Latest gun control effort isn’t merely a failure. It corrodes trust among Canadians

This column is an opinion by Jay Nathwani, a lawyer who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

There is more than one way to look at the federal Liberal government’s announcement of a ban on certain models of semi-automatic rifles: as illogical symbolism that will do nothing to advance public safety; as a waste of scarce public funds; as craven wedge politics.

The policy is not merely a failure on its own terms, as gun control; more importantly, it is the kind of policy that is corrosive of trust among Canadians.

The principal effect of the new Criminal Code regulations is to immediately prohibit the use of about a dozen types of semi-automatic rifles, and approximately 1,500 variants. (A semi-automatic firearm is one in which a single pull of the trigger results in a single bullet being fired without the need for some intermediate action between shots, such as operating the bolt on a rifle.)

In announcing the policy, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said, “As of today, the market for assault weapons in Canada is closed.”

Yet it remains legal for licensed Canadians to purchase a wide variety of semi-automatic rifles, including not only military-style rifles (such as the semi-automatic version of the IWI Tavor X95, a rifle currently in service with the Israeli army), but actual military surplus rifles such as the Soviet- and Chinese-made SKS. The ban has nothing to do with the capability of firearms, the government has simply banned a number of the most well-known models.

Licensed gun owners will no longer be allowed to sell, transport or import some 1,500 makes and models of military-grade “assault-style” weapons in Canada. 1:58

By way of an analogy to something more familiar to most Canadians, imagine that in a decade from now electric vehicle technology has progressed to the point that it commands significant market share. It might or might not make sense for the government to prohibit vehicles with internal-combustion engines; but imagine how you would feel if the government banned your vehicle model while leaving others that have identical characteristics unaffected.

The government is likely counting on the fact that most Canadians will overlook the illogic in the new regulations, provided that the issue is cast in sufficiently stark moral terms.

In his remarks, Prime Minister Trudeau asserted that firearms designed “to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time” have “no place” in Canada. Most Canadians would agree with that sentiment, but many might not be aware that the law already addresses what is arguably the most significant risk: magazine capacity.

When the perpetrator of the Montreal massacre killed 14 women, he used a 30-round magazine in his semi-automatic rifle. As a result, magazines for powerful centre-fire semi-automatic rifles in Canada have sensibly been limited to a capacity of five rounds since 1992.

It’s not nonsense to suggest there may be some public-safety benefit to going one step further and prohibiting semi-automatic firearms. Though it must be said that the government never even tried to make such a case on the basis of evidence, such as how many Canadians are killed by semi-automatic rifles each year in comparison to other types of firearms, or whether the semi-automatic nature of rifles used in those murders had any effect on the number of people killed.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the Liberals’ new gun control measures will not make a difference in reducing gun crime in Canada. 0:37

However, if the government thinks that centre-fire semi-automatic rifles are too dangerous for civilians to own, then it should ban them – all of them – as Australia did after the Port Arthur massacre. Banning specific models (and paying millions in what Trudeau says will be “fair compensation” to their owners) while leaving plentiful substitutes readily available for purchase is worse than useless: it is harmful to our shared sense of society.

Canadians who have followed a rigorous process to obtain a licence to purchase a firearm accept that the privilege of ownership can be revoked if it is poses an unreasonable danger. It is a far different thing to render their property unlawful for use simply so that the government can be seen to be doing something.

And who will this burden of sudden prohibition fall on? Not, we can be assured, on the kind of people who form the Liberal base.

In short, the government is criminalizing some people’s property not because it will make anyone safer, but because it can – because it knows that the political benefits far outweigh any loss in popularity among people who were probably not inclined to vote Liberal in the first place.

The effects of this style of governing can be pernicious: if people feel that they are being punished simply because they lack political clout, they will trust their fellow citizens less.

A healthy democracy relies on citizens believing that they will not be treated unfairly if their side loses an election. We should not be putting that trust at risk. It’s not too much to ask that firearms laws be made on the basis of evidence and reason.

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