WHEN A MAN with a rifle charged into Canada’s parliament in 2014, Michelle Rempel, a Conservative politician, was among the people who fled from a caucus room as gunfire rang out around them. Security guards killed the intruder, who had shot a sentry outside.
Deeply unsettled by the attack, Ms Rempel pondered a friend’s claim that a ban on guns could have prevented it. She delved into regulations, studied crime data and came to an unexpected conclusion. The young politician from Alberta bought a handgun, joined a sports-shooting club and became Canada’s most prominent proponent of gun ownership—as a responsible pastime, she says.
Ms Rempel is at the forefront of a debate that has gained urgency. In July a gunman killed an 18-year-old woman and a ten-year-old girl, and wounded 13 other people, on a shopping street in Toronto. In 2017 a bigot killed six worshippers and injured 19 at a mosque in Quebec City.
City councils in Toronto and Montreal have asked the federal government, which regulates firearms, to ban all handguns and assault rifles. Justin Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister, instructed Bill Blair, a security minister, to examine a “full ban”. The former police chief is consulting Canadians. At the same time, Parliament is considering a bill, C-71, that would tighten background checks and record-keeping. The argument over these proposals will help to shape the parliamentary election due in October 2019.
Canada’s gun debate differs from that in the United States. Canadians, unlike Americans, have no constitutional right to bear arms. Sales and possession of firearms are permitted but tightly restricted. Buyers must undergo background checks, take safety courses and get a separate permit to transport firearms. The process often takes months. The purchase of a gun for self-defence is allowed only if buyers can show that the police cannot protect them. Canada has issued just two such permits.
Despite these obstacles, Canada has the fifth-highest rate of gun ownership among 56 countries: 34.7 per 100 people, according to the Small Arms Survey, based in Geneva. That is far behind the United States’ rate of 120.5 but higher than that of Germany, France and Mexico. Ranked by the number of deaths from firearms as a share of the population, Canada is 107th among 195 countries, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle. (The United States is 20th.)
Yet Canada’s discussion of guns is becoming more American. Horrors like the killings on November 7th of 13 people in Thousand Oaks, California, and of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th receive saturation coverage. Pro-gun Canadians use arguments honed in the United States, including, increasingly, the need to own them for self-defence. Anti-gun activists point to American shootings as an argument for enacting a ban.
Groups representing Canada’s 2.2m licensed gun owners say regulations on buying, storing and transporting firearms are tight enough. Further restrictions would not make the public safer, says Tracey Wilson of the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights, the only registered gun lobbyist (the United States has more than 11,000). Ms Rempel, who was minister in charge of economic diversification in western Canada when Parliament was attacked, has said that the police background check required for her to obtain a licence was more thorough than the vetting she underwent to join the cabinet. She waited a year for approval. “You can ban my sports-shooting equipment, but that is not going to take the handguns being used in violent crime off the street,” says Ms Rempel.
Some law-enforcement officials agree. Brenda Lucki, who as commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is the country’s top cop, is not sure a ban is the answer. The head of the Toronto police union says a handgun ban would have little impact on criminals. Canada has no national data on the origin of guns used to commit crimes. So police cannot tell how many are smuggled in from the United States and how many are bought or stolen within Canada.
Gun owners say it is they who are being treated like criminals. Farmers, who use rifles to shoot pests and predators, are especially aggrieved. Although the proposed ban would probably apply just to handguns and assault rifles, farmers fear it would lead to more restrictions. They see the anti-gun campaign as an example of “downtown elites lecturing them”, says Darrell Bricker of IPSOS, a pollster.
When Canadians see a gun in a film, on television or in the news it is usually being used to commit a crime, frets Nicolas Johnson, a hunter who writes TheGunBlog. “We as a community have done a really bad job in terms of communicating this is a legitimate, safe, common activity,” he says. Gun-owners are trying to improve their image. Ms Wilson’s group publishes a Gunnie Girl calendar showing women hunting and shooting for sport.
That does not impress prohibitionists. Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, says arguments in favour of gun rights are American imports with no basis in Canadian law. Canadians can buy the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle used by mass murderers in the United States, she points out. Her group, created after a gunman killed 14 female students in Montreal in 1989, is lobbying to make the proposed C-71 bill more restrictive as well as to impose a ban. She has received death threats, including a picture of her face with a target superimposed on it.
Like Republicans in the United States, Canada’s opposition Conservative Party gets strong support from rural districts. The last Conservative government, which left office in 2015, ended a firearms registry set up by a Liberal one. Ms Rempel sponsored an electronic petition on October 11th calling on the government to scrap C-71 and the proposed ban, and to respect “law-abiding” Canadians. More than 28,000 people have signed it.
The two parties are already testing anti-crime arguments for next year’s vote. On November 8th the Liberal government announced C$86m ($65m) of extra spending on border security and intelligence to fight gangs and gun crime. The Conservatives want to lengthen jail terms for gang members and make it harder for them to be released on bail or obtain parole.
The Liberals’ clampdown on gun ownership may give them an edge. A poll conducted this year, before the shooting in Toronto, found that most Canadians support a handgun ban. An even bigger group wants to outlaw assault rifles like the AR-15. Mr Blair plans to continue his consultations until the end of 2018, which means that Parliament will debate the ban next year. So Canadians are likely to be talking about guns as they prepare to vote. Mr Trudeau, who hopes to be re-elected, will probably welcome that.