Canadian gun laws and the media

by Matt Gurney | July 22, 2019
Canadian gun laws

With a federal election due in just a few short months, Canadian gun owners are again in the sights of their government. A major piece of legislation, C-71, is working its way into law, a law that reintroduces pointless paperwork burdens on restricted firearms owners, and opens up every gun owner — hunter or sports shooter — to deeper background checks.

The government is also considering a much more aggressive suite of gun crackdowns, potentially including a ban on handguns and some semiautomatic rifles.

Canadian gun laws

This is familiar territory for Canadian gun owners, of course. Paul Martin proposed a handgun ban when campaigning, unsuccessfully, for reelection in 2005. The Harper government that followed made some common sense reforms, but since 2015, Canadian gun owners have known that, sooner or later, something would come. Bill C-71 was the first volley — the possible new crackdowns could be a second.

It’s not surprising. Several tragedies have caused gun control to emerge as a major issue ahead of the coming election. It’s anyone’s guess whether the Liberals will again make a handgun ban a major part of their next election campaign, but it certainly seems more likely now than a year ago.

What changed, and what can Canada’s hunters and target shooters do about it?

A collective shift

Last July, I was at home, in midtown Toronto. The kids were asleep. My wife and I were tidying up when the entire neighbourhood filled with sirens. There’s a hospital just a few blocks north of us, a fire station to the south. Sirens aren’t unusual. But we’d heard nothing like this ever before, or since.

It didn’t take long to see the news on Twitter and television. Just a few miles from my home, a man had opened fire on innocent diners and passersby in Greektown, on Toronto’s bustling Danforth Avenue. Two would die before the shooter was put down by police. More than a dozen were wounded, some with severe, life-altering injuries. The sirens we were hearing were just part of the massive emergency response to the second mass casualty attack on Toronto in three months.

There are a lot of ways to measure the harm an incident like this does: lives lost, civilians injured, costs to businesses that are damaged or have customers stay away. But there’s also a cost to our public dialogue and political leadership. Up until the Danforth shooting, though there had been a spike in the number of (mostly gang-related) gun homicides in Toronto, the mayor, John Tory, had remained a principled moderate on gun control— for instance, over his career as a broadcaster and politician, he had rightly dismissed a ban on handguns as a pointless symbolic gesture. After the shooting on the Danforth, clearly frustrated and upset by the violence, he abandoned his prior thoughtful moderation, and embraced the symbolism.

“Why does anyone in this city need a gun at all?” he asked just days later, as he voted with the majority of council to pass a slew of resolutions —ironically, most of which were entirely symbolic in their impact.

But there was one vote that wasn’t entirely symbolic. Toronto joined with Montreal in calling on the federal Liberal government to consider a ban on handguns. The Liberals did not — and, at time of writing — have not committed to that, but they did launch a public consultation to consider the matter. One need not be too cynical to suspect they’re looking ahead to the fall election campaign, and at their poll numbers, savaged by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, and wondering if proposing restrictions well beyond what’s in C-71 might be a vote-winner for them in the cities.

But let’s leave Liberal electoral strategy to the Liberals. For us, Canada’s lawful hunting and sports shooting community, there’s another matter to ponder. How did it get quite this bad? How did millions of law-abiding citizens, engaging in tightly regulated recreational activities with virtually no crimes or injuries, find ourselves the target — no pun intended — of so much public ire?

American influences

It’s important, first, to note what we can’t change. There’s nothing we can do about our proximity to the United States. What’s news in the United States is news in Canada. Trends and anxieties unique to the American experience inevitably impact the public debate north of the border, even if the Canadian context is markedly different.

Canadian gun laws

Mass shootings in the United States, even though deeply rooted in the particular legal and cultural peculiarities of that republic, are experienced by Canadians as acutely as by Americans. The horrible drumbeat of stories of death and carnage naturally horrify Canadians, even though the victims are not, in general, Canadian. (In the time it took to write this article, there were two separate high-profile shootings in the United States, with a combined 11 casualties. There was a third during the editing phase, with eight casualties.) The emotional devastation caused by these attacks spills over the border, leaving many of our fellow citizens to believe, honestly but mistakenly, that Canada suffers from the same problems. Tragedies in California and Connecticut shape public opinion in Kamloops and Kitchener.

The sad truth is, in this area, we’re largely helpless. Everyone should hope that America finds ways to meaningfully reduce its annual tally of gun deaths for the obvious humanitarian reasons, but Canada’s legal gun owners can be forgiven a secondary, more personal reason to hope: American violence threatens our pursuits and our businesses.

I’m sure everyone reading this has had that frustrating experience of speaking with a Canadian whose entire understanding of firearms and gun control and the hunting and sports-shooting community is rooted in American news and pop culture. Many of us have simply given up trying to explain, and keep their involvement in the lawful firearms community to themselves. Not out of shame, per se, but out of aggravation. It’s hard to explain for the 500th time that, no, you can’t just walk into a store and buy a machine gun. Sometimes it’s less a bother to just keep your own counsel.

The widespread ignorance of the Canadian public, though frustrating, is at least honest. Although it’s true that hunting has a long and proud tradition, and sports shooting is a large and growing pursuit in Canada — we’ve all seen the stats comparing these activities favourably to the number of people in hockey leagues or golf courses — we are, overall, still a small segment of the population. While we’re organized enough to have some political power, our cultural clout is limited, and easily overwhelmed by narratives and trends largely shaped by experiences outside our borders.

And we are, it pains me to say, poorly served by our media. There’s nothing we can do about American media being directly consumed by Canadians. There’s no filter there. But the Canadian media is, a few notable exceptions aside, simply not literate on matters relating to firearms and gun control. This is a major problem with no easy solution.

Disrupted media

As a full-time professional journalist, I understand the frustration many of you feel with my colleagues. I want to offer some words of explanation — not defence, but explanation. Let me start by recounting a brief anecdote. When I was a rookie National Post editor, one of my very first dues-paying jobs was helping sort the mail that arrived in the newsroom generically marked “to the editors.” I’ll never forget one hand-written letter that asked to be forwarded to the National Post’s “aviation correspondent or reporter.” Completely at a loss as to who that might be, I showed it to a more senior colleague. The response was uproarious laughter.

There was no “aviation correspondent.” Years of relentless cutbacks at the Post, and at virtually every media company you can think of anywhere in the English-speaking world, had long since stripped away any employee specialized into a single, hyper-niche beat. Most journalists in Canada today are smart, well-educated, hardworking, and honourable generalists, who never know when they start a day what story — or even what kind of story — they’ll be assigned. When those reporters struggle, it’s in those public-policy areas that require deep, thorough knowledge and historical context.

Gun control is absolutely one of those files — in my decade-plus in journalism, I’ve seen many experienced and intelligent journalists become overwhelmed by the technical knowledge and terminology they must master to even begin to grasp the nuances of our legislation, and why proposals are good or bad, or likely to succeed or fail. It’s not that the information is beyond their understanding. It’s just simply too specialized to be understood by someone who might only have a matter of hours to write a news report they were assigned that very morning.

This is not a problem that’s specific to reporting on gun control or firearms policy. It applies generally equally across any comparably complicated issue. If firearms issues appear to be handled more poorly, it’s not because of any conspiracy, but simply because Canada’s media is under enormous financial pressure. Contrary to what most people think, this is not due to waning reader interest in mainstream media — in fact, thanks to the Internet’s broad reach, readers are more available than ever. The problem is that digital marketing technologies and trends have disrupted journalism’s business model faster than media companies have been able to adapt. Faced with the need to continually cut costs, newsrooms have shrunk dramatically, and are now mostly tightly clustered in the big cities, where the major companies are headquartered. And big cities, to state the obvious, are not the most shooting-sports-friendly environments around.

This is a problem. There are few Canadian journalists who can write competently and confidently about guns on deadline, and equally few editors who know enough to catch the errors and omissions that result. Articles that are either outright wrong, or at least absent critical context and facts, are published or broadcast with depressing regularity. These reports then circulate on social media, are picked up by politicians and widely shared, spreading further.

Politicians, after all, are not a separate breed of people. They share the general population’s biases and misconceptions. Some choose to educate themselves about firearms policy, but most just follow the same news reports as the public. Bad reporting on guns thus becomes the first step in a vicious downward spiral of half-truths and outright errors. Political talking points shape public opinion, and are then reported on by reporters who don’t know enough to rigorously fact-check the rhetoric. The spiral continues. The problem is rooted in ignorance, not malice, for however little that might be worth.

What, if anything, can be done?

I regret that I’m better able to offer a diagnosis than a prescription. But there are some encouraging signs. Canada’s lawful hunting and sports-shooting communities are getting better organized. They continue to be effective political voices, and when they wade responsibly into debates on social media with evidence and courtesy, I believe minds can be changed. And there are a few journalists who are knowledgeable — not just white men like Lorne Gunter or myself, but Vice News’ Manisha Krishnan, who decided to get a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) and learn how the system works. Her reporting on firearms has been, in recent years, some of the best and smartest to be found in Canada.

Krishnan’s work, and other examples of responsible, accurate journalism, need to be shared widely. And hunting and sports-shooting clubs across the country should continue doing the kind of outreach efforts many already do: offering media tours of their facilities, access on range days, and even extending the opportunity to take PAL qualification courses.

Journalists are, as a breed, open-minded and intellectually curious. We like learning new things, and sharing what we’ve discovered. You may not win every journalist’s heart, but you can appeal to their mind.

It won’t change what’s happening beyond our borders. But it’s the best chance we have within our own country to make the debate over gun violence a little more rooted in local fact rather than imported fears.

Canadian Gun Laws

Infographic courtesy of Tamas Pal.

Originally published in the July 2019 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.

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  1. Peter Armour wrote: It strikes me that Hollywood presents numerous episodes of people solving their “problems” with firearms. Likewise, does it need to be said the unstable individuals can take in such movies and decide that firearms present a solution for them? Peter
  2. Allan Moyle wrote: I fully agree with reasonable, fair and realistic gun laws but I wonder what the true motivation is of some folks. Is it to completely and selfishly end a way of life that they know little about or is it to save lives. If the goal is to save lives, perhaps they should also be focusing on others matters that result in the loss of lives such as automobile accidents. Most drivers are law abiding people but a few are not. Because of the few, should there be new traffic laws that infringe on all drivers? For example, if there was a law mandating that all new vehicles being manufactured must painted the the hunter orange colour, this would make them more visible on the roads which could result in less accidents. If there ever was a plan to do this, it might help some folks develop empathy for law abiding gun owners. What about tobacco? Wouldn't a ban on tobacco save lives? If the priority is to save as many lives as possible, there are are targets to be aimed at.
  3. Herman Baguss wrote: A very insightful article. All too often firearm laws are misquoted. People outside of the firearms community often do not know the law and jump on the bandwagon to ban all firearms. They somehow believe that firearm deaths will be mitigated if all legal firearm owners are made to hand in their guns. They have no interest in firearms and believe that no one else should either. John Tory asks “Why does anyone in this city need a gun at all?” in reference to Toronto wanting to ban handguns. While I can agree that no one really NEEDS a handgun but since I have no interest in golf, I have to ask "Who NEEDS golf clubs?" or "Who NEEDS anything else that I have no interest in for that matter?" Why should my interest in a perfectly legal activity be compromised because of misinformed zealots? I have to wonder what makes people think that a gun ban will make criminals line up to hand in their guns. I don't get it.
  4. Robert Hickman wrote: Well done. It would also be useful to have an article presenting the success of already existing Canadian gun laws and other interventions that have produced actual statistical evidence of decreasing violent, including gun, crime, in Canada for decades now. Further emphasis on the restrictions on possession, transport, and legal uses for handguns and restricted weapons needs to be publicized, as most non gun owners think such weapons are freely able to be carried and used, where in fact there is only a highly regulated ability to transport to only a regulated shooting facility, being the only place they can be used. Not for hunting, not for self defence, and not transportable to other sites except with special prearrangement.
  5. Micheal . N wrote: Firearms have been around for hundreds of years and trying to ban semiauto rifles/handguns is not going to solve the problem or reduce it by any means, criminals will always find away to get there hands on handguns/semi auto's or worse yet it could possibly create a black market for illegal weapons but either way bad guys will always find away to get there hands on one.
  6. Mark Macfarlane wrote: Excellent article. I would recommend that in addition to the content that there should be some clarification of what a semi automatic gun is versus a fully automatic or automatic. I don't believe most people in the public understand this very material distinction and just hear automatic. To add to this confusion firearm owners often refer to a semiautomatic shotgun as an auto shotgun. I also think some historical context is also critical and generally absent from the debate on gun control. The measures such as restrictions on handguns were introduced in 1938! So any change in issues surrounding gun violence must be more recent and likely due to other factors. It would also be useful to have transparency in gun crime statistics such as how many were carried out with legal versus illegal firearms. Sadly this debate revolves around emotion and opinion and is desperately short of data, facts and objective analysis.