggest that good citizens with guns would be equipped to stop armed robberies and mass shootings, and that women with guns in their possession can better protect themselves from an assault. However, these arguments, echoing those of the American National Rifles Association, are not based on research. In fact, studies have found the opposite, namely that a reduction in the number of available firearms reduces the likelihood of gun-related deaths, thereby reinforces the security of the person. Groups such as the Canadian Federation of University Women have argued that weakening gun restrictions disregards the rights of women to life, liberty and security of the person. Subjecting gun owners to strong licensing and registration requirements does not deprive law-abiding citizens of their ability to possess firearms for self-defence or any reason.

Public safety interests need not be regarded as being in contention with civil liberties. Some civil liberties organizations, such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, recognize a mutually reinforcing relationship between public safety and civil liberties:

“Our work recognizes the important role that governments play in protecting public safety and advocates for the striking of an appropriate balance between public safety and civil liberties in this context. We believe that governments should treat the promotion of public safety and the protection of civil liberties as mutually reinforcing objectives…”

Civil liberties are integral to the functioning of a free and democratic society, whether or not one is a gun owner. It is important to recognize, as Canadian citizens, exactly what our civil liberties are. General restrictions on firearms, in themselves, do not erode the civil liberties we have in this country.


Ottawa Mother Concerned About Gun Violence

The Coalition for Gun Control will be featuring a series of guest bloggers who will explore various issues relating to gun violence and gun control in Canada. Please get in touch If you are interested in featuring your post on our website.

It has been an amazing year for many in Ottawa. As a mom living here, I have experienced many ups and downs this year. In the midst of the usual daily joys and fatigue of motherhood here, it has, according to Ottawa police, been a record-breaking year “48 shootings in 2014… a 60-per-cent increase in shootings compared with the previous year, when the city had 30 in total”.

Ottawa’s record-breaking year for gun violence included of course the October 22, 2014 attack on our Parliament and War Memorial: October 22 was the day that so many of us learned what it felt like to check in with the school board while our kids were in lockdown, and spent hours on the floor beside our office desks, waiting.   It was the day I learned what it literally, physically means, to be sick with worry for one’s children.

The events of October 22nd were, or should have been a reminder, a wake-up call that gun violence occurs in Canada too. It was a day when many of us of this generation felt for the first time the visceral sweat of vulnerability that was felt by other Canadians in Montreal on December 6, 1989, more than 25 years ago, when a gunman opened fire on “feminists” at the Ecole Polytechnique.

I used to live in the United States. When I returned to Canada after living there for a few years, I joked to my friends that one of the greatest sighs of relief I breathed on my return to my home country was about the fact that neither I nor my children had been shot during our sojourn in America. But this year has underscored for me that we are unduly smug about American gun violence here in Canada. We have problems with gun violence too.

In our casual conversations, in mainstream media reports and in political speech about Ottawa’s gun violence this year, much has been said about terrorists, gangs and criminals. Little has been said about where the guns are coming from and how the flow of these guns could be slowed or stopped by better gun control laws. Interestingly, a little-reported fact is that, according to Ottawa Police, about 50% of the guns they seized were stolen during robberies from gun owners and dealers.

In the wake of the awful 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Pennsylvania, American moms came together on social media and in person to lobby for better gun control laws.   Their work is not yet done. But I am concerned about Canadian moms, and wonder whether we might need to do the same, whether our role now is not just to wait and pray, to wave the flag or even to vote, but to actively challenge those with political power and ask where these guns are coming from. More needs to be done to keep our children safe.

Modernizing Gun Control: Keeping Up with a Dynamically Evolving Industry

The rapid evolution of modern technology has brought forward new questions on how to sufficiently regulate the use of firearms.

For years, gun manufacturers have been circumventing restrictions on assault weapons by implementing cosmetic design changes to new guns. Meanwhile, the government’s list of prohibited firearms have not been updated since 1995.

By failing to keep up with the evolution of gun designs, many powerful semi-automatic and sniper rifles are currently available on the market as non-restricted hunting rifles. This illustrates the importance for gun laws to be proactive in addressing public safety concerns as opposed to addressing the concerns once are prevalent.

In recent years, two notable revolutions in the technology space have received little attention by Parliament: 1) 3D printing technology; and 2) deep web networks.

3D printing technology allows users to produce fully-functional firearms from downloaded digital blueprints. This allows anyone to bypass gun-licensing requirements and assemble firearms without any particular skill or expertise. As of this moment, some organizations are developing such blueprints to be freely distributed online. Furthermore, the fact that 3D-printed firearms are made from plastic material means that these weapons would bypass metal detectors.

At the present time, there are no laws in place to sufficiently control the distribution of 3D printed firearms blueprints.

Recent years have also witnessed the rise and fall of Silk Road, an untraceable online black market for illegal products and services such as firearms. Many retailers make weapons legally available for sale online, while some online classifieds contain listings for private sales where there are no guaranteed licence checks (especially since the repeal of the registry). But new untraceable deep-web networks emerging since the fall of Silk Road facilitate explicitly illegal transactions, with some networks purported to have even larger user bases than that of Silk Road.

Using IP masking technology and digital currency, deep-web networks allow for the anonymous transfer of illegal goods. As digital anonymization technology continues to evolve, the deep-web may soon flourish as a primary source of illegal firearms.

Amidst these growing concerns, the development of smart gun technology as a viable solution has been given even less attention. This technology has the potential to prevent gun crimes by limiting its use to licensed individuals using biometrics and radio frequency identification (RFID). The United States Attorney General has expressed an interest in exploring the technology, while the European Commission has also stated its commitment to implementing smart guns in a recent report on firearms:

“The Commission will work with the firearms industry to explore technological solutions, such as biometric sensors where personal data is stored in the firearm, for ensuring that purchased firearms may only be used by their legal owner. It will carry out a detailed cost-benefit analysis on the question of making such ‘smart gun’ security features mandatory for firearms lawfully sold in the EU.”

Evidently, as the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act continues to be debated in Parliament, there is a need to review the rapidly-evolving landscape of firearms and consider technological solutions in response to emerging technological concerns.


25 Years After École Polytechnique: Where Are We Now, and Where Are We Headed?

Next Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Montreal’s most infamous gun-related tragedy in recent memory: the Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique. To this day, the events of December 6th, 1989, continue to conjure frightening images of the lone gunman’s hate-inspired actions directed towards women.

The semi-automatic Ruger Mini-14 rifle used in the murder of 14 young women was obtained by the shooter legally. Following the incident, Parliament passed laws requiring the licensing of all gun owners, the registration of all firearms and a prohibition of assault weapons. Amidst subsequent gun-related tragedies in the United States and other parts of the world, Canada was heralded as a beacon of sensible gun laws.

However, gun restrictions in Canada have been steadily eroding since 2012. No longer do firearms require registration, and all records of registration (with the exception of those in Quebec) have been destroyed.

Firearms dealers are no longer required to see (or verify the validity of) a license before selling a gun, so long as they have no reason to believe the buyer is unlicensed.

In August 2014, the government implemented new Firearms Classification regulations prohibiting the classification amendments more than one year after the determination is made. The gun industry is known to make superficial design changes to guns in order to evade laws. Because these regulations were implemented before thoroughly updating the categories, some heavy-duty firearms currently fall under a “restricted” or “non-restricted” status as opposed to the more appropriate “prohibited” status for these types of weapons. The Mini-14 used in the Montreal Massacre is one such weapon that is classified as non-restricted.

At present time, gun laws may be considered even less stringent than they were at the time of the Montreal Massacre, with a pending bill potentially weakening restrictions further.

Bill C-42, the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, was scheduled for its first parliamentary debate on the day of the most recent tragedy at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Some of the more widely publicized changes to the Bill include:

  • Merging the possession and acquisition licenses into a single license;
  • Implement a six-month grace period to renew licences without facing prison time;
  • Mandatory firearms safety training courses in order to obtain a license; and
  • Prohibiting offenders of domestic abuse from obtaining licences.

While some of these changes appear to be sensible, as the short title of the Bill suggests, a closer inspection of the Bill reveals a potential ulterior motive.

Since 1995, when gun licenses were implemented, there have been separate possession and acquisition licenses in order to allow previous gun owners to keep their guns without going through the new licence requirements. Merging the two licences together will create a legal loophole for these gun owners to bypass training requirements and screening processes.

Allowing a six-month grace period for expired licences will have a detrimental impact on the quality of information in the Canadian Firearms Registry On-Line (CFRO) system, which is the only reliable source of data that law-enforcement authorities have on potential owners of non-restricted guns. Although a prison sentence may not be the ideal method of addressing a lapsed licence, it is important that the CFRO registry be kept up-to-date at all times to preserve the integrity of this data, particularly as it applies to the gun owners’ addresses.

Prohibiting domestic abuse offenders from obtaining licences would be redundant – dangerous offenders are already identified in the screening process and barred from licensing. Furthermore, gun owners are already required to pass a safety examination to obtain a licence. This begs the question – why include these redundant provisions in the Bill?

These seemingly “sensible” provisions appear to embellish the following lesser-publicized amendments to the Firearms Act and Criminal Code:

  • Weakened authority of the provincial Chief Firearms Officers (CFO);
  • Relaxed controls on handguns and restricted weapons; and
  • Granting of classification override powers to the Federal Minister.

Chief Firearms Officers are responsible for the administration and decisions related to licences, authorizations to transport/carry, transfers of firearms, and record keeping. Reducing the powers of the CFOs may make it difficult for provinces to strengthen public safety efforts within their power.

Bill C-42 proposes the unrestricted transportation of handguns by licensed gun within the same province without Authorization To Transport (ATT) certificates. Handguns could therefore be freely transported by any means without supervision.

Finally, by allowing government to make the final decision on the classification of firearms transforms decisions on public safety into political decisions. Such decisions are justifiable by discretionary power, increasing the influence of lobbies and political agendas in public safety decisions.

The Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act presents a superficially “sensible” firearms legislation, but is merely the latest step in the progressive erosion of truly sensible gun restrictions the passed in the wake of the Montreal Massacre 25 years ago.

Second reading debate on Bill C-42 is set to begin on Wednesday, November 26th.


A Somber Reminder of our Eroding Gun Laws

Last week’s events in Ottawa and Marysville-Pilchuck High School have once again pushed gun laws to the forefront of political debate in North America. At the time of this writing, details are yet unclear as to the legality of the firearms used in these tragedies (a non-restricted lever-action rifle in Ottawa and .40 caliber handgun in Washington).

Proponents of both sides of the gun debate will surely use these incidents to support their respective positions. But in the meantime, we ought to reserve judgment on whether certain policies could or would have prevented these isolated incidents or assist in ongoing investigations. It is easy for all parties to use tragedies like this to forward an agenda, and out of respect to the victims, it is best not to fall into this trap.

We must also not allow these types of high-profile incidents to dictate policies affecting our civil liberties and public safety one way or the other. In light of the Ottawa shooting, Parliament has elected to suspend debate on the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act introduced earlier this month.

What these incidents do, however, is serve as a sobering reminder that gun violence remains a live issue – even in Canada, a country which has long been regarded as an international example of sensible gun laws. But as the rest of the world moves towards strengthening their restrictions on firearms, Canada appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

In addition to introducing the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act earlier this month, Parliament also passed Bill C-19, the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, in 2012. While most of the public attention was on the bill’s repeal of the long-gun registry, C-19 also contained other provisions that have quietly weakened the restrictions on obtaining firearms.

Of note is the lack of a mandatory licence check for selling firearms to individuals. C-19 removed the requirement for sellers to verify that a purchaser is licensed to obtain and possess firearms, and only requires that a seller have “no reason to believe” a buyer isn’t properly licensed. Sellers are no longer required to see the licence or ensure that it is valid, presenting a greater possibility that guns are falling into the hands of unlicensed owners.

For sellers that call the RCMP to verify if a licence is valid, C-19 also prohibits the RCMP from keeping any records of the call. This includes scenarios where an individual’s licence was revoked because they were believed to be dangerous.

Through an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Pierre Perron specifies the protocol used at the Canadian Firearms Program (CFP)’s call center:

“-If the buyer’s licence is expired the CFP tells the seller that the buyer’s licence is expired as indicated on the licence card.

-If the buyer’s licence is revoked, the CFP tells the seller to have the buyer contact their Chief Firearms Officer.

-No records are retained of the call. No personal data, other than the licence status is provided to the seller.”

The onus is thus placed on the firearms purchaser to contact their Chief Firearms Officer when attempting to purchase a firearm after having their licence revoked. This effectively amounts to telling the purchaser to report themselves for attempting to purchase firearms with their licence revoked.

Surely, a prudent criminal would not risk setting off any red flags in contacting the Chief Firearms Officer. Due to the requirement that no records be kept, the Chief Firearms Officer is effectively powerless to follow up upon learning of an attempt to purchase unauthorized firearms. Mandatory licence checks are an important “administrative burden on law-abiding gun owners”, the benefits of which greatly outweigh any inconveniences.

Until more details emerge as to how the shooter obtained his rifle, we ought to refrain from speculating about the applicability of recent policy changes to the tragic events at Parliament Hill. But one thing is clear: Canada’s once-proud firearms restrictions are eroding away year-after-year, presenting a threat to public safety and the proper administration of justice.