Canadian gun myths lead to bad government policy

Guns are among the top-three favorite Liberal wedge issues, along with abortion and race. These concerns rally a progressive base against Conservatives; it usually works every time. But due to several gun myths, this strategy may fail here.

First, Canada’s firearm-related death rate is higher than that of many peer nations, at just over two per 100,000 people per year. Our numbers are roughly six times lower than the US, which is number one among rich countries and has nearly 400 million guns within its borders, or 1.2 per person. We have nearly 13 million guns, roughly one for every three Canadians.

Our firearm-related homicides have been increasing since 2013, according to Statistics Canada. However, it is the breakdown in ownership and use that reveals much of the nonsense in Liberal gun policy. Firearm-related violent crime is highest in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Territories. Rural men are far more likely to die by suicide than the Canadian average.

Our problems are growing, but rifles are almost as dangerous as handguns. Rural and small-town Canadians are far more likely to die by gun violence than people in large cities. Staring us in the face is the reality that most Canadian gun deaths are the product of social realities like family violence, despair and alcohol — not drug dealers.

A second reality is that reducing access to guns, especially semi-automatic weapons, is likely to reduce the number of gun deaths, but banning them will not work. What would help is a 200-per-cent incentive to turn them in, set against proof of purchase price. Long guns are available at hundreds of sporting goods stores. Why not end that trade, or tax the hell out of it? Handguns are widely available on the street, and their illegal import is a more lucrative trade than drugs. Banning them will not stop that flow; the profits are too rich. (Years ago “The Fifth Estate” demonstrated that an American-bought gun can be worth vastly more, once smuggled into Canada.)

Why not make the use of a gun a riskier bet? Possession of a gun during the commission of a crime could guarantee a certain prison sentence, whether the gun was used or not. Why do not require handgun owners to report use of their weapon on an annual basis, with proof from a gun club or shooting gallery? And the penalty for failing to safely store a weapon confiscation and a heavy fine.

Stopping the flow of illegally imported weapons is much harder, but here again there are likely several deterrents. One may be deported and banned for life from re-entry for a variety of offenses — why not make illegal gun ownership or transport one of them? We pointlessly X-ray the shoes and loose change of air travellers, at a cost of millions. Would not X-raying vehicles at major border crossings be a better use of that money?

The most effective means of reversing the rise in gun deaths, however, is prevention.

Many years ago, progressive Canadian police chiefs invented what are now known as Community Safety Hubs, bringing together police, teachers, social workers and everyone else involved in supporting at-risk individuals and families. They share warning signals concerning their clients in the strictest confidence. They look for patterns and predictors of social breakdown — a death in the family, a child dropping out, reports of increased family violence, a heavy increase in alcohol and drug use.

That gives them a priority list of who may urgently need extra support. The program has been an enormous success, and is now copied around the world. With a focus on gun risks in a family or neighborhood, the hubs would no doubt reduce our death rate.

A policy of responsible gun ownership, greater investment in blocking the illegal trade, and using social cues to help prevent gun deaths might be appealing to a clear majority of Canadians — including gun owners. But policy used as a political wedge to punish “bad” gun owners and reward “good” anti-gun activists will merely divide us. Worse, it won’t work.

Robin V. Sears was an NDP strategist for 20 years and later served as a communications adviser to businesses and governments on three continents. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears


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