Ottawa undoing progress made in wake of Polytechnique massacre

Posted on December 5, 2014 in Child & Family Debates – Opinion/Commentary – Twenty-five years after 14 young women were killed at a Montreal college, Ottawa is undoing much of the progress made on gun control since that tragic event.
Dec 05 2014.   By: Wendy Cukier

It is hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the Montreal massacre. Sadly, a quarter of a century since what should have been a pivotal moment in the history of Canadian gun control, we are hardly farther along than we were on the day of that tragic shooting.

While much progress was made in the years after the event, we are now fighting to stop the troubling undoing of those gains and even to keep the very minimal controls that were in place at the time of the massacre.

Like many Canadians, I remember my horror and anger and disbelief as if it was yesterday. A man with a powerful semi-automatic Ruger Mini-14 walked into l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, separated the male and female students and shouted “You are all a bunch of damned feminists.” He shot 27 people, killing 14 young women.

Many Canadians believe gun control has long been a core value that separates us from the U.S., but in 1989 a 16-year-old could obtain, for $10 and with virtually no screening, a firearms acquisition certificate that allowed him to buy as many unrestricted rifles and shotguns as he wanted.

Apart from point-of-sale records, there was no information about who owned these guns and no way to trace them. Astonishingly we were selling military weapons to civilians. At that time about 3,200 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents every year. As a result, we had extensive layers of regulation and strategies to keep our roads safe. But even though more than 1,300 people were dying of gunshots annually — in murders, suicides and unintentional shootings — little was being done.

Working with the students of the Polytechnique, families of gun violence victims, women’s groups, police, public health, community, labour organizations, and others, the Coalition for Gun Control helped strengthen Canada’s laws in the aftermath of the shooting.

Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell introduced legislation in 1991 that reduced the risk that dangerous people would have access to guns, as did former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock in 1995. They improved screening, introduced licensing for gun owners and registration of all firearms, strengthened safe storage regulations and banned semi-automatic military weapons.

But in the years since it has been painful to watch those laws get dismantled, even as devastating gun violence persists. The repeal of registration and the elimination of the law that gun sales be recorded at the point of sale make tracing guns harder. And in 2012, with an unbelievably destructive stroke of the pen, the records on more than 5 million registered firearms were destroyed. Canada has gone from being a global leader to lagging behind the U.S. in measures to combat the illegal gun trade.

And there is more to come. Bill C-42, currently before the House of Commons, will further relax controls on handguns and make decisions about the classification of military weapons the purview of politicians rather than police.

The evidence is clear: stronger controls on firearms save lives. While the vast majority of Canadians support gun control, they have not prevented a vocal minority from hijacking the public agenda. We knew about the NRA, but none of us believed the gun lobby could exercise so much influence in Canada. Many politicians have abandoned principles to chase the votes of people who will never support them. And we have seen unprecedented political interference when the police try to enforce gun laws.

Although many features of gun control have been gutted, important measures remain intact. Gun owners still need licenses, must store their guns safely, and some military weapons are banned. The benefits of these policies, and the residual dividends of the legislation passed in the 90s, are undeniable.

Homicides in Canada are the lowest they have been in more than 25 years. Murders with rifles and shotguns have plummeted from 103 in 1991 to 31 in 2013. Murders of women with guns have fallen from 85 to 29. Suicides with firearms and robberies with firearms have dropped significantly and faster than those without guns. In 2011, less than half as many Canadians were killed with guns than in 1989.

Will Ottawa insist on continuing to dismantle all the life-saving work done in the wake of the Polytechnique tragedy?

Thankfully, many are working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen. Many of the groups and individuals who helped found the coalition are still fighting for stronger gun laws. The police continue to insist that the government must ban military weapons. And some of our political leaders are stepping up — doing the right thing even if it is not the easy thing to do.

Perhaps most encouraging is the emergence of the next generation of gun control activists. Generation Action is engaging young people in the issue, building their own campaigns in social media and the Twitterverse. Time is definitely on their side.

On this 25th anniversary we must remember the terrible costs of gun violence. We must remember and name the victims. We must recognize those who continue the work. We must “first mourn, then work for change.”

Wendy Cukier is co-founder and president of the Coalition for Gun Control, a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and co-author of The Global Gun Epidemic.

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