PARLIAMENT HILL—Some Canadian MPs offered measured criticism of U.S. gun laws in the wake of the shooting rampage at a country music festival in Las Vegas Oct. 1 that left 59 people dead and 489 wounded, saying the incident illustrates the differences between the countries’ respective gun cultures, though opting to stay out of what’s a domestic political debate.
In the aftermath of the shooting, which also left four Canadians dead, The Hill Times reached out to MPs with public safety backgrounds from all three major parties to solicit their opinions on U.S. gun laws.
Most lawmakers reached for comment were careful not to lecture Americans on what they should do when it comes to regulating guns, though NDP MP Matthew Dubé (Chambly-Borduas, Que.) said it’s time the U.S. acknowledge it has a problem with firearms.
“I think it’s safe to say that when we see horrible tragedies like the one we saw in Las Vegas, something is not working for them,” Mr. Dubé, vice-chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said in an interview.
“When you have someone who can obtain those weapons, and in that quantity, it’s certainly something that’s concerning and I hope the political leaders acknowledge that they’re living in an unsustainable situation when it comes to gun violence.”
Mr. Dubé was referring to the arsenal of weapons—at least 23 guns in total—found in the hotel room of last Sunday’s shooting suspect, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock. Among the firearms found were AR-15-type assault rifles, the semi-automatic civilian equivalent of rifles used by the United States military. The same rifle variant was used in last year’s Orlando nightclub shooting, the 2015 San Bernardino shootings, and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School killings.
Conservative MP and onetime party leadership hopeful Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) told The Hill Times that the gun control debate is “best left for the United States,” but incidents like the Las Vegas shooting “reminds people that we have a very different system of regulating, licensing, and controlling weapons in Canada.”
“They have to decide when they talk about this. I know, there’s been several members of Congress bringing it up. That’s for them to decide,” said Mr. O’Toole, opposition critic for foreign affairs and vice-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is also a former veterans affairs minister, a former member of the House Public Safety Committee, and a former officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Liberal MP Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.), the parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, also deferred judgment to the Americans, saying it’s “up to their legislators and their society.”
“I would simply acknowledge that Canada has a very well-regulated system of responsible gun ownership which I think encourages Canadians who own guns to do so responsibly,” said Mr. Blair, a former Toronto Police chief, in the Commons foyer last week.
“There are clearly more guns and in particular handguns and more powerful guns [in the United States],” Mr. Blair said. “Many of the weapons that have been used in these types of horrific events in other parts of the world are not readily available in this country.”
How gun laws differ across the border
American gun laws are overall much less restrictive than Canadian gun laws, although there is a patchwork of state laws requiring background checks, registrations and permits, and in some cases restricting the open carrying of firearms in public and the sale of assault weapons.
But since gun control varies state-by-state, interstate movement of weapons is frequent, making it difficult for local law enforcement officials to reduce the number of weapons.
Federal laws in the U.S. ban the sale of automatic weapons and require background checks for individuals purchasing guns from a private dealer. However, a loophole allows individuals to purchase weapons from gun shows, which are considered “secondary dealers,” without background checks.
In Canada, though, all gun owners are required to posses a valid firearms licence. In order to obtain a licence, individuals must have their background and criminal record screened, undergo mandatory safety training, require personal references, and sit through a mandatory waiting period.
Gun rules are federally mandated and uniform across all provinces and territories. Concealed carrying is generally restricted unless authorized for purposes such as hunting and law enforcement. Large handguns, short-barrelled shotguns, and automatic weapons are all prohibited in Canada, while most handguns are listed as restricted, meaning that they require a proper license and registration.
“Guns can flow from unregulated places to regulated places,” said Ryerson University professor Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, a Canadian advocacy group. “American gun policy is fragmented and relatively weak. The influence of the gun lobby has been massive and as a result, they’ve been unable to pass even modest improvements.”
Can Canadian legislators influence their counterparts south of the border?
When asked, Mr. O’Toole said he didn’t believe Canadian lawmakers can influence Americans on their gun laws, and that the gun cultures in the two countries are profoundly different.
“The U.S. Constitution has provisions in it with respect to firearms ownership. We don’t have that in Canada, we’ve evolved to make sure that we have a fair and effective system to regulate, train and licence,” he said, referring to the Second Amendment in the American Constitution, which enshrines the legal right to bear arms.
“It’s another example of just the different history of our countries. Canada is a country of evolution, not revolution.”
Mr. Dubé said Canadians should always be careful when discussing another country’s domestic issues, but in light of the mass shootings, it’s “appropriate to at least raise it when Canadians are also losing their lives.”
Four Canadians were among the 59 people killed in the Las Vegas shooting.
“I’m sure most [U.S. legislators] would be open to hearing what we have to say,” he said.
“It’s hard to speculate on those kinds of things, but if I was approached by an American legislator about an issue of domestic politics, quite frankly, that would not be something that would sway me all that much.”
Mr. Dubé added that U.S. President Donald Trump needs to show better leadership in response to these sort of events.
Asked about the flow of weapons into the Canada, Mr. Blair said Canadians and Americans can work together to reduce the number of firearms illegally transported across the border. For example, he said law enforcement on both sides share enforcement strategies and often co-operate to find the source of gun smuggling operations.
He said that during his tenure as Toronto’s police chief, he found that most of the firearms crossing into Canada originated in the United States, although today about half originate in Canada.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a relatively easy and profitable thing to do,” he said of bringing guns into Canada.
“An individual throwing a couple [guns] in the trunk of a car—and because of the amount of people who cross the border every day—[it makes it] a very difficult thing to interdict at the border.”
The Liberal government has promised to provide $100-million annually to the provinces and territories to help local police departments to take illegal guns off the street, reduce gang violence, and invest in new technology at border crossings to enhance border guards’ ability to detect and stem the flow of illegal guns crossing into Canada.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Wascana, Sask.) said last week the government would table gun control legislation by the end of the year.
Acknowledging the dire task of law enforcement in investigating mass shootings, Mr. Blair said he is sure there will be a “careful examination on how that individual came to have those firearms in [his] possession and to look to see if there was any possible way in which law enforcement authorities might have been able to intervene to prevent that from happening.”
“You have to learn lessons from tragedy and everyone will try to learn how to prevent [more mass shootings] and the most appropriate way to respond.”
Rod Giltaca, president of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said that Americans have coded firearm rights that allow them the right to also defend themselves by the ability to freely carry firearms.
“The U.S., they do some things better than they we do in Canada, and they do some things not as well,” he said, citing the patchwork of rules differing from state to state. “But in the U.S. people are allowed to have guns to protect themselves from assault, rape and murder.”
While many have shined a light on automatic weapons in the wake of mass shootings, Mr. Giltaca said he believes there is nothing lawmakers can do to gun laws that can reduce mass shootings.
The Hill Times
Canadian pundits tackle guns in America
In the aftermath of the deadly attack in Las Vegas, several prominent Canadian columnists and observers weighed in on the nature and impact of gun culture and gun laws south of the border.
“Most Americans think machine-guns are one of the few weapons that are still illegal in their country. In some states, they are. And federal law does prohibit a civilian from owning one, or at least one manufactured before 1986, because, what, the pre-1986 ones are less deadly than the 1987 ones?”
“Doesn’t matter. Just know that in Nevada, the next gambler walking into the casino where you’re enjoying a drink might be angry, or crazy, and carrying a machine-gun. Legally.”—CBC journalist Neil MacDonald on Oct. 2
“As in the aftermath of Sandy Hook or Orlando, you might hope that this latest horror would slap some sense into the stubborn and the obtuse. The gun lobby’s arguments are emptier than ever. No good guy with a concealed handgun could hope to take out a shooter firing from behind cover at 365 metres. Neither does Las Vegas prove the futility of gun control.”—A.J. Somerset, author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, writing in The Globe and Mail on Oct. 5
“In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, there’s a lot of talk in Washington about not politicizing this horror. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, had purchased and carried at least 18 concealed weapons into his hotel room. No matter. The idea was, let’s not raise the matter of the permissiveness of the country’s gun laws.” —The Globe columnist Lawrence Martin on Oct. 2
“The Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to bear arms and the intent was aimed at raising a ‘regulated’ militia. It doesn’t guarantee the right to semi-automatic weapons, to high-powered rifles, to personal arsenals such as the 48 guns that the Vegas shooter possessed.”
“This is NRA-generated hokum. Such bristling caches are not for the purpose of self-defence.”—The Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno on Oct. 3