“We will take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets” – Liberal Party of Canada, election platform, 2015.
Over the past four years, some controversial promises have been kept -- the legalization of recreational marijuana being a prominent example.
Some major promises have been broken – the Liberals having abandoned their pledge to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system when it became clear there was no national consensus for change.
And at least one controversial promise has been mangled, bandaged with half-measures, and left in limbo as the government lost the heart (or stomach) to fight for the reform it had committed itself to. Gun control is the mangled promise I have in mind.
Firearms and public safety are in the news again this week following those 13 ghastly hours in the United States when mass murderers with lethal, but legal, firearms took the lives of at least 30 people in separate killing sprees in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Canada is not immune. We have been exposed to the deadly virus often enough – the Ecole Polytechnique, Quebec City mosque and last year’s shootings on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, to cite just three – to know the toll that guns in the wrong hands can take.
Canadian politicians surely know this – even Conservatives who stand four-square with the gun lobby and oppose any initiatives that might inconvenience the owners of firearms. But the other parties are not tethered to the lobby and could make common cause to achieve the goals set out by the Liberals back in 2015, “to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets.”
Polls consistently report a consensus among Canadians in favour of effective gun control. What better time for politicians to turn the consensus into a bandwagon than in an election campaign?
The Liberals did try, sort of, after the 2015 election. They studied, they consulted, they reviewed recommendations, they weighed political risks. In the end, they came up with Bill C-71, “An Act to Amend Certain Acts and Regulations in Relation to Firearms” – which, the government claimed, “provides practical, targeted and measured steps to help keep Canadians safe.”
In fact, the bill – which the Conservatives voted against and have promised to repeal if they win the Oct. 21 election – is essentially a small bundle of bureaucratic tweaks: deeper background checks, more extensive record keeping and tighter regulations for the transport of firearms.
The kindest comment that can be made about C-71 is that it is better than nothing. It fails miserably to address the expectations raised by the pledge to get deadly weapons off the streets.
One might wish Justin Trudeau had been imbued with a bit of the sense of urgency that motivated Jacinda Ardern, the new prime minister of New Zealand, who introduced stringent new gun control measures following mass murder of 51 people at two Christchurch mosques last March.
In Ottawa, the government considered, and rejected, a law that would have restricted possession of handguns and assault weapons to the military, police, other security officers (such as prison guards) and private citizens who have a legitimate need for such weapons. People who could not establish a legitimate need would not be granted a licence.
It also rejected proposals to do on a national basis what some municipalities have done – to buy back firearms; a three-week buy-back program in Toronto last May netted 1,900 long guns and 800 handguns.
And there is precious little in C-71 to stop the flow of illegal firearms across the U.S.-Canada border – just $86 million over five years to be shared by the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency “to enhance firearms investigations and combat gun smuggling across the border.”
As Parliament prepared to rise for the summer, Bill Blair, the minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, seemed to acknowledge that the government could have done more. But, he added, more discussion would be required and “There’s no time to do that in the current session.”
Four years and not enough time! Go figure.