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July 28, 2012

More police, social programs not going to quell gun violence

Geoffrey Stevens

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Looking dazed and with bright orange dyed hair, the man accused of killing 12 and wounding 58 in a shooting...

There are certain issues that simply will not go away. Fuelled by religious or ideological conviction, they lie dormant for a spell, then reappear on the public agenda.

Capital punishment was a deeply divisive issue in the 1960s and ’70s. Although the death penalty was finally abolished in Canada 36 years ago this month (on a 130-124 free vote in Parliament), the issue is not dead. It is still alive in the weeds of the political right, and no one will be surprised if it surfaces again if there are a few more shootings like those in Toronto and Colorado in the past week.

Abortion is another supposedly resolved issue that will not go away, thanks in part to the resuscitation efforts of by Kitchener Centre Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth. A third issue is gay rights. Those rights survive only because the Harper government has done the math and calculated that it would lose more votes than it would gain if it tried to move against same-sex marriage. Political advantage rather than principle is the guiding factor. (But don’t expect to see Stephen Harper as grand marshal of a gay pride parade any time soon, unless, perhaps, in an election year.)

A fourth issue, not unrelated to the first, is gun control. Gun control was a very big issue in Ottawa in the 1970s. I recall writing yards of columns on the subject in the Globe and Mail in those days. For a time, it seemed as though Canada might actually choose to go down a different path than the United States.

It was not to be, however. It took the massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989 to produce a modest control measure, the firearms registry, and now that has been gleefully scrapped by the Harper Tories.

Back in the 1970s, I could not understand why any private citizen in a peaceful country like Canada needed, or should be permitted to own, a firearm, with the possible exception of farmers and hunters. Why not disarm the population by requiring people to turn in their weapons, and make it a grave criminal offence for anyone to be found with a gun in their possession?

That was naïve, of course. Canadians are too close to Americans, geographically and culturally, to be able to embark on a radically different path. The Americans are prisoners of their Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) and the lobbying of the National Rifle Association. They harbour an innate distrust of government. They might give up their first-born child before they would let the government touch their precious guns.

That American gun culture flows across the border as freely as the guns themselves that are smuggled across with virtual impunity. The cultural influence is inevitable and irresistible. Stopping the traffic in firearms would require an all-out, co-ordinated attack by governments on both sides of the border. There’s no sign that the governments and police have either the will or the means.

Reading and watching interviews from Aurora, Colo., I was struck by the absence of advocates for stringent gun control, up to and perhaps including the repeal of the Second Amendment. It was as though Americans had given up on their huge gun problem. The deaths of a dozen movie-goers and the wounding of dozens more were explained as the work of a deranged individual. It was an isolated incident. More police and better security might help. But what can anyone do? Some people are crazy. These things happen.

In Toronto, the mayor, the premier and the chief of police will meet on Monday to talk about gun violence in the wake of the murders at the backyard barbecue on Danzig Street in Scarborough. The mayor will call for more cops. The premier will advocate more social programs for at-risk youth.

But nothing will change. In Toronto, as in Colorado, law-abiding people will wait for the next horror from the muzzle of a gun.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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