The World

The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada’s Gun Politics

Police tape blocks Wellington St. at Sussex near the National War Memorial where a soldier was shot earlier in the day, just blocks away from Parliament Hill, on October 22, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. 

Photo by Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images

As noted in much of the coverage of today’s shooting at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, which left one military officer dead, such incidents are relatively rare in Canada compared to the United States. But “active shooter” events aren’t entirely unheard of there, and often provoke similar contentious political debates to those here in the U.S.

The worst such incident in the country’s history was the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre, in which a 25-year-old man who had expressed a hatred of feminists and women working in non-traditional jobs entered an engineering school in Montreal with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle and killed 14 women. Ten women and four men were also injured. The anniversary of the event, Dec. 6, is today commemorated as Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

The event also prompted the crafting of tighter gun laws, including a national registry for long guns that was established in 1995. Perennially unpopular with hunters and gun rights activists, the registry was scrapped by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2012.

Canada’s gun laws are still strict compared with America’s—gun owners must get a license from the federal government which requires a gun safety course, and there are more stringent restrictions for more powerful weapons—but by international standards the country is relatively gun-friendly.

Canada has the 13th-largest civilian firearms arsenal in the world according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, with 30.8 firearms per 100 people. (The U.S. is first with 88.8 per 100.) It suffers about 0.51 firearm homicides per 100,000 people compared to 2.97 in the United States. While safe by the standards of the U.S. or Latin America, Canada does have significantly more gun violence than countries like Germany, France, and Australia.

As in the United States, large headline-grabbing incidents tend to galvanize public interest in gun politics. A 2006 shooting at a junior college in Montreal prompted an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to get Harper to keep the gun registry. A mass shooting at a Toronto barbecue in 2012 that killed two people and injured 23 others led Harper to call for tougher sentences for gun crimes, as well as some characteristically incoherent calls for new laws from Mayor Rob Ford.

Canada’s most recent major gun tragedy occurred in June when 24-year-old Justin Bourque, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, shotgun, and crossbow, shot five Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, killing three. The RCMP said that Bourque was better armed than many of the Mounties called to the scene, though Canada’s National Firearms Association said the incident was proof that Canada’s gun rules aren’t effective at stopping homicides and should be scrapped.

Today’s incident, involving a shooter armed with a double-barreled shotgun, may prompt another round of soul searching. Ironically, what the Conservative government calls a “common sense” package of gun control reforms that would “ease restrictions on transporting firearms, make firearms-safety courses mandatory for first-time gun owners and prevent people convicted of spousal assault from legally owning guns,” was on the docket to be debated in the House of Commons today, before the shooting started.