Why Ottawa is hedging when it comes to handguns

A weekend of extreme violence in Toronto has renewed calls for a national ban on handguns. But the federal Liberals are deferring action until after the fall election.

Government is weighing the results of last year's consultations on tougher gun control measures, minister says

The proliferation of handguns on Canada's streets, like these 25 weapons seized by Toronto Police in February, 2018, has led to calls for a national ban. (Toronto Police Service)

A weekend of violence in Canada's largest city has led to renewed calls for a ban on the sale and possession of handguns, but the federal Liberals say that no such action will be taken until after the fall election.

In an interview Tuesday with CBC's Power & Politics, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government is weighing the results of last year's public consultations on tougher gun control measures and will put forward its proposals as part of the upcoming campaign.

"It's appropriate for the political parties to lay out for Canadians where they would go with this particular issue," said Goodale, noting that any legislative changes will have to wait for Parliament's return.

Toronto city council first asked Ottawa to enact a handgun ban more than a year ago in the wake of a shooting spree in the Danforth neighbourhood that killed two people and injured 13 others. The request was repeated in June after a shooting incident during Toronto Raptors' victory celebration wounded four people. And it was made again this past holiday weekend, after 14 separate shootings injured 17 people across the city — a spasm of violence that Toronto Mayor John Tory described as "heartbreaking."

Similar calls have come from municipal politicians in Montreal and Ottawa.

Polls suggest there is broad support for a prohibition on the ownership of certain types of firearms.

Last month, a Forum Research survey of 1,143 Toronto voters found that a majority of respondents — 62 per cent — expressed a belief that a handgun ban would reduce the number of gang shootings in the city.

And a national Angus Reid Institute poll in May found 61 per cent of respondents supported making it illegal for civilians to own a handgun — with 75 per cent in favour of a similar ban on all assault weapons. Two-thirds of respondents said they agreed with the idea of a taxpayer-funded buyback program to compensate gun owners if such bans were enacted.

But that may not be where the Liberals are heading.

Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair, who was charged with overseeing the public consultations, more or less outlined the government's thinking in a series of media interviews in June.

He signalled that he was in favour of a national ban on assault-style weapons, but not handguns, citing both the high cost of compensating owners — an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion — and the challenge of making it work.

"It would not, in my opinion, be perhaps the most effective measure in restricting the access that criminals would have to such weapons, because we'd still have a problem with them being smuggled across the border," the former Toronto police chief told the Globe and Mail.

In a series of interviews last June, Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair signalled he was in favour of a national ban on assault-style weapons, but not on handguns. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What Ottawa seems to be preparing to do is create some legislative framework to allow major cities to enact local gun control measures on things like the sale, storage or transportation of handguns.

How that will work exactly remains to be seen, particularly in Ontario, where the Premier Doug Ford has already rejected the idea of a ban in Toronto, saying it would punish law-abiding gun owners rather than criminals.

According to data from Statistics Canada, handguns were used in 59 per cent of all violent gun crimes in 2017, while a rifle or a shotgun was used in 17 per cent of the reported offences, and a fully automatic firearm or a sawed-off shotgun or rifle, in six per cent.

Who would be affected by a handgun ban?

But questions remain about whether banning handguns would help solve crime and gang problems. 

A briefing note on the national consultations, released last fall by Public Safety Canada, said that a ban would "primarily affect" collectors and sport shooters who own most of the country's 900,000 registered handguns, while having only an "indirect" impact on the illicit market by reducing the number of weapons that could be potentially diverted or stolen.

The report also suggests that the evidence on the effectiveness of gun bans remains inconclusive. 

"In all cases, the data does not conclusively demonstrate that these handgun or assault weapon bans have led to reductions in gun violence, though some studies drew other conclusions," it said. "The variation in study results reflects the fact that patterns of gun violence are influenced by many factors and the impact cannot be attributed to one factor."

Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University, says while there are many "laudable" reasons for favouring a handgun ban, he questions whether it would actually do anything to solve Toronto's current problems.

"If the objective is to curb gang gun violence, a ban is not going to do a whole lot," he said. "A lot of these guns are being illicitly brought across the U.S. border.… The challenge is that we live next to the largest weapons market in the world."

Leuprecht instead advocates for more resources to help police focus on criminal gun networks, as well as tougher penalties for firearms owners who sell or fail to securely store their legally purchased weapons.

A total of 14 separate shootings injured 17 people across Toronto this past holiday long weekend, including one in the city's affluent Bridle Path neighbourhood. It is believed this shooting occurred while the home was being rented as an Airbnb. (CBC)

Canada needs to learn from its neighbour's failings and ban handguns before it's too late, argues Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist who heads the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"I grew up in the States during the worst period of urban violence; I saw America's great cities turn into killing fields," he said. "Things can go bad — and fast."

While Toronto and other large Canadian cities still aren't experiencing the levels of gun violence seen in places like Chicago or Los Angeles, Florida said the country is now on that trajectory, with the shootings no longer contained to less-advantaged neighbourhoods.

"We need to get ahead of this. We need to ban handguns," he said. "Why does anyone need to carry a handgun in our cities?"

Handgun or assault weapon bans may not provide an immediate solution to gun violence, but there is evidence that reducing the number of weapons on the streets and in homes can have a net societal benefit. 

A 2010 study of the Australian gun ban and buyback that followed the 1996 massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania that killed 35 people and wounded 23 others found that removing 650,000 weapons from circulation led to an almost 80 per cent drop in firearm suicide rates, and a 35 to 50 per cent reduction in gun homicide rates.

Per capita gun ownership in Australia remains almost 25 per cent lower than it was in the mid-1990s, though the overall number of weapons in the hands of the country's civilians has steadily crept back up over the decades and now surpasses the pre-Port Arthur figures

The latest edition of the global Small Arms Survey, which is financed in part by the Australian government, estimates that Canada has a total of 12.7 million legal and illegal firearms in civilian hands, tying us with France for the 11th most guns in the world. Canada's per capita gun ownership of 34.7 weapons per 100 people ranks fifth overall. 

Our next door neighbour, the United States, is number one in both quantity, with an estimated 393.3 million guns, and per capita ownership, with 120.5 guns for every 100 people.


  • An earlier version of this story said that six per cent of violent gun crimes in Canada in 2017 were committed with a fully automatic firearm. In fact, that number also included sawed-off shotguns or rifles.
    Aug 07, 2019 2:45 PM ET


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.