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Canadian gun control discourse distracts us from far-right threats

Legislating restrictions on firearms is easy, but this sweeps the problem of fighting what motivates mass shooters under the rug

Canadian Politics

Gun rights advocates attend a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, January 20, 2020. Photo from Flickr.

In February, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government released further details of its plan to ban more than 1,500 “assault” and “assault-styled” weapons. These include a buyback program and options for municipalities to have individual laws regarding the ownership and use of handguns.

Critics of the gun control measures claim that not making the buyback program mandatory renders it far more ineffective, and that handgun laws designated by municipalities will lead to confusing and difficult-to-enforce laws.

Gun control is a hugely popular policy position for most Canadians. In fact, an Ipsos poll conducted shortly after the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in May 2020 showed that eight in ten Canadians are in favour of the ban, while Angus Reid reported four out of five Canadians support an assault rifle ban, and two out of three support a handgun ban.

Even the Conservative Party is broadly on board with the ideas behind the legislation, if not its implementation. According to a statement released on February 16 by Shannon Stubbs, Conservative Shadow Minister for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Richard Martel, Conservative Quebec Political Lieutenant: “[T]he vast majority of gun crimes are committed with illegally obtained firearms… Conservatives have, and will always, support common-sense firearms policies that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals.”

Further to this, the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR), which organized a march protesting the new ban, even seemed reasonable compared to neighbouring groups like the US-based National Rifle Association in its criticism of the legislation.

“Banning guns from legal, licensed, RCMP-vetted gun owners doesn’t address the violent crime we see in cities across the country,” Tracey Wilson, vice-president of public relations, was quoted as saying.

Sure, the CFRC has also fielded litigation against the government’s ban that is currently in the works, but even they acknowledged “it had no guarantee of a win.”

Whether you agree with the ban or not, however, pro-gun arguments like “as deadly as an SUV,” or “it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun,” are dubious at best.

Guns are tools, yes, but they are tools built exclusively to kill. “Good guys with guns” have no measurable effect on violent gun-related homicides, and generally, there is no reason for Canadians to own assault rifles, especially police officers.

Yet, by focusing solely on gun legislation that targets the sorts of weapons used primarily in mass shooting events, the Trudeau government is inadvertently distracting Canadians from the ideological roots of right-wing violence.

In February, the Trudeau government released further details of its plan to ban more than 1,500 “assault” and “assault-styled” weapons, like the one pictured in this image. Photo by Logan Weaver/Unsplash.

A (brief) history of Canadian gun control

Modern Canadian gun control movements began following the École Polytechnique massacre in December of 1989. Marc Lépine entered a classroom with a rifle and a hunting knife and demanded the men and women separate to opposite sides of the room, ordered the men to leave, then turned his gun to the women, shouting “You’re all feminists!” and fired. Before he killed himself, he had murdered 14 women, injuring 10 more, and four men.

Instantly, gun control was proposed as a solution to the massacre (the rifle that Lépine used was legally purchased). Heidi Rathjen, who was in a classroom that Lépine passed during his massacre, lobbied a petition for gun control, which gained 560,000 signatures.

Thanks largely to the dedication and hard work of Rathjen and other activists, Bill C-68 was passed in 1995. The bill “required screening of firearms applicants, training of gun owners, and a centralized database that linked all firearms with their owners.”

But what of the gunman’s motives? On that front, speculation of mental illness and Lépine’s status as a “lone wolf” dominated the media, while talk of his blatant misogynist and reactionary tendencies was mostly absent.

In the words of Mélissa Blais and Francis Dupuis-Déri, writing in The Conversation, “some psychologists claimed the Montréal shooter was suffering from personality disorders—despite never having diagnosed the killer or viewed his medical file.”

Francine Pelletier, who was listed in the killer’s suicide note as a feminist he wanted to kill, noted that the media focused on Lépine as a disturbed gunman, rather than on his far-right ideology and deeply misogynistic worldview.

Lépine’s suicide note, which labelled multiple prominent feminists he wanted to assassinate, wasn’t released to the public until a year after the shooting, and in that time a copycat had phoned one of the women, promising to “finish the job.”

It took 30 years for the epitaph on a memorial to the victims to be relabeled from “tragic event” to “anti-feminist attack.” Conversely, it took just six years for gun control legislation to pass in the wake of the massacre—yet a concerted federal effort to eradicate anti-feminist terrorism never materialized.

Other examples include the Moncton shooting of 2014, in which the shooter, Justin Bourque, specifically targeted RCMP officers. Distinctively, the Moncton shooter was explicitly ideological, posting phrases online like “Free Men Do Not Ask Permission to Bear Arms” and “Militia Is Only a Bad Word if You’re a Tyrant.”

Bourque was also found to have a Confederate flag in his mobile home. Once again, the killer’s far-right attitude towards gun culture and his embrace of explicitly white supremacist imagery were seen less as motivating factors than his targeting of police officers. Following the incident, RCMP officers implemented new policies to help protect its officers from similar targeted shootings in the future, including carbine training.

In 2017, after Alexandre Bissonnette murdered six worshippers at the Quebec City Mosque, new gun control measures instantly sprung to the top of the national conversation, serving as arguably the first catalyst for Trudeau’s proposed ban on assault-style weapons (Bissonnette used a vz. 58, a select-fire assault rifle that closely resembles an AK-47).

The Quebec City Mosque shooting remains the “worst mass murder in a house of worship in Canada’s history,” and Bissonnette’s motives were drenched in Islamophobia and white-supremacism. And while new gun control measures instantly came to the fore, the only action passed in the House of Commons with respect to the shooter’s far-right motivations was M-103, a non-binding private members motion that merely “called attention” to the problem of Islamophobia.

This motion also whipped up the right-wing, including figures like Barbara Kay, to rail against “censorship.” M-103 only tangibly resulted in a report recommending January 29 be labeled a “National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia,” which was formally announced earlier this year. While this is a good first step, no enforceable legislation was enacted.

Vigil for the victims of the Quebec City Mosque attack. Photo by Eric Demers/Flickr.

The Nova Scotia shootings

This takes us to April 2020. The assault weapons ban that resulted from the worst mass shooting in Canadian history is, to be clear, not an irrational move, however questions remain about the RCMP’s handling of the active shooter situation.

According to investigative reporting by Maclean’s and the CBC, the shooter, Gabriel Wortman, was known to police (despite the RCMP initially claiming they had no files on the suspect), while credible claims have emerged alleging he had ties to organized crime and may have even been a police informant.

What’s more, Wortman had a track record of disdain and abuse towards women, and numerous witnesses recalled incidents of domestic violence perpetrated by the killer, at times directly in front of them.

Despite this, debate over the assault weapons ban has dominated. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Nova Scotia Attorney General Mark Furey initially announced a review, not a public inquiry, of the shooting and the RCMP’s response. After months of dithering and pressure from the families of the victims, a public inquiry, with hearings and commissioners empowered to compel public testimony, was finally ordered in July.

Meanwhile, the new legislation ignores a major factor in Wortman’s rampage: primarily, that he had smuggled drugs and guns into Canada from the United States. As frustrating as it is, the Conservative Party is right—the assault weapon ban does not focus on a key aspect of the Nova Scotia shootings.

The political gains

This all comes together in a politically brilliant move for the Liberals. Canada has approximately 30.8 guns for every 100 residents, and even so, the majority of Canadians support restrictions on heavier firearms.

The tragedy of mass shootings strikes a chord with every Canadian, even those untouched by the horrific events. The only opposition, which is only comparatively mild in the space of gun-rights advocates, is still on the fringe of average Canadians, prompting eyerolls and dismissals.

This is precisely what we should be worried about. The focus is entirely on the efficacy, implementation, and execution of assault-rifle bans, at the expense of focusing on the motivating factors of far-right ideology, misogynist violence, and more recently, alleged police cultivation of a dangerous killer.

The loudest critics in this debate are members of the right, who couch their analysis in calls for expanded police powers. In the aforementioned statement made by two Conservative officials on the assault weapon buyback program, they stated: “the government should be investing in police anti-gang and gun units… they need to stop illegal smuggling operations and get dangerous criminals and gangs off the streets.”

What we are sorely lacking in Canada is a left wing critique of firearms discourse. This would include a centering of the far-right motivations of those who commit mass shootings, the undeniable link between gun violence and misogyny, and the failure of the police—as evidenced by the Nova Scotia shooting—to protect civilians from those wielding deadly weapons while simultaneously claiming a monopoly on their use.

Being in favour of an assault weapon ban is not an issue, but the federal government’s promotion of gun control at the expense of a serious reckoning with the reactionary factors that produce mass shootings is a problem that needs an urgent solution.

Scott Martin is a writer, musician, and activist based in Kingston, Ontario. He writes pieces for The Beaverton and on his Medium page.

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