Now can we talk about Gun Control

“A 59-year-old Burnaby man was shot and seriously injured while taking part in a randonneur road cycling event in B.C.’s Fraser Canyon early Sunday morning.

Lytton RCMP said the man was cycling on Highway 1 just south of Spences Bridge at around 1 a.m. PT when someone opened fire on him, hitting his upper body.”

• B.C. randonneur cyclist shot during Cache Creek 600, by CBC News Last Updated: Jun 01, 2014 3:05 PM PT

In the lead up to the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote a simple sentence: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”. Those simple words were meant to remind the British Colonists that by acting, they could create a new order and a new system that would protect their rights. I still believe that those words have meaning. For those words remind me that any problem can be solved as long as we acknowledge it truthfully and try to come up with pragmatic, objective and results-oriented policy solutions. Today, let us bring this simple concept to the issue of guns presence in our society.

Now, Statistics Canada has indicated that overall we are going through a period of declining gun crime. This has been a forty year trend, so no one party can take credit. However, with that being said, we have seen a worrisome trend: spectacular caches of guns and high profile, non-related shootings. In 2011, an Edmonton man was charged with 72 offences after the RCMP seized 75 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from his home. (Edmonton police seize 75 guns, 100,000 rounds, by CBC News Last Updated: Nov 25, 2011 7:37 PM MT) In 2012, there was the shooting in Eaton Centre in Toronto. Then there was the lone gun man who shot a stage technician where the PQ Leader and Quebec premier-designate at the time, Pauline Marois, was delivering her victory speech. After that, there was a number of crime related shootings in Mainland BC.

Yet it does not end there. On April 30th, 2014, two people were shot and killed by a former employee at the Western Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo, B.C.; and, on May 9th, Rev. Gilbert Dasna was shot and killed in the small town of St. Paul, Alberta. Police believe that the Reverend was killed by a local business owner called John Quadros. Given Mr. Quadros committed suicide during an altercation with several Mounties, this is likely. However, what is most disturbing is the simple fact that Rev. Dasna and Mr. Quadros had no discernible relationship.

Recently, we heard of a BC cyclist who was shot; and now, during a two day manhunt, three RCMP officers have been killed in New Brunswick. It is easy to see that, increasingly, Canada has a problem: high profile, non-related shootings.

If one was to believe the Conservative Government, these events should not be happening. After the Newtown Massacre, Prime Minister Harper said that “We will not change the basis of this system. Actually, we have reinforced certain parts,” (Canada’s gun controls ‘work,’ Harper says in wake of Newtown, Written by The Canadian Press, Published on CBC.ca, Posted: Dec 19, 2012 9:35 AM ET Last Updated: Dec 19, 2012 9:34 AM ET). The Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper went on to say “We will keep this system that works. That’s the important thing, to have controls that work.” My guess is he was talking about his tough on crime agenda. Over the last number of years, Tories have argued that toughening criminal law will make “criminals” think twice about committing criminal act. And yet, we have seen a rise in high profile or mass shootings in Canada.

So what is a Conservative Government to do? I would say learn the lessons of Australia and most of Western Europe. In Australia, in response to a massacre in Tasmania that left 35 dead, a conservative Prime Minister brought in a strictest set of gun restrictions. “The law banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns. It also instituted a mandatory buy-back program for newly banned weapons.” (Did gun control work in Australia? By Dylan Matthews, Washington Post, Aug. 2, 2012)

Australia’s legislation was much stronger than the Gun Registry brought in by the Chretien Government and is more in keeping with legislation in Europe. Instead of viewing the legislation as a “costly and ineffective affront to law-abiding gun owners”, the conservative John Howard looked at it as a necessary step and one that protected society.

One reason is in fact economic. Moncton has experienced closures in Governments and Businesses and a hit to its reputation and tourism industry. The RCMP has had to shift assets from around the country and call up all of its members in the area and some from across the country to help in this effort. And, if the Mayerthorpe Incident is any example, there will be a large request for new equipment.

However, there is also a social cost to gun violence. Australian Prime Minister John Howard understood this. A conservative, Mr. Howard brought in legislation curtailing union rights and restricting immigration. So it might seem odd for an ally of George W. Bush to be a proponent of gun control, but that is what happened. Prime Minister Howard brought in a wide ranging ban on all sorts of firearms. Given that Prime Minister Harper patterned himself after Australian Prime Minister Howard, one can see that Mr. Harper could move to restrict some guns, pistols or weapons.

For in this case, there is some objective evidence that Mr. Howard was correct. A decade after the gun control legislation came into force, the firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65%. While I am not suggesting that all semiautomatic and shotguns be banned, I am saying that tighter controls on guns directly leads to less deaths. Furthermore, I am noting that our system of gun control is not one that is reasonable because it does not apply any restrictions on irresponsible gun owners.

If you are still in doubt, just look at it from different perspective. As a car owner, I know that there is an elaborate swath of legislation to ensure that I am responsible with the use of my car. As a car owner, I have to own insurance to protect society and me from various potential accidents. Each year, I have to renew my registration and obtain a publicly visible sticker for my licence plate to prove it. The licence plate is also registered and so is the car through the vehicle ownership tag. But it does not end there. For throughout all of this process, I actually need a valid driver’s license to prove to a police officer that my provincial government thinks I am qualified to drive a car.

All of these steps ensures that a car owner keeps their nose clean. Without a private sector insurance company covering a driver that same driver cannot use their drivers’ licence or car. Or if one receives too many demerit points, one will also lose their license and their insurance. Accordingly, a driver will lose their ability to drive in our society, if they act inappropriately.

However, gun owners are not similarly treated. Where car owners have to carry a minimum amount of insurance that is prescribed by law, gun owners do not have to carry any insurance. Consequently, gun owners don’t have any private market repercussions for irresponsible storage of guns. Where car owners have to register their car and their licence, most guns in Canada don’t require registration because they are non-restricted weapons. Additionally, while one needs to be 16 to learn how to drive or buy an insurance policy, 18 or 19 to vote or drink alcohol in Canada; a 12 year old can obtain a minors’ Licence that will enable young people to borrow “a non-restricted rifle or shotgun for approved purposes such as hunting or target shooting”. Finally, where I have to renew my driver’s licence every four years, a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) expires after five years. Or put differently, Legislation controlling cars in Canada is much more strict than legislation controlling guns.

Restrictions on car ownership clearly makes it more difficult to drive stolen, illegal or unsafe cars on Canadian streets. If I don’t have the proper sticker on my licence, I can be pulled over. And I would argue that this same logic holds to guns, even if governments don’t wish to apply it in Canada. For, the outcome of this policy of lack gun regulations is a part of the reason why an extensive amount of guns are smuggled into the country. As Tiffany Crawford of Postmedia News wrote a piece called “B.C. Mounties seize more than 200 guns in separate raids in Tatla Lake and Maple Ridge” (Ottawa Citizen, 8.28.2013), two individuals smuggled a number of things into the country. They included 30,000 rounds of ammunition, a grenade, 62 banned gun magazines and body armour. And this is not the only example. Newspapers in Canada are full of stories about the importation of illegal guns. The Toronto Star did a report not so long ago about the way that illegal guns are finding their way into the hands of Southern Ontario criminals. Like the illegal cigarette trade of the 1990s, people take this risk of breaking our gun control and gun importation laws because they can get away with it and because it is profitable. Furthermore, given the number of guns being illegal imported it is difficult to believe that criminals are in full control of the black or grey gun markets in Canada. Or put differently, some responsible gun owners are being duped into buying black or grey market guns, while some irresponsible gun owners just don’t care.

So what would I recommend? There are a number of options. For example, there could be a private market solution. Each gun owner could be required to own an insurance policy for their gun or guns. That policy would deal with liability of injury, loss of life or property due to theft of, or incorrect storage, handling and/or incorrect use of guns. Such a system would reduce the amount of guns held by individuals at a very low cost. I know this because some programmes exist. A Canadian Gun Rights Association, the National Firearms Association, offers a Liability Insurance program. Each NFA member only needs to provide $9.95 per year and they will receive $5,000,000 worth of coverage. While the Firearm Legal Defense provides legal expense insurance for $95 a year. Their policy will pay for “legal fees, court costs and time off work to attend court; up to $100,000 per occurrence and $500,000 total per policy year.”

Such a private market solution would be based on the risk and probably not provide for big government intervention. In other words, like car insurance products, a property insurance company would likely charge a premium based on a number of factors including but not limited to, the number of guns kept in the house, the method of storage, history and number of people who have PAL licenses. A certificate could be issued, so that gun owners would be able to show proof of compliance to government agents. This type of system would likely limit the availability of guns and Collectors would store the guns more securely. For example, they would likely affix special locks to get better rates. While Hunters would limit the number of guns based on what they are hunting in the near future. A market driven system will also develop renting programmes at gun clubs or through specialized gun stores, if people need temporary guns for hunting specific animals.

Additionally, under such a system, if someone had an heirloom gun – handed down from a previous generation – they would likely be able to make a small modification to make it unusable and get it insured for a small sum. A private market system would easily delineate between grey and black market guns from legal ones. For only legal guns would be registered by an insurance company. Consequently, the market for legal, grey and black market guns would be reduced and there would be less chance of an incident like the ones in Mayerthorpe, École Polytechnique, Dawson College or Moncton. While, this system might seem undesirable, if this trend of mass shooting continues, the alternative is eventually having an Australian or European style system of large scale expropriation of guns.

Some might disagree. They might say there is a third option: spending money on mental illness. However, this is a red herring argument. While spending more money on mental illness would be nice, the small number of incidents tells us that we would likely not catch perpetrators in time. Just think about it, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the US suffers a multiple-victim shooting incident every 5.9 days in the United States. Given that the US has about 319,510,848 residents, the amount of people who will commit such an event is .000000019%. Compare that to known rate of mental illnesses like Schizophrenia or Bi-polar disorder. CNN has reported recently that about 2.4% of the world seems to “have had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to the first comprehensive international figures on the topic”. (U.S. has highest bipolar rate in 11-nation study, by Amanda Gardner, Health.com, March 7, 2011 4:00 p.m. EST) While the WHO says that “about 7 per thousand of the adult population, mostly in the age group 15-35 years” suffer from schizophrenia. Given that we have a hard enough time helping those in our society with a mental illness, how are we supposed to find a group of people that is many times smaller in size and prevalence? While it is nice to assume that we could find these people if we looked hard enough; we simply don’t understand the human brain well enough to pre-emptively find those people who would commit such an act.

The truth is that we need to do something. For those who might disagree I would note this: excluding the US, in the Western World, Canada has one of the highest per capita rates of gun deaths. Australia has a population of about 23,511,438; while Canada’s is 35,344,962. Yet according to the Guardian Newspaper, Australia had just 30 homicides by firearms in 2012 (.14 per 100,000); while Canada has 173 (.51 per 100,000). (Gun homicides and gun ownership listed by country, by Simon Rogers, published by theguardian.com, 22 July 2012) Austria had 18 homicides by firearms (.22 per 100,000). Denmark had 15 (.27 per 100,000). Croatia had 17 (.39 per 100,000). Cyprus had 6 (.46 per 100,000). The Czech Republic had 20 (.27 per 100,000). France had 35 (.06 per 100,000); while, Germany with a population of 80,716,000 had 158 homicides by firearms (.19 per 100,000). That’s right Germany has three times the population of Canada, but just about the same number of homicides by firearms.

I will admit that Liechtenstein and Luxembourg had one and three deaths respectively. This meant that given their population they had rates of 2.82 and .62 per 100,000. Similarly, Italy – with its Mafia problems – had a rate of .71 per 100,000. But Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Sweden, England, Wales, Switzerland and Israel all have lower rates of homicides by firearms than Canada. And what was surprising to me is that Switzerland and Israel are moving to more restrictive policies so that guns – even of active duty military officers – are not held in people’s homes.

We in Canada have a problem we don’t want to admit: our gun culture is out of control. If we were performing this badly in the area of economics, education or health care, we would demand immediate change. The scary truth is that no one is calling for a change. Our party, the Liberal Party, would be smart to start this conversation. Yes, we have made mistakes in the past on this very topic, but the truth is that we have to do something. For our party has always been the party of responsible reform. Responsible Government and Confederation were not given to Canada. Canadians had to argue for it. We have always moved our country forward with words and not guns. For it was reformists like George Brown and Laurier who made this country. It was the fearlessness of Pearson that brought us the flag and Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Liberals in Canada had always been of the opinion that Government can make a difference by conversing with and respecting all stakeholders and being pragmatic in our approach. By putting forth a vision that is balanced, we have provided the best benefit to the most people for over a century.

In this area of policy, our approach should be no different. While we need to respect that 90 to 95% of all gun owners will be responsible, we know that some will flout the law. Furthermore, while we cannot stop all mass shootings, Australia has shown us that reducing guns can reduce the risk of individuals dying. So we need to balance the rights of both citizens and gun owners under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (i.e. right to life, liberty and security of person) as well as balancing the right for society to set “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” (Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) The question is: are we up for the debate? I think we are. So let us have it.

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