REALITY CHECK: John Gray
The revamped law and order debate
September 18, 2006
Until last Wednesday afternoon, it seemed as though Parliament was destined to spend much of the autumn in a not terribly edifying debate about guns and crime and what to do about them.
The broad outlines of the debate were already clear enough. Justice Minister Vic Toews has spent the last few months touring the country as the government's champion of law and order, the paladin of uncomplicated, retributive justice. Lock the criminals in jail and keep them there. Enough of liberal molly-coddling.
"Canadians are fed up with the soft approach to crime that has been taken for so long. They want their government to get tough on criminals and send a clear message that violence will not be tolerated in our communities …
"I believe that violent offenders deserve more than a slap on the wrist. People who commit serious crimes deserve a harsher penalty than sitting back and enjoying the comforts of home."
There was no surprise in what Toews had to say. Stephen Harper relied heavily on law and order in last winter's election campaign and Harper and Toews have continued their rhetoric in the subsequent months.
Tackling crime remains one of the government's top priorities, and as a political message it has the immense attraction of being unarguably clear and simple. After all, who is not in favour of law and order? Is there anyone who wants armed gangs roaming the streets?
The gun-control debate
The Harper-Toews message was clear enough a year ago, and later during the election campaign, when an explosion of gang violence on the streets of Toronto seemed suddenly to become a critical national problem. But for now the Toronto crisis seems to have diminished, without the sanction of tough new laws from the tough new government.
As for the famous gun registry, the politics of that became hopelessly confused. With their promise to abolish the registry, the Conservatives made themselves the champions of decent law-abiding long gun owners like farmers and duck hunters who were beset by a gun registry that was bureaucracy gone crazy. Even the Liberals found it hard to justify a $2-million scheme that turned into a $1-billion disaster.
On the face of it, there was an odd contradiction. The law-and-order guys wanted to loosen the restrictions on long guns at the same time as they were vowing to get guns off the street.
The politics of the gun registry — and, therefore, of the whole law-and-order debate — became even more confused and uncertain last Wednesday when an apparently demented gunman walked up to Dawson College in Montreal and began shooting wildly at anyone who moved.
Legislation to establish a long gun registry was largely a response to the murder of 14 women at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 by a similarly demented man. Obviously, as Prime Minister Harper observed, the gun registry such as it is did not stop Wednesday's shooting. But is it rational to think that one could avert the danger of further shootings in the future by abolishing the registry? Clearly not.
For Harper, this is a problem. He has a large constituency that wants to get rid of the gun registry — the core of his hardline supporters in Western Canada and those law-abiding long gun owners like farmers and duck hunters of whom his justice minister talks so frequently.
On the other side, the polls suggest that most people in Ontario and Quebec find themselves, however reluctantly, on the side of the beleaguered gun registry. Whatever the cost has been, it seems to make little sense to get rid of an agency that is regarded by Canada's police forces, at least, as a valuable tool in combating dangerous criminals.
The difficulty with thinking about the Dawson College rampage — and it is a difficulty that will bedevil parliamentarians as much as it confuses ordinary citizens — is that it makes no sense.
Fear of retribution
The theory of law and order is that those who might be tempted to rob or kill will be dissuaded from doing so by the fear of retribution. If you commit a crime, you will be caught and punished. Yet it is hard to believe that such thoughts ever crossed the mind of Kimveer Gill. How do you build a legal system on the threat of retribution if that's never a consideration?
As for the gun registry, that is where the politics becomes sticky for the prime minister. His is a minority government, but the Bloc Québécois is solidly supportive of the gun registry, as are most of the Liberals and New Democrats.
In the wake of the carnage at Dawson College, it is hard to imagine any of the opposition parties voting to abolish it. Quebec Premier Jean Charest added to Harper's difficulties by declaring himself totally opposed to the prime minister's plan to abolish the registry.
The Conservative government may get its law-and-order package through Parliament, but the abolition of the gun registry may not be part of that package.