COVER

IS GUN CONTROL THE SOLUTION?

JOHN GEDDES May 3 1999
COVER

IS GUN CONTROL THE SOLUTION?

JOHN GEDDES May 3 1999

IS GUN CONTROL THE SOLUTION?

On the evening of April 20, while millions of North Americans hovered by their TV sets for the latest news from Littleton, Colo., about 50 gun owners gathered at a community hall in Paradise, N.S., for an anti-gun-control rally. MP Gary Breitkreuz, the Reform party’s crusading critic of Ottawa’s gun registry, was the star attraction. He brandished a poll showing that most Canadians regard registering guns as less important than other crime-prevention measures, such as tougher sentences for violent criminals and more cops on the streets. The carnage at the Colorado high school was hardly mentioned. “The problem is a society that generates a certain amount of

alienation,” says Gary Arnett, a local health-food store owner who helped stage the meeting. “It’s pop culture.”

The firearms lobby was leaning hard last week on the theory that guns don’t kill people, kids raised on blood-drenched movies, shoot-’em-up video games and death-obsessed Internet sites do. But gun-control advocates were quick to point out that if contemporary culture sometimes fosters violent fantasies, disturbed teenagers need hardware to turn them into real bloodshed. “We hear, ‘It’s the

evil movie The Matrix that made those kids turn violent,’ ” says Dr. Katherine Leonard, a Toronto specialist in adolescent medicine and an expert on firearm deaths among young people. “Well, if they had had knives, not guns, there would not be so many people dead.”

There is a deep and widening gap between gun laws in Canada and the United States. Ottawa passed a gun registration act in 1995 and began implementing its regulations last year. Under them, every law-abiding gun owner will have to be registered by the end of 2000; every firearm must be registered by the end of 2002. As of last week, 452,000 owners of nearly 1.3 million guns were recorded in the computerized database. The system allows the government to cross-check new gun sales automatically against police records. Critics of the registry had scoffed that nobody under police scrutiny or facing criminal charges would try to buy a gun legally once the registry was functioning. But so far, about 10 per cent of prospective buyers are setting off the system’s warning bells, and about 10 per cent of those are being denied guns after further investigation, according to the justice department.

In the United States, there is no comparable system. And while Canada bans automatic weapons and short-barrelled handguns, such firepower is widely and legally available in the United States.

Still, the Colorado shootings prompted Clinton administration officials to express hope that a modest gun-control package slated to be sent to Congress soon might pass. One proposal: prohibit anyone who committed a violent crime as a juvenile from owning a gun as an adult. But the proposals are expected to face stiff resistance in the Republican-controlled Congress and fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association. No matter what the cost, the right to bear arms remains sacrosanct to many Americans— and to Canadians like those in Paradise.

JOHN GEDDES in Ottawa

JOHN GEDDES

TWO NATIONS COMPARED

Figures compiled by the Toronto-based Coalition for Gun Control show that while Americans murder each other much more than Canadians do, the two are not that far apart when guns are out of the picture.

Per 100,000 people United States Canada U.S. over Canada Guns 85,000 24,000 3.5 times Murders 7.6 2.0 4.1 times Murders with guns 5.2 0.6 8.7 times Murders without guns 2.4 1.4 1.7 times