Changing stances to stay in the moderate good books
By Matthew Fraser, Editor in Chief
At first, he said he would not overturn the 1970s ban on fully automatic firearms. Then, as pressure mounted, he said he would start a non-political, science-based look into the efficacy of the 2020 ban.
The Canadian news cycle as of late has been dominated by coverage of the snap election called by Prime Minister Trudeau. As leaders jockey for positions and parties shift in the overall standings, it has become clear that Erin O’Toole’s Conservative party may have a fighting chance at replacing Trudeaus’ Liberals. According to a Nanos Research poll conducted for CTV News, though the Conservatives are leading the Liberals 33.3 percent to 31.1 percent, this is within their +/- 2.8 percent margin of error. Both parties see this election as theirs to win or lose.
So, it wasn’t particularly surprising that Trudeau would do his utmost to poke holes in the Conservative ship with the hopes of pulling ahead. Out came the accusations of O’Toole’s “belief in a two-tiered, private, for-profit health care system” and his hidden anti-abortion stance (a point he has directly denied); when those failed, it was time to bring out the gun debate.
One of the things promised and literally written into the Conservative platform was a repeal of Bill C-21: the 2020 “assault-style weapons” ban. This promise obviously excited gun owners across the country and provided ammunition to those who propose that the ban was correct. Though I believe that this statistic is largely due to availability heuristics, (when an event seems more common due to repeated reference or familiarity), 47 percent of Canadians surveyed believe gun violence is a “threat to their community.” So, it’s not that surprising that the Liberal party would use this to discredit O’Toole.
On September 5 when O’Toole was asked about the ban he immediately began waffling and flipflopping. At first, he said he would not overturn the 1970s ban on fully automatic firearms. Then, as pressure mounted, he said he would start a non-political, science-based look into the efficacy of the ban. For what it’s worth, most of Canada’s pro-gun organizations publicly came out to show support for even this change of wording.
This relatively brief shift was well covered by the media and generated significant coverage including a short four-way debate on CTV News. But why are guns on the docket for Canadians this year? It certainly doesn’t seem like there have been any note-worthy causes for this, what’s the impetus?
It’s important to lay the groundwork for Canada as the context for this debate. There are a few things that should be pointed out in order to have a fair assessment of the gun debate in this country and to attempt to remove the taint of American problems. Primarily, the most recent Statistics Canada homicide data shows that of the 743 people murdered in 2020, 277 of them were committed using guns; this number is a slight increase over 2019s 687 total murders and 264 gun murders. Like all Canadians, I agree that these numbers are too high; it should be our goal as a country to get these numbers as close to zero as possible. With that being said, these numbers have still managed to make Canada one of the safest countries on planet Earth. In fact, the Global Peace index lists us as the 6th safest country in the world. Homicide in general and gun deaths, in particular, are a near non-factor for the more than 37 million people in Canada.
According to RCMP data, there are 2.2 million gun licensees in Canada; even if the assumption is that every single person who committed a murder using a gun was a different legal gun owner, it would still be less than one percent of Canada’s total gun owners who committed a crime. But the reality is that most if not all of our gun murders are gang-related and that the vast majority of gun owners do not commit crimes at all. A 2018 report commissioned by the Canadian government entitled A dialogue on Handguns and Assault Weapons found that: “The vast majority of owners of handguns and of other firearms in Canada lawfully abide by requirements, and most gun crimes are not committed with legally-owned firearms.”
Although there has been an 81 percent increase in gun-related crimes between 2009 and 2019, no evidence has been provided showing that law-abiding gun owners are the cause. Crucially, CBC notes that these gun crimes can include “not just discharging a firearm, but also pointing it—for example, as part of a bank robbery.” Given that an imitation gun bought on Amazon, spray-painted black, and pointed at a 7-11 clerk’s head would count towards our total gun violence statistics make these numbers dubious at best. Add the fact that a 2017 study included paintball, airsoft, and pellet gun injuries to achieve the headline that “1 child or youth is injured every day by firearms in Ontario,” it makes it easy to say that skepticism is warranted.
I suspect that what drove O’Toole’s response was the fear of looking like an extremist to the Canadian voting public. It seems that the lane he has aimed to fill is the moderate who has abandoned the worst parts of the conservative movement without becoming fully liberal: the true centrist. As guns are largely seen as a right-wing issue, it is probably prudent for him to not fully embrace what many Canadians seem to dislike; at least if he wants to squeeze out every last suburban vote he can. Good politics that that might be, it still makes him look either uncertain or at worst conniving on the matter.
If anything, the problem becomes that his shaky stance on the issue gives his opponents more ammunition. Trudeau has already pivoted to accusing him of having hidden interests; this waffling resurrects Bill Blairs’ ridiculous claim that O’Toole would “weaken gun control” and “remove the restrictions on handguns.” In theory, the issue is so heated and drenched with emotion that it would be near political suicide for O’Toole to argue the case on its merits, but if he plans to make good on his promise of a later review, he will essentially have to do that anyway. Had he made the argument now, it would at least show gun owners that he has more in him than just ‘I’m not Justin.’
Maybe the most important question is whether or not the gun debate will become important throughout the remainder of the election cycle. I don’t think it will; in some ways, the conversation has already faded from mainstream discourse.
I think that the wave of fear that followed the Nova Scotia tragedy has largely dissipated, and it is only the most fervent anti-gun advocates who are concerned by any potential change to our gun laws. I think it is quite likely that most Canadians would not be concerned by a well-worded return to pre-2020 gun laws. Though it is likely not the best time to fight over the ban, I suspect that if Canada maintains its overall safety levels and begins to address the issue of gang violence, rescinding Bill C-21 will not cause too much trouble. At least, I hope.
But we can’t know until the votes are cast so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.