As Americans across the country celebrated the nation’s independence and its freedom from the apparent worst of the coronavirus pandemic, an epidemic of a different kind remained on familiar display: the surge in shootings.
It was an incredibly violent weekend across the country.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were at least 150 people killed by gun violence in more than 400 shooting incidents in America from Friday to Monday.
As lawmakers, activists, and crime experts look for solutions to the recent wave of mass shootings across the United States, some are looking to America’s neighbor to the north for possible answers.
So much safer
America is a nation saturated by guns, with more firearms than people. According to the Small Arms Research project, there are 121 firearms for every 100 residents.
Nowhere else compares. But Canada is one of the western nations that comes closest, with an estimated 35 guns per 100 residents.
Still, mass shootings in Canada are so rare, public safety authorities tell us they don’t even keep an official list.
For a decade, there were about five murders per year in Canada with three or more victims, according to the country’s national statistics agency.
But, with so many guns, why does Canada appear to be so much safer than the United States when it comes to gun violence?
Training and tripwires
For one, Canadian law requires citizens to undergo robust background checks and mandatory training before obtaining a gun license.
And unlike some training programs, students are not the only ones gathering information. Instructors serve as a first line of defense, observing and making note of any students they determine should not own a gun.
“If the instructors see a student that comes in who they feel just is not doing well at life in general, and perhaps should not have a firearm, we’ll give that student a full refund, we’ll create a complete written report for our records, and we’ll supply a copy of that report to the (government) firearms center as well,” said Travis Bader, owner of Silvercore Advanced Training in Canada.
According to the Canadian Commissioner of Firearms, the number of people denied a license or had theirs revoked has been climbing, to more than 4,000 in 2019.
Reasons for license denials or revocations have included mental health concerns, potentially being a threat to oneself or others, court orders, and lying on license applications.
Another difference between the US and Canada: waiting periods before one can obtain a gun.
In Canada, residents seeking to purchase a firearm must wait 28 days before taking possession. By contrast, in the United States, there is no federal waiting period if an applicant passes a government criminal database check.
Broad public support for new gun laws
Unlike in the United States, mass gun violence has led to swift legislative change in Canada. After the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting, which left 22 people dead, officials passed an assault weapons ban, which enjoyed broad popular support.
“The (Nova Scotia) massacre triggered public anger, mobilization, and it pushed the Canadian government to move,” said Francis Langlois, professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
Despite overwhelming public support of gun control legislation in Canada, gun rights advocates criticized the moves as government overreach.
The US based National Rifle Association called Canada’s reform efforts “unnecessary,” insisting new laws burden “already law-abiding firearm businesses, hunters, farmers and sport shooters.”
No constitutional protections
Perhaps the most glaring difference between the American and Canadian approaches to gun violence comes down to certain protections enshrined in the US Constitution.
Unlike in the US, there is no 2nd Amendment guaranteeing Canadian citizens the right to own guns.
In fact, experts say gun possession is a privilege in Canada, rather than the flashpoint often seen in some parts of America, where unregulated gun ownership is so closely associated by some with personal freedom.
“It’s a privilege that the government gives to citizens,” said Professor Langlois, adding that the Canadian government “can remove it.”
Despite the constitutional differences between the two nations when it comes to the right to own a gun, one thing is clear: the Canadian government engages in a much more robust effort than the United States to identify potential sources of gun violence.
According to training expert Travis Bader, the Canadian government does “criminal record checks, background checks, reference checks,” and interviews spouses and family members of gun license applicants.
Bader noted that, even after students pass the mandatory training program, national law enforcement officials run daily database checks on those with gun licenses to ensure they have not engaged in criminal activity.
“The Canadian system recognizes that people’s lives change over time,” said Jooyoung Lee, associate professor at the University of Toronto, “and just because you are fit to own a gun at one point in time does not mean that, in the future, you will continue to be fit.”