Tim Thurley: For gun-control, Canada isn't a blank slate
We have had a fairly stable and effective system in place for decades. Governments conveniently ignore this.
“[T]he tree of nonsense is watered with error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster.” - Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World
By: Tim Thurley
Right answers cannot come from wrong figures. It's a fundamental law that even eminent Canadians are not exempt from. Watered by input selection errors and slanted assumptions replete throughout the Mass Casualty Commission’s work, the nonsensical tree grows in the corridors of Ottawa, where the government has promised to implement the MCC recommendations.
The Mass Casualty Commission was a joint effort by the federal and Nova Scotia governments convened to examine the circumstances surrounding the 2020 massacre of 22 people by a deranged lone attacker. Many of the victims were shot by a man dressed as a police officer and driving what appeared to be a police cruiser; many other victims died due to arson. The MCC did some valuable work, but section of its final report on gun control is, unfortunately, a mess. In an earlier essay here, I examined some of the problems with the research they used to reach their conclusions. Today, we’ll look at some of the challenges even attempting to implement those solutions would create. (And yes, it’s depressing that a full examination of this requires multiple essays.)
Put bluntly, government adoption of the MCC firearm recommendations would be — will be, since I'm skeptical the Liberals will ever deviate from their strange course — a disservice to Canada. The pumpkins of disaster weigh heavily on the branches, ready to fall, burst, and spread their toxins. Few appear aware how destructive that scenario could be.
My recent essay established that the MCC only took half of the academic data, and it wasn’t the strongest half. While flawed inputs inevitably lead to flawed conclusions, the outputs were still salvageable. An impartial MCC could have recognized the bias and the flaws of their given inputs and interpreted them cautiously. A slate of moderate and prudent recommendations were still possible.
Instead, the MCC chose to water the tree of nonsense with half-baked inputs garnered from countries with contexts different from Canada’s — all for “convenient” direct application, without any adjustment for the Canadian context or regard for competing research. They often took the most restrictive parts of other countries’ legislation, ignored the lenient parts, and failed to consider constructive implementation or even effectiveness.
The resulting recommendations look like the MCC threw a series of outdated myths, assumptions and fallacies about effective gun control into a blender. It is plain the MCC either didn’t consider, doesn't know, or won't admit what their recommendations hold for the future. It’s a lucky stroke of service to Canada that the recommendations are so bad they’re probably impossible to successfully implement.
While the MCC reviewed some research on historical Canadian gun control, the MCC recommendations treat Canada as a blank slate. It is not. Canada had its thorough reckoning with mass shootings in the aftermath of the École Polytechnique massacre and subsequent legislation in the form of 1991’s Bill C-17 and 1995’s Bill C-68, which created a comprehensive gun-control system. Now, in 2023, the MCC is examining and taking conclusions from reports on the aftermath of Australia’s 1996 Port Arthur massacre or the 1987 British Hungerford massacre, despite Canada already having resolved many of the same debates around civilian firearm access at the same time as Australia and Britain. The Canadian debate reached a conclusion 30 years ago that led to domestic legislation supporting a generally effective and accepted made-in-Canada compromise.
The MCC’s recommendations risk that compromise.
The MCC raised eyebrows for their endorsement of the Liberal party definition of “assault-style” firearm — and I will come to this — but the pièce de résistance of the unique fusion of bias and thoughtlessness displayed by the MCC Report is the ammunition regulation suggestions. The MCC encourages the federal government act to prevent “excessive stockpiling” of ammunition, suggests a license to possess any quantity of ammunition (one is already required to acquire ammunition), and wants “to require a licensee to purchase ammunition only for the gun [note: singular] for which they are licensed.”
This all sounds like a pretty good idea to anyone with an extremely limited knowledge of firearms in Canada. Given how bizarre these recommendations are, that probably about sums up the MCC’s members.
Remember, the MCC doesn’t present a cogent research justification for additional ammunition regulation. They cite a report from the liberal American think tank Center for American Progress (one can only imagine the outrage if a Tory-appointed firearm commission cited the Heritage Foundation), which never actually suggests limiting purchases and mostly reflects existing Canadian law. They cite Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. as justification for purchase limits, but nowhere does the MCC present strong evidence for their measures’ effectiveness.
Indeed, they don’t even discuss other countries’ implementation, perhaps because it doesn’t really exist. Kiwi license holders won’t be required to register ammunition, even if New Zealand’s new measures are implemented in 2025. The National Firearms Agreement suggests that all Australians should be subject to ammunition limitations, but even those few Australian states imposing limits generally impose soft ones. South Australia, for example, limits ammunition to the “reasonable needs of that person for the immediately following 12 months,” which could be anywhere from a single box for a very casual hunter to tens of thousands of rounds for a range-goer or competitive shooter. While stricter limits have been discussed, they haven’t been seriously implemented in any comparable jurisdiction despite decades of opportunity.
So why not? Probably because implementing these recommendations won’t reduce mass shootings and also because they’re utterly insane.
Consider a scenario where an ammunition limit is set low enough that it may possibly limit casualties in a mass homicide, using Portapique as an example. While it’s unclear exactly how much ammunition the Portapique killer possessed (the report identified 50 rounds of non-police ammunition in the cruiser and an undefined “large amount” in a private vehicle), and multiple victims were not shot but instead perished due to arson, we can give a ballpark estimate. To have an even plausible chance at reducing the death toll — and assuming everything was legally acquired — we can use envelope math and set a hypothetical possession limit at 300 rounds.
A domestic Northwest Territories hunter could easily blow through that much ammunition while hunting snow geese, without even reaching the legal limit set on the hunt. That hunter might then need to drive eight hours, each way, to restock. The only way the hunter could get more efficient would be to practice and hone their skills. That would require … more ammunition.
Are you grasping the absurdity? For ammunition stockpile limits to be set so low that they could even theoretically limit potential fatalities from mass shootings, they’d be nigh-on impossible for Canadian gun owners to comply with while still using their guns in reasonable and legal ways. (One cannot help but suspect this is, in fact, the point.)
Unfortunately the justification for the extremely consequential and destructive MCC suggestions seems to meet the government definition of “best practices”: someone else did it, so we probably should too. No further consideration necessary.
The MCC Report is so unserious it does not consider most of their own exemplar countries don’t seriously limit “stockpiling,” a term largely used by those who think 500 rounds of .22LR is an arsenal without realizing it’s actually just a single full box, probably just about enough for a casual weekend at the range. The only jurisdiction that does semi-seriously limit purchases — the United Kingdom — is a tiny country without Canada’s expansive wilderness or dangerous predators, where reliance on wild game is limited, where firearms are less common, where resupply is never far away, and where the drive from one extreme tip of the mainland to the other takes two hours less than the drive from Yellowknife to the nearest major city.
Remember that suggestion for a license to just possess ammunition? Did you find a box of shells that grandpa left in the basement before he died? On your last canoe trip did you try to clean up an unfired shotgun shell a hunter accidentally dropped in a swamp? Did you keep a souvenir or memento after a now-long-forgotten trip to a gun range? Enjoy your freedom now, because the Commission would happily criminalize you.
Similar problems apply to the ubiquitous “assault-style weapons” definition, which is drowning in the ink spilled for it. Suffice it to say that the Commission goes to great lengths to distance itself from Bill C-21, a distance it deftly keeps by immediately endorsing the government’s controversial proposed, withdrawn, altered, and reintroduced “assault-style weapons” amendment in its recommendation.
The recommendation number is C.21. No doubt this was a total coincidence.
We can probably agree the Liberals didn’t anticipate the immediate and severe backlash they engendered from hunters, farmers, sport shooters, Indigenous groups, Montreal Canadiens’ goaltenders and many provinces and territories. They didn’t anticipate because they did not understand how necessary these firearms are to Canadians in applications from pest control to wilderness protection to hunting to sport.
Despite all the problems, the MCC makes no bones about endorsing the Liberal policy. It even goes further. The MCC would also prohibit outright all semi-automatic handguns (that’s most of them) despite handguns being necessary in many domestic applications, including for trappers and Olympians; despite that the use, storage, and acquisition of handguns is already narrowly limited and strictly regulated in Canada; and despite that handguns are very much allowed for civilian use in those vaunted peer nations of Australia, New Zealand, and even in parts of the United Kingdom, a country currently trying to ban assault-style knives and whose gun laws are so strict they are an outlier in Europe.
The MCC also endorses “rapidly reducing” the numbers of all semi-automatic firearms in Canada. That would cost a large fortune and require widespread compliance to implement: the very same compliance which necessitates buy-in and social trust, two concepts the government is doing its best to utterly annihilate among those whose compliance they seek.
The Liberals backed down, at least in part, from the proposed concepts following massive outrage. A commission should be immune to outrage in making recommendations, but it also owes the public a duty to investigate the issue fairly, contextually, and with regard to practicality. That the MCC would be so utterly out of touch with rural and Indigenous Canadians that the Liberal party took greater care than the MCC to consider their perspectives is not a good omen.
The most interesting part of the report is not what is said but what is left unsaid. The MCC Report implicitly endorses controversial proposals without being willing to defend them.
Universal registration is the most obvious.
There is no way to restrict purchases of ammunition to the gun a person is licensed to own unless we license by calibre — completely nonsensical — or unless the state knows exactly which gun, or guns, a person owns and the shop can check that data live. It is likewise impossible to implement Recommendation C.23 (connecting licensing data to vital statistics records so officers can seize firearms from estates) without knowing which firearms are to be seized from the grieving widow or widower.
Why couldn’t the MCC just come out and say they wanted registration alongside the suggested confiscation program? The MCC favourably quoted the Negin Report’s support of registration. They did not engage with the domestic Canadian research that doesn’t support it. You are probably sensing a pattern.
The only plausible answers are that they genuinely did not consider how to implement what they were recommending, or that they do not want to be honest with the public about what it all entails. Either scenario puts to lie the claim that the MCC was a competent non-partisan arbiter of facts.
Broken clocks are correct twice a day, so there are good bits hidden away in the recommendations: There are components on gathering better information and cross-border law enforcement interoperability that all sides in the gun debate have called for. There’s a carrot approach to encouraging compliance by supporting compliance with safe storage regulations, though it can’t resist hiding a “stick” of subsidizing “safe storage facilities,” which to gun owners may ring the bell of a central storage test balloon (a ludicrously impractical idea in itself). There’s a suggestion for safe handling and storage campaigns, that unfortunately also pokes eyes by recommending a public “education” campaign on the “risks” of lawfully owned firearms.
Some framing issues aside, these aren’t terrible suggestions.
The problem that the MCC does not reckon with is that serious public policy discourse must involve serious discussion of implementation and tradeoffs. The MCC Report doesn’t even attempt that discussion. Indeed, it often favourably quotes what other countries have done, what a single side of the academic debate advises, or simply what the Coalition for Gun Control recommends or the Negin Report authors hint at. They do not justify these recommendations with good data, with identifications of potential impacts or policy trade-offs, and sometimes fail to use even basic logic.
A public-health approach as suggested by the MCC is useful to guide the gun debate, but as Dr. Noah Schwartz at UFV has convincingly argued, guns are a public-policy issue. Public health can only be a component of the analysis. Guns can be used for violence, yes, but they are also used for sustenance, wilderness safety, work and even safe play. Guns can cost the government money, but their use also brings substantial economic benefits. Smuggled guns can be a scourge in Toronto, while legal guns do little harm or are even a necessity of life in rural and northern Canada.
Serious policy discussion means considering the unique circumstances of Canada and Canadian gun culture and making realistic policies to balance these important factors, as Canada already did in 1995. The British wish list for guns may work for downtown Toronto. It will not work Canada-wide.
The MCC obliquely acknowledged this by suggesting that the Canadian firearm debate requires “depoliticization.” Public policy debates can never be truly depoliticized. It did not happen in Australia, where firearms remain a hot-button topic with entire political parties dedicated to them. The 1995 Firearms Act and the Harper government’s subsequent taming of its excesses already ameliorated Canadian politicization through compromise to the extent possible.
Currently, in a scenario created by the exploitation of wedge politics, the Mass Casualty Commission has grafted bad data inputs to bad assumptions. Its outputs contribute to the re-politicization of this issue and will lead to worse outcomes without the public-safety improvements all Canadians desire. In the 200 years since Charles Babbage wrote his account of the “confusion of ideas” that led certain members of the British Parliament to assume bad figures could ever lead to right answers, it appears that eminent Canadians are keeping at least that tradition very much alive.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Tim Thurley specializes in firearm policy, having earned a Master of Science from Leiden University with his analysis of the long-gun registry’s lack of effect on Canadian homicide rates. He lives in the Northwest Territories, where he files regular Access to Information requests on firearm issues and anything else of interest.
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