Following senseless shootings in Toronto and Fredericton this past summer, talk of a national ban on handguns and “assault weapons” has reached a fever pitch in Canada. Under orders from Prime Minister Trudeau, Canadian border-security minister Bill Blair has chaired a series of closed-door consultations to determine the feasibility of such a law.
Though Americans are rarely interested in Canadian politics, American politicians often uphold Canadian firearms legislation as a model to be emulated, thanks to the fact that Canada has (and has long had) a far lower murder rate than America. But on closer inspection, the results of Canadian gun control offer a baleful vision of the future if Americans ever tire of the battle to uphold the Second Amendment.
The Canadian gun-ban debate may prove instructive for Americans looking to avoid the consequences of hasty, emotion-driven gun legislation. Three lessons can be gleaned, with each highlighting the pitfalls of a distorted national conversation and the ineffective legislation it breeds.
Lesson 1: A failure to recognize past failures dictates calls for more restrictive legislation.
For most, the failures of past Canadian firearms legislation have been forgotten. But for others, these missteps reflect an unwillingness to go further.
In truth, Canada has a long history of gun control. Perhaps the most contentious firearm legislation is the long-gun registry. In 1995, the Canadian government passed Bill C-68, requiring Canadians to obtain a license to keep (or purchase) their firearms and then register each gun with the government.
It took the Canadian government six years to implement the 1995 legislation with fewer than 2 million gun owners signing up for licenses as of 2001. Worse yet, the RCMP later reported error rates of 43 to 90 percent in firearm applications and registry information. One man successfully registered a staple gun. In fact, an Access to Information request revealed that 4,438 stolen firearms were successfully reregistered without alerting authorities. Despite the promises of Allan Rock, then the justice minister, that the firearms program would cost only C$2 million, the cumulative total had ballooned to more than C$2.7 billion by 2012 — the year the registry was discontinued.
Also in 1995, Canada banned over one-half of all legally registered handguns through a reclassification process. Predictably, these initiatives proved ineffective: By 2017, the overall Canadian homicide rate had fallen, as had homicide committed with long guns — but handgun homicide had increased. Embarrassingly, the overall homicide rate dropped even more in the U.S. than in Canada, without the benefit of Canada’s maze of firearms restrictions.
Undeterred, proponents of the new ban remain steadfast, claiming that a blanket ban on handguns will succeed where owner licensing and functional prohibitions have failed. But as is often noted, those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Lesson 2: Politicians prefer grand gestures over measured policies.
Canadian lawmakers have failed to address the primary driver of gun violence: gangs. Demands for gun control routinely displace calls for measured policies that target this problem.
In Canada, gang violence has steadily risen since the 1990s. Importantly, a 20 percent increase in Canadian homicides between 2013 and 2016 was driven by an astonishing 68 percent increase in gang-related homicides over that period. In 2016, 54 percent of all firearm-related homicides were gang-related. Unfortunately, the problem may still be worsening, as gang-related homicides increased by 15 percent in 2017.
As in the U.S., gang violence in Canada is concentrated in certain urban hubs. From 2013 to 2016, gang-related homicides doubled in census metropolitan areas, including Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Moncton. In Regina, the rate of firearm-related violence is up 113 percent (26 per 100,000 in 2013 to 59 per 100,000 in 2016).
A large proportion of violent crime also occurs on First Nations Reserves, which predominate in rural Canada. Similar to minority youth in American inner cities, Canada’s Aboriginal population, a historically disadvantaged group, possesses a homicide rate (8.76 per 100,000) six times higher than that of non-Aboriginals. Part of this is due to increases in illicit drug markets that are driving gangs into indigenous communities.
Ignoring the dangers of gang violence, the demand for a national gun ban is matched only by the push for lowering judicial sanctions for violent crimes. Still, the gun ban’s popularity remains high as political half-measures are designed to placate voters rather than protect them.
Lesson 3: Long term and secondary consequences are rarely considered.
There is a tendency among policymakers to see only the immediate effects of a policy. Secondary consequences are rarely considered. This is no different for politicians and journalists who now call for a gun ban in Canada.
Some have speculated that 50 percent of the firearms used in crimes are from domestic sources, but this claim is not supported by hard facts. In fact, an Access to Information request revealed that only 9 percent (148) of the firearms seized by Toronto police were legally acquired in Canada. This weakens the argument that “straw” purchases play a large role in gun violence.
Still, let’s assume for a moment that a gun ban successfully reduced the number of domestically sourced illegal firearms in Canada. Gun bans are never effective. Not in Chicago. Not in England. Not in Jamaica. Public mass shootings often occur in “gun free” zones. But let’s assume for a moment that a gun ban successfully reduced the number of domestically-sourced illegal firearms in Canada. What happens next?
A gun ban treats the symptom, not the disease. Given the lucrative nature of the illegal drug trade, drug gangs would continue to operate. In 2005, the U.N. estimated annual drug revenues in the Americas to be $150 billion USD.
If a gun ban reduced the availability of domestically sourced weapons, it would stimulate gangs to broaden current supply channels. Guns and drugs go hand in hand because the competitive nature of the drug trade demands violence for purposes personal protection and eliminating rivals. In fact, one study found strong ties between drug and gun trafficking networks operating inside Canada.
More drugs equate to more drug deals. And more drug deals yield additional gang violence. It is quite likely that gun violence in Canada would increase if handguns were banned.
Then there’s the issue of corruption. In addition to cases of state corruption in Quebec and British Columbia, reports from 2007 and 2012 revealed hundreds of cases of corruption among Canadian police and federal officials. For the Canadian government, corruption is the elephant in the room.
The expansion of illicit international supply lines is likely to create further opportunities for clandestine profit. Corruption would most likely increase among governmental officials, whether police or customs officials, and international drug and gun supply lines, already established, would expand. These are secondary consequences of which Canadians are seemingly unaware.
The American and Canadian guns debates are intertwined. For Americans, the foibles of Canadian gun control should serve as a cautionary tale. The preservation of American lives and liberties begins with an honest conversation tempered by knowledge of past policies, current causes, and future externalities.
— Vincent Harinam is a research associate at the Independence Institute and a Ph.D. researcher at the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University. Gary Mauser is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University.