Following two horrific mass shootings, the government announced new legislation that would drastically restrict the sale of firearms and begin a program to buy back semi-automatic assault rifles. But the proposed gun restrictions came from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the shootings occurred across the border in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas.

“We just need to look south of the border to know that if we don’t take action, firmly and quickly, it will get worse and harder to counter,” Trudeau said Monday as he announced the new gun control legislation.

While Trudeau cited the US shootings, experts say the measures are aimed at addressing the rise in gun violence in the country and fulfilling election promises to harden guns. The rate of violent gun crime in Canada increased by 20% between 2015 and 2020, compared to the previous six years. “Gun violence is a complex problem, but at the end of the day, the math is pretty simple; the fewer guns in our communities, the safer everyone will be,” Trudeau said.

While Trudeau has made gun control a political priority for many years, Canadians also closely watch gun violence in the US. “Canadians pay close attention to what’s going on in the US,” says Mugambi Jouet , assistant professor at the McGill University School of Law in Montreal.

What’s in the Canadian gun restrictions?

The proposed law would prevent the import, purchase, sale and transfer of small arms. It would also take away firearms licenses for those convicted of domestic violence or stalking. It would increase criminal penalties for arms smuggling and trafficking. And it would create a new red flag law that would allow courts to require those deemed a danger to themselves or others to turn over their firearms to law enforcement.

In perhaps the most direct nod to the violence in the US, the Canadian government is also introducing a voluntary program to buy back semi-automatic rifles, including assault weapons like those used in Uvalde, Buffalo and many other mass shootings. It follows a failed attempt to enact a similar program before last year’s federal election.

That measure was relatively unpopular even among gun control advocates, who felt it wasn’t tough enough because it left it up to gun owners whether to hand them over. “The people who participate in these types of campaigns are generally not the people who are diverting or trafficking weapons into the illicit market. So they are already low-risk people to begin with,” says Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “Voluntary buybacks in general don’t have a good track record. They have never actually been shown to reduce gun violence.” New Zealand implemented a mandatory buyback program in 2019 after a gunman attacked two mosques, killing 51 people.

For some experts on gun violence, it still doesn’t go far enough. Lee says freezing firearms is a “terrible proposal,” more symbolic than attacking the root of the problem. That’s because most of the weapons used in homicides in Canada arrive from the US, often smuggled from states closer to the border to be sold illegally, he says. So while the freeze targets legal imports, the move may not address arms trafficking, he adds.

“He is not looking at prevention. It doesn’t seek to address the underlying conditions that are driving at-risk youth to get a gun,” says Lee. They’re also not investing significantly in grassroots programs like violence breakers, she adds.

Conservatives dismissed the proposals as “virtue marks.” “It’s extremely problematic because it absolutely appears to be going after those who own firearms, but they do so legally and follow all the rules and regulations that are in place,” said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.

Still, the proposals will face less opposition than the gun control measure in the US. Jouet notes that, in general, it is much easier to pass legislative reforms in Canada than in the US. USA “It’s much harder to imagine reform in the US because many people see gun rights as key to their identity and the identity of the US,” he says.

The problem of gun violence in Canada

In 2020, Canada’s homicide rate rose to its highest level in 15 years: Police reported 743 homicides across the country of 38 million people. The homicide rate of 1.95 deaths per 100,000 population is markedly lower than the US homicide rate, which was 7.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2020.

But that rate is also higher than most of Western Europe and Australia, according to World Bank data on homicides. “It’s not as violent as the US. But compared to other rich nations, Canada isn’t doing as well,” Lee notes.

Gun control groups have blamed a relative weakening of national gun control legislation under Trudeau’s conservative predecessor. “As we progressively strengthened gun control in Canada…we saw rates of gun violence drop, particularly suicide, violence against women, etc. And over the last couple of years, we’ve seen an uptick,” Wendy Cukier, director of the Toronto-based Coalition for Gun Control, told NPR in 2020.

What is the status of gun control in Canada?

Perhaps the biggest difference regarding gun ownership between the US and Canada is that the US enshrined gun ownership as a right in the Constitution. Canada did not.

Therefore, Canada has more checks and balances on gun ownership. “Canadians treat gun ownership like getting a driver’s license,” says Young, explaining that gun owners must pass a test, take a safety course and renew their license every five years.

Conservative politics in Canada is also much more moderate compared to the US, says Jouet. The intensity of the US gun rights movement is “tied to other trends that are also atypical by Western standards,” such as opposition to abortion and universal health care, she adds.

Over the past decade, an increasing number of Canadians (about 1.1 million total) now own guns. The number of registered firearms increased by 71% between 2010 and 2020. Canada has an estimated 34.7 firearms per 100 residents, according to a 2018 study by the nonpartisan Small Arms Survey. That’s far less than the US, which has 120.5 guns per 100 people, but still more than many developed countries.

Lee points out that while Canada may have more effective gun laws than the US, the same problems related to gun violence occur there too, albeit less frequently. In 2017, a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a handgun killed six people at a Quebec City mosque.

In 2020, after a mass shooting in Nova Scotia killed 22 people, the government passed a ban on more than 1,500 models and variants of assault weapons. In addition to mass shootings, the people in Canada most affected by gun violence tend to be members of the Black and Indigenous communities. “It reflects the US in many ways,” says Lee.

While the recent mass shootings in the US may have made this a politically opportune time for Trudeau to push for new gun control measures, rising gun violence in Canada has cemented the issue as a national priority.

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