The Modern Issue of Rights in Canada

Neither the Constitution of Canada nor its Charter of Rights and Freedoms make mention of a right to bear arms, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that “Canadians, unlike Americans do not have a constitutional right to bear arms.”

That has not stopped some Canadian gun rights groups from taking a page from the American playbook to argue that the right to bear arms is implicit in the rights inherited from the British constitution. Thus, they say, the 1689 Bill of Rights’ provision that “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law,” is inherent in Canadians’ rights and freedoms.

Neither American nor Canadian gun rights activists seem deterred by the “as allowed by law” clause, or that Great Britain itself has remarkably strict gun laws. To own a handgun in Great Britain, unless you are a member of the armed forces or the police, means obtaining written permission from the Home Secretary. What is allowed by law is rather narrow indeed.

Without an explicit right to bear arms or a Second Amendment corollary, no organization has emerged outside of the United States with the same influence and power as the National Rifle Association. But the NRA is eager to export that influence as much as it can.

The Canadian Shooting Sports Association and its lobbying wing, the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action, get logistical support from the NRA and have adopted American-style rhetoric of a pre-existing individual right to self defense based in the English constitutional tradition.

But whatever help they get from south of the border is complicated by a much different political landscape. Canada’s National Firearms Association gives none of the five major political parties an “A” grade because none of them will support the repeal of the 1995 Firearms Act. All but the Conservative Party get “F” grades because they support further gun control. The Conservatives get a “B” grade, mostly for passing bill C-19, which ended the Long Gun Registry Act in 2012.

The Numbers

The long and acrimonious gun debate does not hide the fact that the U.S. has become an historic anomaly with its record rates of gun ownership and gun death.

There are about as many guns in the United States as there are people (estimates place the number of guns to be between 270 to 310 million), and the rate of gun ownership is estimated to be 88.8 to 101.05 guns per 100 people. Canadians own 10 million guns, or 23.8 per 100 people.

Nobody in the world owns more guns than Americans. In fact, American civilians own one hundred times more guns than the American military. And they possess more guns than are owned by the combined civilian populations of India, China, Germany, France, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil, Russian, Yemen, Thailand, Canada, Iraq, Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Philippines, and Iran.

Americans also kill one another with guns more than any in other western nation. For every 50 Americans intentionally killed with a gun, only one Canadian is shot.

If recent trends continue, somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 people will be murdered with a gun in the United States this year. Compare that to about 195 people in Canada where guns are involved in 35% of all murders. Firearms will be involved in some way in the deaths, intended or accidental, of some 31,500 Americans, but only 780 Canadians. All of this means that the United States’ rate of gun death is approximately 10 per 100,000 people, more than four times higher than Canada.

More Americans see the failure of the mental health system as the best explanation for the nation’s gun massacres than easy access to guns. This perhaps explains in part why during recent years state legislatures have passed a series of laws protecting gun rights and making it easier to purchase, own, and carry guns than ever before.

The other factor is the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 that outright bans of handguns were unconstitutional because they violated the Second Amendment’s protection of an individual right to keep and bear arms for self defense. In McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 the Court incorporated that right against the states. Although you can’t tell from LaPierre’s continued histrionic rhetoric of a corrupted nation teetering on the brink of armed rebellion, the NRA has won and politicians know it.

The Role of Gun Massacres

If Canadian and American access to firearms diverged across the 20th century, and if rates of gun violence also diverged markedly, then the response the two nations have had to gun massacres has differed dramatically as well. Using the FBI’s definition of a mass murder as the murder of four or more people in a single location, in the United States there have been at least 70 mass murders with guns in the past thirty years. Thirty three of them happened between 2006 and 2014. Canada has had eight gun massacres since 1984, two of them between 2006 and 2014.

Canada’s Long Gun Registry Act was in part a response to the 1989 massacre of fourteen women at Montréal’s École Polytechnique. Conservative Justice Minister Kim Campbell introduced its original incarnation, Bill C-80, to Parliament in 1990, as well as its successor, Bill C-17, in May 1991. The Coalition for Gun Control, founded in the wake of the Montréal Massacre, threw its weight behind the Firearms Act that passed Parliament and the Senate later that year and received royal assent in 1995.

In the United States, it was the Columbine Massacre in 1999 that galvanized an intense debate over gun control and a deluge of over 800 state and federal gun control and gun rights bills. Only about 10% of these bills actually became laws. Among the casualties were Congress’ measures for background checks and trigger locks that barely passed the Senate with Al Gore’s tie breaking vote, but which died in the House after repeated amendments.

In keeping with Americans’ view of the crucial role of mental health in gun massacres, President George W. Bush signed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the NICS Improvement Amendments Act in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre of 32 people—the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The NRA supported this beefing up of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which it viewed as a “ reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans.”

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012—the U.S.’s second deadliest mass shooting with 26 killed—sparked a flurry of state legislation similar to the aftermath of Columbine.

When the dust settled, 109 of the bills became law. 70 loosened gun restrictions, and 39 tightened them.

With Congress unable to pass any legislation, President Obama issued a 23 step plan in 2013 to curb gun violence. His proposals will require a mix of Congressional and executive action, so it seems likely that very little will actually get done. Obama’s hope that Congress will reinstate the assault weapons ban ignores at least the past 30 years of the great American gun debate.

A Look Forward

Predicting the future is tricky business, especially since history can often be an unreliable guide. That said, it seems likely that the United States and Canada will continue on their divergent paths. Part of this divergence is due to the fact that the regulatory state that emerged in Canada after World War II continues to assert a level of control that remains unpalatable to many Americans.

The complicated and contentious legacy of American slavery provides a second point of divergence, to which can be added a homicide rate that was always at least double that of Canada’s throughout the twentieth century and at times was up to five times higher.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Canada and the U.S. is the success of the NRA to control the meaning of the Second Amendment and thereby thwart gun control laws even in the face of horrific gun massacres.

If Sandy Hook could not bring about even tepid gun control measures, let alone anything even barely resembling the laws in Canada, then it is hard to imagine that any atrocity could galvanize action.

At the same time, in Canada, even with the Conservative Party in power, it seems unlikely that the legislature or the courts will embrace an individual right to bear arms anytime soon. After all, it appears that those who want concealed carry (which is the latest frontier for gun rights in the U.S.) are more interested in killing bears than in a right to bear arms.