CANADA

VIOLENT LAND

THE QUESTION WAS WHETHER TIGHTER CONTROL OF GUNS WILL HELP TO STEM A TIDE OF CRIME

CHRIS WOOD June 10 1991
CANADA

VIOLENT LAND

THE QUESTION WAS WHETHER TIGHTER CONTROL OF GUNS WILL HELP TO STEM A TIDE OF CRIME

CHRIS WOOD June 10 1991

VIOLENT LAND

CANADA

It was a week in which society’s demons seemed to mock its best intentions. In Ottawa, Justice Minister Kim Campbell introduced proposals for new legislation designed, she said, to keep guns out of the hands of criminals while allowing hunters and hobbyists to pursue their pastimes with minimal interference. But beyond the Gothic iron fence at the foot of Parliament Hill, there was grim evidence of a nation immersed in mounting violence—with and without guns. In Montreal, the week of May 26 began in a burst of gunfire as two men opened fire on a third with an Uzi machine gun and a .45-calibre handgun. In Vancouver at midweek, a young panhandler threw a 72-year-old woman who refused to give him money to the ground and began

THE QUESTION WAS WHETHER TIGHTER CONTROL OF GUNS WILL HELP TO STEM A TIDE OF CRIME

kicking her in the head. And in Ontario, there was a spate of crimes. A man was shot dead in downtown Toronto the day after a business associate was stabbed to death; police north of the city used dogs to track a man they suspected of shooting one woman to death and wounding another; and at week’s end, investigators sought an off-duty soldier whom they suspected of gunning down a policeman on a downtown street.

In addition to those individual tragedies, the week also brought disturbing new figures from Statistics Canada, which reported that last year was the most violent in Canadian history. Beatings, robberies, rapes and murders, the agency said, increased by 50 per cent during the 1980s to a total of 270,000 incidents last year.

Against that background, critics accused Campbell of taking too weak a stand on gun control. “I feel betrayed,” said Suzanne Laplante-Edward of Montreal, whose daughter was felled by gunman Marc Lépine during his rampage through an engineering school in December, 1989. “For three months, we have been reading about how much tougher the new law would be,” she added. “This is simply not happening.” But in fact, as several of last week’s crimes illustrated, the forces driving the country’s increasing violence may well be beyond the power of even the most draconian gun-control measures to stem.

There was clearly no questioning the cause for concern. The trend towards increasingly violent behavior reported by Statistics Canada is apparent in most Canadian cities. In Calgary, police said that the number of major crimes in that city has jumped by 30 per cent in the first five months of 1991, compared with a year ago—with domestic assaults up a staggering 340 per cent, to 306 from 90. And Vancouver police spokesman Robert Cooper said: “We see a steady increase in the number of homicides involving guns as compared to the more traditional methods of strangulation and large butcher knives.”

Into that climate,

Campbell presented legislation that she said is “intended to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

Among other things, the new legislation would for the first time require applicants for a Firearms Acquisition Certificate to provide references—two of them—and to wait 28 days while police check each applicant’s background. It would double to 10 years from five the maximum prison term for people convicted of possession of prohibited weapons—and permit cabinet to ban some types of paramilitary rifles. At the same time, Campbell rejected one controversial proposal to require a permit for the purchase of ammunition. “This package,” she said, “brings Canada’s gun-control system up to an acceptable standard, in line with today’s reality.”

And despite pockets of disappointment, the new bill won at least grudging endorsement from most observers. Said Ottawa Police Chief Thomas Flanagan, chairman of the law amendments committee of the Canadian Chiefs of Police: “I don’t think she could have gone any further and still hoped to get the bill through.” And Wendy Cukier, one of 2,500 members of the national Coalition for Gun Control, acknowledged, “It is bette "han what is in the law today.”

But as last week’s tally ui assaults, shootings and murders attested, it was far from certain how much impact any new gun-control bill would have on the escalating intrusion of vio-

lence into Canadian life. Firearms accounted for only 31 per cent of the murders committed in Canada in 1989, the last full year for which figures are available. And indeed, the assailant who beat 36-year-old Debbie Landry of Scarborough, Ont., so brutally at a secluded cottage north of Orillia that she was unable to seek help for four days last week, used an axe and a fireplace poker. Said Chyrisse Regehr, coordinator of the Winnipeg Sexual Assault Program: “I don’t think gun control is going to stop sexual assault or even noticeably lessen the statistics.”

At the same time, gun enthusiasts and police both noted that professional criminals are unlikely to find their access to firepower diminished by tighter restriction on legitimate purchasers. “People who want a gun will be able to get one,” said Arthur Lymer, president of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Association, “especially when you have a country to the south of us that doesn’t have controls.”

As for the 9-mm pistol that fired two bullets into Toronto police Const. Larry Dee, 36, while he conducted a plainclothes patrol on a downtown street late on the evening of May 30, it may have come from a military arsenal. Within hours, investigators issued a Canada-wide warrant for the arrest of Pte. Eric Schumacher, 21, a member of a Royal Canadian Regiment infantry battalion at the Canadian Forces base 2 in London, Ont., on a iz charge of attempted murI der. Although military “ spokesmen were quick to stress that the armed forces keeps its weaponry under strict security—and issues 9-mm pistols only to officers—it would not be the first time that a military weapon has been used in a criminal act in Canada. In 1984, Cpl. Denis Lortie used a military submachine-gun to kill three people and injure 13 others during a rampage through the Quebec National Assembly.

In fact, some observers acknowledged last week that even the best-intentioned legislator may be unable to stem the violence mounting in Canada. “We are starting to resemble the United States,” said Heidi Rathjen, a graduate of the University of Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique who was in the school on the night of Lépine’s attack. And indeed, despite the generally positive reception that greeted Campbell’s new legislation, last week’s bloodshed and brutality gave Canadians little reason for pride in their oft-vaunted virtue of nonviolence.

BRIAN BERGMAN

DAN BURKE

E. KAYE FULTON

JOHN HOWSE

HAL QUINN

CHRIS WOOD with BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto, DAN BURKE in Montreal, E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and HAL QUINN in Vancouver