Gun violence isn’t just a U.S. problem—and Canada isn’t immune

Opinion: Canada shouldn’t ignore its own gun-violence problems, from rising rates in our cities to inadequate government support

A man watches on at a crime scene following a shooting in Scarborough, a suburb in east Toronto, July 17, 2012. Two people were killed and at least 19 injured in a shooting at an outdoor party in Toronto, police said on Tuesday. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A man watches on at a crime scene following a shooting in Scarborough, a suburb in east Toronto, July 17, 2012. Two people were killed and at least 19 injured in a shooting at an outdoor party in Toronto, police said on Tuesday. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Angela Wright is a writer and public affairs professional. She holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Iowa and is an associate with the Toronto-based Zero Gun Violence Movement. Follow her on twitter at @angewrig.

Many Canadians woke up on Monday morning to the horrific news that more than 50 people were killed in Las Vegas; it was the worst mass shooting in modern American history, and the 35th one in 2017 alone. But while Canadians are caught up in the shock of yet another high-profile shooting in our neighbour to the south, gun violence across many Canadian cities has exploded over the past few years, too. Many of the country’s mayors and police chiefs are scrambling to address this problem, but a lack of available current data, as well as a lack of concerted effort from federal and provincial political leaders, has made tackling this issue arduous. Mass shootings in America should serve as reminders that Canadians shouldn’t be so smug as to believe that we’re immune to such issues.

The idea that Canada has a gun problem isn’t new. In his 2016 book, The Way of the Gun, Iain Overton cautioned against comparing Canadian gun violence to U.S. gun violence. Certainly, when comparing ourselves to America, we seem fine—between 2009 and 2013, the United States had 56,000 gun homicides, while Canada had 977. But when comparing Canada to the 31 countries in the European Union, he wrote, Canada has the fourth-highest gun homicide rate—behind France, Germany, and Italy.

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Despite this and the persistently high rate of gun violence in many Canadian cities, gun violence still isn’t treated as a serious problem here. And when it’s discussed, much of the attention is focused on the city of Toronto. That’s not unreasonable; as of Oct. 2, Toronto has endured 297 shootings—an average of one shooting every day—which left 434 victims with varying degrees of injury in their wake. In terms of absolute numbers, no other Canadian city comes close to the number of shootings and shooting victims, and shootings in Toronto increased 41 per cent between 2015 and 2016; this year’s numbers are on par with the previous year’s, too.

But when year-over-year changes in gun violence are taken into account, there are other Canadian cities whose problems are at least just as bad.

Local officials in Surrey, EdmontonCalgary, Regina, Ottawa, and Halifax have all publicly lamented the rise of gun violence in their cities, and with the absence of provincial and federal support, they have found themselves scrambling to implement their own initiatives.

In Regina, there has been a 94-per-cent increase in violent offences involving guns over the five-year average, and a 163-per-cent increase in the number of victims of firearms offences between 2015 to 2016. This prompted the city to conduct a two-week gun amnesty program in February.

Confidence in the federal government’s ability to tackle gun violence in Surrey, B.C. is so low that many residents have contemplated severing ties with the RCMP and setting up their own municipal police force. Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner recently announced the city would be creating its own task force to address gang and gun violence.

Halifax Regional Police, meanwhile, created an in-house research coordinator to study gun violence after the city experienced a particularly violent 2016. In June, the Canadian Public Health Association hosted a conference in the city in hopes of employing a public health approach to end gun crime.

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What’s worse, too, is that while statistics for individual cities are available, there is no standardized method for displaying these statistics; each police department tracks different figures, and not all departments track shootings and gun homicides separately. For all the criticisms of its gun-crime rate, Toronto is a leader in readily available and publicly accessible data on shootings and gun homicides. The Toronto Police Service’s open data portal allows visitors to view shootings by month, year, injury level, and police division.

The federal government has allowed this issue to languish for far too long. This, however, is not for want of information and research; Public Safety Canada produced a series of reports tackling youth and gun violence, illegal firearms markets, and strategies for reducing gun violence.

The problem: the reports were released in 2007 and 2010, and are now woefully outdated. Both the report on illegal firearms markets and youth and gun violence are listed as “archived” on the government’s website; an “archive” is government lingo for a report that is too old to be of value and is no longer being updated or maintained. While a third report, entitled “Strategies for Reducing Gun Violence”, is listed as active, it refers to data from the mid-1990s and is riddled with broken web links.

Given the rise in gun violence in the past few years, one wonders what might have happened had the government followed through on its strategies and continuously released progress reports; the government provides ongoing financial support to the Investments to Combat the Criminal Use of Firearms, but the 2010 report evaluating this initiative has also been “archived.”

There may be evidence that Public Safety Canada has finally woken up to this serious issue. As part of its 2017-2018 strategies, the department highlighted the control of firearms as a main factor in its security agenda. Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister, even assembled an advisory committee on Canadian firearms to assist him with this.

But access to information about this committee has been heavily restricted. Its deliberations are held in secret and only the chair can speak on behalf of the committee. What’s more troubling is that the committee is only mandated to meet in-person once a year, and of the maximum 15 seats, only 10 have been filled. Key stakeholders who would bring valuable expertise to the discussions—community workers, ex-offenders, and victim services, for example—have been left out entirely. These are the people most directly impacted by gun violence and should be an integral part of the discussion if the minister is serious about curtailing gun violence.

This new committee is not enough. Goodale should meet with his provincial counterparts to tackle escalating gun violence. Provincial ministers can then host meetings in their respective provinces where they invite mayors and police chiefs of major cities as well as other important stakeholders, including representatives from communities with a high prevalence of gun crime.

These meetings should be driven by a single question: how can a country with strict laws on purchasing and carrying firearms see such an exponential increase in gun violence over the span of a few years?

Comparing gun violence to other countries isn’t essential in order to see Canada has a serious problem. When mayors and police chiefs in diverse cities like Surrey, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, and Toronto have publicly spoken about their struggles to grapple with rising gun violence, there is a problem. And this problem should elicit the same horror amongst Canadians as mass shootings in cities faraway.


Gun violence isn’t just a U.S. problem—and Canada isn’t immune

  1. America has a gun culture, but Canada does not.

    So while we get some minor leakage on occasion…’s not likely to spread

    • Guns may be a culture for some, but are also a means to an end for others. Knowing they’re out there fuels a desire to be similarly armed, particularly with diminished public faith in policing. It’s not “likely” to spread – it’s inevitable.

    • We have a gun culture in Canada. It’s different than the one in the US, but it’s there. And it seems to be morphing into something more like that in the US with each passing year.

      • No, we didn’t have the ‘cowboys and injuns’, or the shoot-outs at high noon or any of the other graphic novels that were sent back east . They were cheap adventure stories that led to a culture myth….weren’t true…..but people believed them

        So today Americans still believe in the idea of shoot-outs, and tough guys on horses, and cowboy hats and six-guns.

        We never had any of that.

        We had Mounties and polo and civilization.

        • Increasingly a sector of Canadian society believes in that same American scenario. In the last federal election, the moron running for the Conservatives in our riding actually drove around in a truck with a banner reading ” Canadians have the right to bear arms”… fortunately cooler and smarter heads prevailed and he was not elected. But it just goes to show there are enough dimwits in this country who have swallowed the NRA’s garbage hook, line & sinker.

          • Oh I agree we have some stupid Canadians…but they’re mostly all Cons and they are a minority here

        • I still don’t understand, other than just blaming Alberta and pandering by the conservatives, how something as counter-productive as axing the gun registry happened.

          “The criminals don’t register their guns, so why should I have to?” my dad, a former bank manager.

        • the approx. 2 million gun owners in Canada would disagree with you. The shooting organizations of the early 1900’s would disagree with you and the frontier people who settled Canada would disagree with you. Firearms have played a huge role in shaping our Country, this might be why 3 out of 5 long distance sniper shots are by Canadian Snipers.

  2. Is the USA really the greatest country in the world (as Americans constantly brag),
    if they need to have firearms to protect themselves from themselves?

  3. Comparing stats between countries is always apples to oranges. Different reporting methods and standards are used, not just with homicide but violent crime as well. Countries can also have major geographic and socioeconomic differences that can make comparisons difficult. Even within Canada the homicide rate varies widely between provinces, regions, cities and towns. Further, when you compare countries gun homicides without also comparing the overall homicide rate you are not really comparing anything useful. But I agree with the author that our governments aren’t (and haven’t been) doing anything truly useful to combat the problem.

    It is easy to see (google Statistics Canada the daily homicide and then any year, “the daily” is just the name of their publication) that the bulk of homicides where a firearm was used are committed by gang members and that the firearm used was a handgun smuggled in from the US. It is also easy to see that in any given year about a quarter of homicides are committed using a firearm and another quarter using a knife. Which is more flips between these two year to year

    So we’ve identified that the primary problem is gang and the secondary problem is smuggled handguns. Eliminating the latter probably won’t eliminate 25% of homicides due to substitution (knives in particular), but it likely will reduce some as well as reduce the amount of harm to bystanders we see occurring in our big cities. But what is the government doing about this? The Public Safety Minister just announced the outline of their plans. 90% of it is focused on reversing administrative items the previous government recently changed and will have no impact on actual public safety. It is pure politics. The remaing 10% is 100 million dollars to help provinces and police forces stem the flow of illegal guns.

    So gangs aren’t addressed at all in any meaningful way. Why do we have gangs in the first place and how do we prevent that? As for illegal handguns, we spent billions on a registry of long guns owned by those who follow the law. Yet we’re only willing to spend about 3% of that on actually trying to stop the flow of the type of guns that are actually being used in these homicides.

    • The long gun registry was a good idea that saved police lives.

      • Please explain how, as the police would have already know if the person has firearms based upon having a firearms license, and anything restricted (handguns) is still registered. So all the registry did was go they have these guns.

      • During the committee hearings for the CPC bill to eliminate the long gun registry there was lots of testimony by various individuals and groups. There was no testimony by law enforcement that the long gun registry had saved any lives let alone police lives. That is a matter of public record.

  4. In the USA, the horse has already left the barn. They just need
    to control what has become the crazy, bucking bronco, and not
    returning it to the barn as some unrealistically fear or stoke the fear.

  5. She says “gun violence” 6 or 7 times, yet guns don’t commit violence, and the violence doesn’t stem from the guns, it comes from gangs selling drugs, as well as other illegal activities.

    Several thousand gangsters across Canada probably, but well over 2, probably 3 or 4 million law abiding people who own guns and are the most law abiding demographic in the country.

    Canada has probably over 10 million maybe much more firearms, nobody knows for sure. Yet the illegal reckless violent activity is predictably in certain areas, and among certain specific demographics, and you know exactly who I’m talking about.

    Yet the police continue to play catch and release with the poor disadvantaged youth, the “at risk” young people, who are always just about to turn their lives around. They would rather go after law abiding gun owners with more costly pointless utterly ineffective rules and laws.

  6. Almost half of the murders in the U.S. are from a group that represents less than 13% of the population. Another group that represents 17% is close to 30%. From 30% of the population is 80% of the murders. Mass shootings are far less than 1%, a fraction of 1% of the murder rate. Black males between 17 and 29 commit 20% of murders, a group that is about 0.75% of the population yet 1/5 of the murders. The people that have the fewest legally held guns commit the greatest proportion of the shootings. 30% or more of the gangsters are barred by law from owning guns anyway. Yet those laws don’t seem to stop them.

  7. “Gun violence” misses the point, it’s not related to guns just existing so much as certain small groups of people who are willing to commit crimes in order to make large sums of money, they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Gang wars, and dealers protecting turf, or profits are not caused by guns. The typical types of things governments do don’t work. Such as buybacks, and especially what Trudeau will do which is punish law abiding people for what criminals do, instead of going after the criminals hard. They will crack down on outlaw bikers, but not the ethnic gangs that increase violence when bikers are kicked out. Instead they offer them more government programs.

  8. Let’s see if we can cut through some of the distraction and come up with some real solutions.

    Firstly, are we concerned with all violence or just gun violence? Let’s park that for a moment.

    All violence is committed by criminals so why would we punish law abiding people?

    There are two types of law abiding people, those who want the ability to provide for and protect others, and those who place that in hands of strangers. Putting your safety in the hands of strangers isn’t misplaced trust, as there is no rational reason for trust, it’s foolishness.

    You have the right to be foolish, as Darwin will eventually take care of you, but others will resist you trying to force them to act foolishly.

    Current gun control policies have lost perspective. Instead of focussing on criminals who commit all violence, the focus is on law abiding people who “might” and resist foolishness.

    Who could not see that is no plan for success?

    The focus should be on criminals responsible for all violence.

    Give the justice system increased authority to persecute criminals illegally possessing firearms. Put them in jail for a long time without exceptions. No slap on the wrist, no second chances. Then after many consecutive free years of crime free life, they should be able to own guns again.

    That won’t be opposed by the legal gun owners and will serve as a deterrent to criminals.

    Or continue the current insanity, hoping to take guns away from law abiding people will work next time.

  9. How are we as a country supposed to have an honest conversation about guns, gun control, and the associated issues when trash opinion pieces like this are given a platform. Or worse, gown an air of authority.

    She hits all the major talking points: urban centres experiencing a rise, etc… But nowhere does she mention anything about tackling root causes of this increased gun play. Funny how the conversation about terrorism is always steered toward root causes, but gun control is just about guns. Seems a bit disingenuous to me. Ottawa has a gun problem thus year and I am willing to bet a year’a wages that it’s less than 5 youths with 3 handguns between them.

    Until the other side is ready to have an adult conversation ( stop using suicides to inflate statistics, be honest about the weapon types used in gun crimes, stop using a broad brush on all gun owners, profile demographics) I don’t see how anything will be resolved. You will never be able to take away firearms since I don’t see how the SCC would side with that in a challenge, there are too many legitimate uses. Best you can hope for is making more cumbersome for us. But you can get us on-board if you’re actually willing to be reasonable.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  10. Here lets just use some real numbers.

    Canadians expend about half a billion rounds of ammunition per year (ammunition import statistics). If guns are the cause of homicide, we’re missing 99.9999992% of the time.

  11. Guns must be treated with respect: that means proper care, storage and safe use. That requires training and experience. The attitude that seeps out of some of the comments here suggests some other theory. I have personally been shot at more than once while walking in the bush. I have also met more than a few ‘cowboys’ whose main use for a gun is to let of a few hundred rounds in a gravel pit: target practice? possibly but that doesn’t much explain the plethora of shot gun shells one finds. Common sense should prevail but that doesn’t extend to taking potshots at a deer along a residential road nor target practice on the Bruce trail. Guns should only be loaded for immediate use consequently it is hard to explain any accidental or spontaneous discharge. While long guns in Canada are (presumably) primarily for hunting, a little training in hunting per se would also help (I’ve come uncomfortably close to semi-auto fire in the general direction of a deer in full flight through dense bush by at least two guys who knew I was in the area – American tourists; I’ve also heard rounds snicking through the trees nearby from a distant shot obviously not backstopped). I’ve known many gun owners who use their firearms safely without impeding their basic enjoyment in any way. We regulate many activities based on the notion that regulation promotes the public good; permits support a level of good practice but should never be viewed as adequate as the law generally errs on the side of minimum standard.
    As for urban use and illegal weapons, being next to the US exposes us to diffusion of weapons and attitudes. There’s also the seepage of US mythology that the problem with gun violence is not enough guns: even 3-year-olds should be able to return fire; teachers, politicians, firemen and librarians should be required to carry. The notion that illegal weapons are a sufficient reason for not regulating firearms is another creeping American notion; what’s next – poaching is sufficient reason not to regulate hunting?

    • Where do you hunt, so I can stay clear? I hope you’re not one of those do gooders who decides a stroll through the woods on opening day, interfering with legal hunts, is a good way to exercise your rights.

      Yes let’s have training. It may rub off on the US. But let’s expand that training with situational certification so we can carry handguns too.