Newtown Shooting Cranks Up Canada's Gun-Control Debate

By Poynter, Bilbo | The Christian Science Monitor, December 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Newtown Shooting Cranks Up Canada's Gun-Control Debate


Poynter, Bilbo, The Christian Science Monitor


Though the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last week has drawn sympathy from all over the world, it has a particular resonance in Canada.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 26 victims dead, including 20 children, comes just a week after the 23rd anniversary of Canada's own "Montreal Massacre," which reshaped the country's gun laws. Moreover, it occurred even as Canadians recently renewed calls for stricter controls on firearms access here amid ongoing efforts by the Conservative government to ease firearms laws.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences to the Newtown victims' families while calling the shootings senseless. But critics here accuse Mr. Harper's government of practically standing alone among Western nations in rolling back gun-control protections in recent years most noticeably by scrapping the "long-gun" registry, which logged all of the country's rifles and shotguns, in 2011.

It has been a useful issue for the Conservative government over the last few years; the registry for a long time was a symbol of government waste, says Blair Brown, an associate professor of history at Saint Marys University in Halifax and the author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.

There are an estimated 8 million legally owned guns in Canada, representing about 18 percent of Canadian households. Canada's gun laws are more strict than those of the US. Canadian federal law requires that all restricted and prohibited weapons including all handguns be registered with the government. Canada also requires licenses to buy, own, and use firearms.

Canada's strict gun regime, including the now repealed long-gun registry, was introduced by the Liberal government in the mid- 1990s, in large part prompted by the Montreal Massacre, in which, on Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women at the Montreal's cole Polytechnique before killing himself.

Montreal was also the setting for another school shooting in 2006, at Dawson College, where one student was killed and 19 were wounded before the killer turned his guns on himself. And Toronto has increasingly been the setting in recent years of messy gun battles and shootings in crowded public places, often with guns that have either been smuggled in from the US or stolen from registered gun owners.

Has gun-law relaxation gone too far...

Canadian gun-control advocates argue that still more restrictions are needed. They point out that the type of hunting rifle used by Lepine in Montreal is sold by Canadian Tire, an iconic Canadian chain of hardware stores much as critics of Americas gun culture note that the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, used in the Sandy Hook shootings, is readily sold by chains like Wal-Mart.

And Heidi Rathjen, who witnessed the Montreal Massacre in 1989 and is now part of a group of survivors and family members of the tragedy who advocate for stricter gun controls, says that rifles, shotguns, and many assault-style weapons remain easily accessible in Canada.

To Ms. Rathjen, the Harper government has done more to erode gun laws than simply scrap the long-gun registry: Theyve weakened provisions around licensing. While it remains true that you need a license to purchase a gun, a seller no longer has to check the validity of your permit.

The fact that theres been terrible shootings and gun-related deaths has never made a difference. …

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