Last Friday, in response to the shooting, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a sombre voice that has become habitual in his daily Covid-19 briefings, said: “Thirty years from now, an entire generation of Canadians will remember exactly where they were on Sunday, April 18, 2020. They will remember how their sense of safety was shaken. How their outlook on the world was forever changed. They will remember the day that they lost some of their innocence.”
Trudeau announced an immediate “ban” on about 1,500 types of military-grade “assault-style” weapons. And, as aggressive as the measure may seem, it hardly matches the prime minister’s rhetoric of “enough is enough” since it does not plug the source of many of the weapons used by criminals in Canada: the United States. Some of the firearms used by the Nova Scotia shooter, as well as at least one other mass shooting in Canada, were believed to have been obtained illegally from the US.
While the ban includes mortars, rocket launchers and artillery, it does not include handguns, which account for the majority of police-reported violent crimes in Canada.
Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, called Trudeau’s response a “weak half-measure.”
A tortured history with gun control
Canadians have endured a tortured history with gun control measures over the past three decades. Attempts at instituting federal registry of all gun owners and the firearms they possess have resulted in enormous cost overruns and strong opprobrium from the country’s auditor general.
But immediately after the Nova Scotia rampage, Trudeau and his senior officials said they were close to following through on a 2015 campaign promise to enact the ban.
Canadian lawmakers have much more leeway to rid the streets of deadly firearms than their counterparts do south of the border. There is no powerful gun lobby here anywhere close to the size of the National Rifle Association. And, unlike in the US, Canadians do not have a constitutional right to bear arms.
Scenes in border states such as Michigan, where fringe protesters stormed the capitol last Thursday calling to end the Covid-19 enacted state of emergency while carrying assault rifles, were widely broadcasted on this side of the border. The images sickened many of us.
In 2017, Americans owned the most guns per person in the world – 120.5 per 100 people compared to just 34.7 in Canada.
Polls indicate that Canadians have been demanding some kind of action against the proliferation of guns. According to a poll released this week by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute, four in five citizens support a complete prohibition on civilian possession of the types of weapons used in the Nova Scotia rampage.
But on the other hand, with a relatively porous border and with limited interdiction capabilities along the 4,000 mile frontier, it is difficult to see how the Trudeau administration’s new policy will make Canadians feel much safer.
“The interdiction piece is the key part of the equation,” Shachi Kurl, executive director of Angus Reid Institute, told me. “Just changing the law is not the silver bullet. It is also ensuring the bad guys are not able to get the guns into the country in the first place.”
Sealing the US-Canada border?
With the Canada-US border closed to all but essential traffic due to the Covid-19 pandemic, now would seem like a good time to introduce legislation to block the flow of illegal weapons.
The measures should include resources for a proper border patrol, like: electronic sensors on the Canadian side (similar to what the Trump administration had considered implementing); better intelligence gathering of organized gang activity; and beefed up intelligence sharing with the US. Adding a cabinet post in 2018 dedicated to “border security and organized crime reduction” was certainly a good start.
In 2018, Ottawa announced new funding for the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) to help stem gun smuggling to the tune of $51.5 million over five years. But that amount is a pittance considering the length of the border and that a significant percentage of firearms are trafficked from the US — though the amount sourced domestically is growing, according to the police. In the first three quarters of 2019, the CBSA seized just 647 firearms.
Yaroslav Baran, an Ottawa-based political analyst, told me that beefed up border enforcement could be “the secret sauce” to stem the flow of illegal weapons into Canada – especially since police believe most of the guns used in the Nova Scotia mass shooting came from south of the border. But with some $2 billion worth of goods and services crossing the frontier daily, creating a harder border could have the potential to disrupt the supply chain.
Because of the Covid-19 crisis, Canadians are more inclined to accept protective measures from the Trudeau government. While stopping the pandemic in its tracks at the moment seems an almost insurmountable effort, stemming the flow of guns onto Canadian streets is not.
Whether or not Trudeau’s announcement on Friday was a half-baked measure remains to be seen. But what is certain is that with horrific images of mass killings becoming a more familiar fixture on Canadian television screens, now is the time for bold action — especially at our shared border — to make Canadians feel safer.