The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario. Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Today our political strategists gather in The Salon to discuss gun control in the wake of the shocking mass shooting deaths of 20 six and seven year old children and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut, U.S.A., and the ramifications for Canada and Ontario.
The horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown has put gun control back on the political agenda in the US, and rekindled active discussion of it here and around the world. It shall certainly be interesting if this horror -the 62nd mass slaying in the US in the last 30 years - leads to a public rethink on the issue. It feels to me like it might be a tipping
It feels that way to me, too, Rick, and President Obama's speech the other day indicated that he is going to attempt to do something about it. This piece says it all:
"Gun violence since 1968 has killed more Americans than all the wars in all of U.S. history combined."
It is hard to imagine how this tragedy couldn't lead to the "meaningful action" President Obama called for. But, we've seen so many tragedies and no action. Gun control is hard to discuss because the divides are so stark. It's difficult for me to comprehend how one could be opposed.
On the other hand, laws and policies that stem from such tragic events run the risk of being poorly thought out and ineffective. There is good solid evidence-based research that should inform any proposals.
I sense a bit of a change in the air, in the States. Anne is correct; the lines are starkly drawn, and often seem immovable. Yet there are lots of factors in the current tragedy - no prior history of violence, completely legal weapons, legally acquired, including a very serious semi-automatic weapon, all the Is dotted and Ts crossed - and yet this outcome. In my experience, many pro-gun advocates are reasonable people, open to practical and effective and responsible measures and even in those circles there must be some soul-searching going on. (Although you would not know it from some of the goofy "arm the teachers" comments that have been made.) I find it telling that the official gun advocacy spokespersons have been silent, no doubt partly out of respect, but I bet also because this deserves a thoughtful pause before everyone just assumes the position.
And that is where it connects to the conversation in this country and this province. While we comfort ourselves believing we have better legislative protection in laws concerning gun licensing and regulation, we regularly ignore evidence in making policy on this. The gun registry is one example. But so are our laws concerning the availability of assault and combat weapons. Why should those weapons be readily available?
Yes, I understand that the NRA has been purposefully silent but I also understand that there is a run on gun purchases right now. In Canada, we like to think that our gun laws are better and for the most part that's true but we have to remain vigilant and develop good gun policy that protects the public and makes good sense. I've been involved in many debates about this over the years and I think that we need to assess what needs to be done at the various different jurisdictional levels. It is not surprising that the municipalities in the US are emerging as key drivers of reformed and stronger gun legislation. In Canada, we need to determine what each level can and should do so that the laws protect public safety and are respectful of rural communities, First Nations rights, and farmers and hunters.
We have a tendency in this country to fix things that are problems in the US, but not necessarily problem here - no doubt a product of cross-border media spill. We see this in the discussion over income inequality, which has become a pretty big problem in the States, but not in Canada, yet we discuss it as if it was. The same is true regarding gun crime - it is not nearly the problem in Canada as in the States:
The debate about the gun registry in Canada sometimes obscures other gun control mechanisms. However, the dismantling of the registry is definitely more than symbolic. The Quebec government has been able to maintain the data in order to set up it's own registry but I understand that the data in all other provinces has been destroyed, effectively making it impossible for other provinces to follow suit. Have any of the contenders for the Ontario Liberal leadership said anything about public safety and gun laws? I don't think that Education Minister Laurel Broten's reassuring words about school policy are strong enough to answer the legitimate questions about what we are or should be doing here.
This debate has been polarized, as you have both pointed out, and federal and provincial Liberals in Ontario have all the scars to prove it! Conservative and even some New Democrats ran, at last count, 6 national election campaigns against the gun registry and Liberal governments that introduced it. I agree that that ship has sailed. But we need a real conversation, one that comes not just from our politicians but originates in our communities, about licensing, availability of assault weapons, and the whole nine yards. Living in a free society does not mean the right to own an AK-47. Or...if that doesn't work, we could just tune into The West Wing!
Gun Control Laws - YouTube
The shorthand does us no favours. We have (had) two parts to gun registration in Canada. One - handgun registration - is more widely regarded as effective and remains in place. The other - long-gun registration - is viewed by many as much less relevant to most firearms crime. All told, Canada has significantly more firearms regulation than does the USA, including a larger array of weapons that are simply prohibited.
I agree with Rick that shorthand is not a friend in the gun control debate and that the registry is one (although I would argue very important) part of gun control. Handguns are still a problem too. Often illegally imported, we need cross- border cooperation and we need the US in particular to take action domestically. This is partly why the debate in the US in the wake of this shooting is of such importance to Canada. Just saying that we're "not as bad" masks the fact that gun violence is an issue here too and we have definitely had school shootings here.
Right. And, as David Frum argued yesterday, (someone I don't usually cite!) for the US to begin to fix its problems, there needs to be a debate and expression of some consensus to act - the leadership has to come from many quarters, not just Barack Obama. A polarized debate with liberals as the main voice for better regulation and protection will simply ensure the debate stays polarized. And I think the same goes for our situation. If Conservatives in Ottawa and Ontario are really serious about keeping our streets safe, they need to be part of the debate about restricting access to dangerous weapons. Banning certain kinds of weapons, for example. To date, they have mostly opposed efforts by Liberals (mostly) to do so. This just ensures a revisit of the registry debate. We deserve a better discussion and outcome here. And we are not going to get it unless there is some cohesion on this.
David Frum, Joe Scarborough, Bill O'Reilly, Rupert Murdoch...plenty of right-side supporters taking a deep breath in the face of 20 dead children, 11,000 firearms murders a year (one of the world's worst rates), and wondering whether US gun culture is out of hand. By most other countries' standards, it is. We'll see what comes out of an American self-appraisal: there's nothing more powerful than changing social values, and we may be seeing the beginning of that.
We just can't allow the fact that our laws and experience are not as bad as the US to let us be complacent or smug. We have plenty of work to do here and I think there would be broad cross-party agreement that tightening up our gun laws and making sure they are as effective as possible remains a priority.
I think that's the point, Anne. While it matters to us what the US does on this, given borders and proximity, we can continue to keep ourselves safe. And protecting ourselves with better and tighter gun laws is an important way to do just that. It should become the litmus test of whether or not a party, or a politician, is serious about safe communities.
You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:
Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson
Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne
Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney