Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology and a faculty affiliate at the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.
The topic of gun control came up briefly near the start of the federal leaders’ debates last week – and, as a gun-violence scholar, I found myself feeling oddly ambivalent.
On one hand, I was happy to see leaders debating what they would do to reduce gun deaths in Canada; this is an urgent conversation that we need to be having in this country, which in 2010 had the fifth-highest rate of gun deaths among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations. On the other hand, I was disappointed to see the debate focus exclusively on the Liberal government’s order-in-council banning around 1,500 semi-automatic rifles.
Don’t get me wrong: This is an important part of a broad gun-violence discussion. But rifles account for a minority of total gun deaths in Canada each year. In 2018, rifles were used in only 22 per cent of the 249 total fatal shootings, according to the most recent publicly available data from Statistics Canada. And while public attention tends to swing to semi-automatic-weapon controls because they are often used in tragic mass shootings, our piqued attention on these kinds of guns also blinds us to other kinds of gun violence – especially gun suicides, which actually make up the lion’s share of gun deaths in Canada.
Although Statistics Canada does not categorize suicides by method, a report in Health Studies – a peer-reviewed journal of population health and health services research from a division of Statistics Canada – found that in each year from 1979 to 2002, about four-fifths of all firearms-related deaths were suicides. Provincial data confirms this pattern; a 2020 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that suicides accounted for 67 per cent (1,842) of the total number of gun deaths in Ontario between April, 2002, and December, 2016.
If we took these numbers seriously, then our leaders’ conversations about gun violence might also involve debates over how to expand the reach and accessibility of mental-health care for Canadians. Or we might be hearing leaders talk about ways to reduce suicide in places such as Nunavut, which according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention has a suicide rate that is five times higher than the next highest province or territory. Or we might also have a sustained policy discussion about why people living in rural communities and middle-aged men are the most at-risk group for death by suicide. These discussions ultimately never happen, and they haven’t happened yet on the federal campaign trail.
Instead of just hearing a sound bite of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s opinion of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s semi-automatic rifle ban, it would have been nice to also hear him and other leaders debate the details of Bill C-21. Gun owners and community leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the legislation, which contains lots of provisions that are not rooted in evidence-based science, including a municipal handgun ban and a prohibition on replica airsoft guns.
There is also much to be discussed around the “red flag” laws also proposed in Bill C-21, which allow “anyone to make an application to a court for an order to immediately remove firearms, for up to 30 days” if that individual poses a risk to themselves or others. On paper, this sounds like a promising way to reduce gun suicides in Canada, but research on the topic is split. A 2020 study by criminologist Lawrence Sherman describes how such red-flag laws can fail because they require court orders that sometimes take too long to execute. Police need the power to confiscate guns quickly in circumstances where a person is at imminent risk of hurting themselves. But red-flag provisions also represent a potentially useful mechanism for reducing suicides, especially in cases where people have good information about someone at risk of killing themselves with said gun. There are lots of good questions about how this would be implemented – but we never got to hear anything about this from the leaders.
As the election nears its end and leaders pivot to other issues, it’s a shame that we don’t get to have a real discussion about the multilayered nature of gun violence in Canada. And given the sheer numbers of people who die each year by using a gun on themselves – and that we’re only a week removed from World Suicide Prevention Day – it is unconscionable that suicide isn’t brought up more in national policy debates.
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