It was 2015 and another mass shooting in the U.S. that left 16 people dead in San Bernardino had thrown the spotlight for the second time in one week in the ongoing American tragedy of gun violence.
And a review of 2015’s year-to-date total for firearms-related deaths in the U.S. shows that as of Dec. 3, the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) has already recorded 12,236 deaths and a further 24,755 injuries from shootings. This casualty toll includes 640 children aged 0-11 killed or injured by guns.
Not all these deaths were straight-up homicides. The GVA recorded 1,749 accidental shootings, 1,131 cases of ‘defensive use’, 4,028 incidents involving police, and 2,081 home invasions.
309 deaths were a result of mass shootings.
According to a StatsCan report from 2012 – the most recent year available – the U.S. suffered a total of 8,813 murders involving the use of firearms that year. Canada, in the same year, recorded just 172 firearms-related homicides.
“When looking at firearm-related homicide rates in comparable countries, Canada’s rate is about seven times lower than that of the United States (3.5 per 100,000 population), although it is higher than several other peer countries. While Canada’s firearm-related homicide rate is similar to those in Ireland and Switzerland, it is significantly higher than the rates in Japan (0.01 per 100,000 population) and the United Kingdom (0.06 per 100,000 population),” states StatsCan’s findings, which do not include Quebec figures.
Presently, Canadian law classifies firearms into three categories: prohibited, restricted, and non-restricted. Prohibited firearms include military-grade assault weapons such as AK-47s and sawn-off rifles or shotguns. Handguns are generally classified as restricted weapons, while rifles and shotguns are usually non-restricted. The AR-15 rifles used by the San Bernardino suspects is classified as restricted.
Anyone wishing to buy a gun in Canada and/or ammunition must have a valid licence under the Firearms Act. To obtain a firearms licence, all applicants must undergo a screening process, which includes a safety course, criminal history and background checks, provision of personal references, and a mandatory waiting period.
But Canada’s relatively tight firearms laws were loosened when then PM-Stephen Harper scrapped the federal Long Gun Registry. While in existence from 1993 – 2012, the registry was a centralized RCMP database that linked all guns with their respective owners.
The Conservatives scrapped the database as they saw it as ineffective at reducing crime, targeting law-abiding gun owners instead of criminals, who typically don't register their weapons. However, Canadian police and victims groups fought hard to keep it, partly because it helped authorities evaluate potential safety threats when police officers attended potential criminal incidents.
Law of the gun
Even with the Long Gun Registry’s destruction, Canadian firearms laws are still much tougher than those in the U.S., which allowed the San Bernardino shooters to access assault rifles usually reserved for trained soldiers.
Unlike any other industrialized country, the right to bear arms was declared a constitutionally-enshrined right in America, when the nation first came into being in the late 1700s. In modern times, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has poured millions of dollars into political campaigns, ensuring that gun laws remain lax.
As a result, there are now roughly 300 million firearms in the U.S. according to some estimates, nearly one per person in a country of 319 million people. By contrast, Canada had approximately seven million registered firearms at the end of 2011, in a country of roughly 35 million people. Even if Canada had the same population as the U.S., this number would still only work out to about 70 million weapons. The Small Arms Survey estimates that there are 270 million firearms in America, which still works out to 89 guns per 100 people, ranking America as the world's number one country for firearms ownership.
And buying a gun is much easier south of the border: background checks through the FBI database are only required for in-store purchases. Even then, it’s a relatively straightforward procedure of filling out an in-store form asking if the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime or committed to a mental institution, among other questions. The store then makes a quick call to the FBI and the whole process can be completed in minutes. Denials are rare, amounting to less than 1 per cent.
Anyone wishing to dodge even a cursory federal background check can simply buy weapons from gun shows, or from friends, family, and neighbours in private sales, according to CNN. The Democrats did try eliminating the gun show loophole in 2013, but the attempt failed to pass in a Republican-dominated Congress.
However, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have rolled out their own background checks, applicable to private sales and gun shows, to try and stop weapons from falling onto the wrong hands. These include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington State, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, and North Carolina.
It was loopholes and lax checks that allowed racist gunman Dylan Roof to obtain the weapon that he then used to carry out a massacre of worshippers at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Despite being arrested for drug possession and trespassing – and had also displayed racist imagery on Facebook – he still met the legal requirements for buying a weapon.
Unlike the Deep South, where Roof claimed his victims, California has America’s strictest gun laws. This means that prospective gun owners must hold a Firearms Safety Certificate, submit to a waiting period like in Canada, buy weapons only through licensed dealers, and possess only a ‘California legal’ gun that complies with restrictions on what can and cannot be sold inside the state.
But these laws did not stop suspected San Bernardino shooters Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook from allegedly obtaining AR-15 assault rifles, civilian variants of the M-16, standard infantry weapon of the U.S. military since Vietnam.
According to the New York Times, San Bernardino police said that the suspects’ guns included four ‘high-capacity’ magazines and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
What does this mean for Canada’s gun laws?
In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, neither the Canadian government nor its federal opponents had much to say on America’s chronic problem with gun crime. Nor is there yet any indication of how this most recent shooting south of the border may impact firearm laws in Canada.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of San Bernardino tonight as they come to grips with today’s terrible tragedy,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a tweet on Dec. 2.
However, the Liberals did promise during the election to tighten up gun laws that were eased under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The proposed measures include enhanced background checks for anyone seeking to buy a handgun or other restricted firearms and toughen up border security to prevent the illegal import of weapons from the U.S.
The Trudeau Liberals have also promised to repeal changes made by Conservative-era Bill C-42 that they say allows restricted and prohibited weapons to be freely transported without a permit.
But the Liberals’ promises stopped short of re-introducing the Long Gun Registry scrapped by Harper just over three years ago.