Evidence-based policy needed on gun control

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 28, 2020.

As the Conservative Party of Canada lurches its way to choosing a new leader in August, many are asking what it means to be a conservative, especially an urban conservative.

As party members consider that question, along with what it means to be all different kinds of conservatives, the candidates for leader are being asked how they will create a “big blue tent” large enough for us all.

And no discussion tests the edges of that tent more the issue of guns.

Full disclosure: As Gloria Gaynor famously sang, “I am what I am,” and what I am is an urban, high-rise-living, office-tower-working, gay grandfather whose only connection to guns is through the fake ones we made when we played cops and robbers.

I openly admit that I exist in a place where the idea of gun ownership is remote for me and most of my friends.

And yet, I understand that many others see this issue very differently; that guns mean different things to different people in different parts of this vast country of ours.

I get all that. But here is what I don’t get.

I don’t get our collective reticence, Liberals and Conservatives and others alike, to try something radically different to deal with what is, on the evidence, a growing —growing-out-of-control — problem.

How many times will we have to witness another tragedy liked the one in mid-April when a mass shooter embarked on a 13-hour shooting spree across Nova Scotia?

By the time his attack was over, 23 innocent Canadians who had only the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time had lost their lives. Police recovered five firearms from the suspect’s vehicle: two semiautomatic handguns, two semiautomatic rifles (including a military-style assault rifle), and a Smith & Wesson service pistol lifted off the late RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson.

This horrific event was not, it seems, horrific enough to force a call for a public inquiry into the worst mass shooting in Canadian history. The result? Canadians were left with a great many questions about the shooter and the RCMP’s haphazard response.

The event did, at long last, push Ottawa’s Liberal government to usher through a ban on certain models of semiautomatic rifles.

While applauded by many as a sensible start, it was yet another example of a sad lack of evidence-based policy-making at work when it comes to gun control.

By amending the Criminal Code to ban some of the most popular and well-known models of semi-automatic rifles, including two of the specific types of guns used by the shooter in Nova Scotia, the government took what could, at best, be described as baby steps.

But, in doing so, the government did not bother to ban all semi-automatic rifles — just the ones like the AR-15 that Liberal voters would likely recognize from reading about other mass shootings.

This action seems, to me, to be at odds with what you would expect from a government serious about addressing gun violence, or introducing evidence-based gun control.

Under similar circumstances, Australia took a different approach and introduced a blanket ban. After all, most Canadians who die from gun violence are shot by handguns.

So here is the contradiction. The Trudeau government has won praise from most corners for their evidence-based handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Why not bring that approach to gun control? After all, many thoughtful doctors consider guns to be a significant public health risk.

Instead, by privileging optics over substance, the government’s latest foray into gun control has further politicized the issue.

And in so doing, it may have missed the proverbial boat as a story of another shooting out of California this week described how an ex-con used a “ghost gun” — a home-made assemblage, compiled by ordering the various parts online and assembling a fully functional weapon with no serial number and no oversight.

Whether or not we agree with each other at the starting point of this debate, it is clear that familiar tragedies are now combining with tragedies unimagined to test the mettle of governments. It is also clear that the time has come to put our own biases aside in favour of an evidence-based approach to this crisis.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt