Despite the stereotype of Canadians as apologetic peace lovers, Canada is quietly one of the most gun-toting countries on the planet. I live in Ontario, and my country regularly ranks in the top 10 of per-capita gun ownership globally, even though we don’t have the equivalent of the NRA or a Second Amendment.
Nor do we have a chronic problem with mass shootings, although violent crime is on the rise.
What Canada does have is a government that is responsive to mass shootings, both in and outside its borders. And polling routinely suggests that Canadians of all political stripes are circumspect about firearm ownership. In Ontario, which recently reelected a conservative premier (the Canadian equivalent of a governor), a survey conducted last month found 8 in 10 people either outright support or somewhat support “banning handguns in the province” writ large.
In 2020, shortly after the mass shooting that killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, 4 in 5 Canadians supported a ban on civilian possession of assault-style weapons. This transcended “political and regional divides,” the think tank Angus Reid Institute found. Remarkably, even a slight majority of gun owners, 55%, backed the move.
This is a vastly different landscape than what’s currently found in America. Whereas a Canadian consensus exists toward buybacks and bans, the political divide in the United States has essentially frozen the discussion, as has the system of government.
Pew research from last year shows that Republicans and Democrats are worlds apart when it comes to creating a federal database tracking gun sales, banning assault-style weapons, banning high capacity ammunition, permitting the carrying of concealed weapons, shortening waiting periods for purchasing guns and arming teachers.
The only thing Republicans and Democrats roundly agree upon is that mentally ill people should not be able to purchase guns, although lawmakers said this week that they are close to a compromise deal in the wake of Uvalde.
Part of the difference between the two countries’ response to gun violence is structural.
As Max Fisher wrote recently for The New York Times, Canada’s parliamentary system gives Prime Minister Justin Trudeau more leverage than President Joe Biden has. “If Mr. Trudeau wants to pass a new law, he must merely ask his subordinates in his party and their allies to do it. There is no such thing as divided government and less cross-party horse-trading and legislative gridlock.”
Fisher goes on to say that “Canada is similar to what the United States would be if it had only a House of Representatives, whose speaker also oversaw federal agencies and foreign policy.”
To be sure, witnessing the ongoing tragedy of American gun politics courtside has likely pushed many Canadians away from any fence-sitting on the issue. The social discomfort with firearms has permitted Canadian lawmakers to move expeditiously in the wake of tragedy. Following the 1989 targeting of female university students in Montreal, Canada passed the Firearms Act, laying out rules involving licensing and registration of guns.
After the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the country outlawed the AR-15 rifle and some 1,500 other models of assault-style weapons.
And with the horror of Uvalde fresh in mind, Trudeau introduced legislation paving the way for a voluntary buyback program, a national freeze on handgun ownership and new limits on magazine capacities.
This prompted The Wall Street Journal to quip that Trudeau acts like he is running for the U.S. Congress. “He and Democrat Beto O’Rourke could campaign together in Texas,” the Journal’s editorial board said. They are not entirely wrong. Buybacks have questionable efficacy and the root issue of Canadian gun violence — which has been increasing lately —stems from illegal smuggling from the United States.
Still, there is an argument to be made that America should be more like Canada, at least in terms of its responsiveness to atrocity. Trudeau’s move, according to The New York Times, echoes New Zealand’s ban and buyback initiated after the 2019 mosque shootings that claimed the lives of 51 people in Christchurch and it is reminiscent of Australia’s 1996 firearm overhaul following a mass shooting in Port Arthur that killed 35 people.
Using data from the United Nations, German Lopez writes for Vox that America has a gun homicide rate six times that of Canada as well as “more than seven times that of Sweden, and 16 times that of Germany.” The disproportionality goes on. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population yet account for more than 31% of global mass shooters, CNN notes.
This is not a get-stuck-in-the-weeds kind of issue. We don’t have to have esoteric debates about automatic, semi-automatic, clip size and AR-15s to discuss the staggering amount of gun violence in the U.S. From outside your borders, it seems that something unhealthy has metastasized in the American consciousness — fueled more by the lobbying and political strategizing of the current age than the republic’s needs in 1791 when the Second Amendment was passed.
Meanwhile, the solutions to gun violence offered by many conservatives almost never address guns. Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy advocated limiting the number of doors at schools; a columnist for The Federalist encouraged parents to homeschool. Failing to comprehend how comically bad these suggestions are at a time when the U.S. has already experienced 27 school shootings this year tells us there is a deeper problem at play.
Canada isn’t perfect, nor is its parliamentary system, which is prone to policy changes at the whim of “unstable majorities,” as political scientist Lee Drutman noted in The New York Times. But at times when people and events demand that something be done, Canada has responded, however imperfectly. When it comes to gun violence and mass shootings, “Never again” may not be possible. But “never try” isn’t a strategy either.
Ari David Blaff is a Deseret contributing writer and Canadian freelance journalist.