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You could almost forgive the Liberal government for using the horrific killing of children and teachers in a school in Uvalde, Tex., as the backdrop for the unveiling of their new gun control legislation. (That is, unless you really believe the timing was a spectacular coincidence, like how the government’s recent announcement of funds to improve abortion access in Canada just so happened to come after the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade.)

When something unconscionable happens, even when it’s in another part of the world, there is a very natural impulse to want to do something – anything – so that something similarly horrific doesn’t happen again, or happen here. So the charitable interpretation of the government’s timing in tabling Bill C-21 is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet yielded to this very human desire for action in the wake of unfathomable tragedy. The less generous interpretation speaks to the lowest form of political depravity.

Bill C-21 really has nothing to do with Texas, though it does represent an improvement on the government’s former plan to tackle gun violence in Canadian cities, which was to allow municipalities to ban handguns and hope that scofflaws chose to respect invisible borders. This new legislation maintains responsibility where it should be – at the federal level – by, among other things, freezing the import, sale and transfer of handguns, which effectively stunts the size of the legal market.

But the legislation doesn’t change the classification of handguns (they are still “restricted” firearms, not “prohibited” ones) and it doesn’t require current owners to sell their weapons back to the government. In effect, Mr. Trudeau is saying handguns are too dangerous to continue to sell to those with Restricted Possession and Acquisition Licenses (RPALs) – people who have passed background checks, provided character witnesses, completed exams and so on – but not so dangerous as to require the government to take them out of the hands of those same license-holders.

Explainer: Trudeau is proposing a national freeze on handguns in Canada. Here’s everything to know about Bill C-21 so far

Canada has a real gun violence problem, but it’s (mostly) not the one the Liberals want to talk about

A ban on the sale of handguns? It’s about time

None of it makes much sense if the goal is to get dangerous weapons off Canadian streets. But that’s in keeping with this government’s approach to gun control. Its order-in-council in May, 2020, banned certain “military-style assault weapons,” while leaving functionally identical but less-scary-looking semi-automatic weapons still legal. And though Bill C-21 would increase penalties for weapons trafficking and other firearms offenses, the focus of the legislation is decidedly on the legal market, even though the majority of Canadian crimes involving firearms appear to feature illegally acquired or smuggled weapons; Toronto police said that 85 per cent of the handguns they seized in 2020 could be traced back to the United States.

Canada, to be clear, absolutely has a gun-crime problem. Among high-income countries surveyed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Canada ranks third-worst, behind the U.S. and Chile respectively, for rates of firearm homicides per 100,000 population. According to Statistics Canada, rates of firearm-related violent crimes have gone up steadily since 2013, even though rules around gun ownership have tightened over the past few years. We can infer, therefore, that federal legislation has been tackling the wrong issue. Canada’s already strict gun laws aren’t the problem: our border with the largest weapons dealer in the world is.

The unfortunate reality of Canada’s gun-crime problem, one that has gone largely unacknowledged (at least by government), is that we will forever be vulnerable by virtue of our geography. Guns are being smuggled in from the U.S. by cars, trucks, even drones – and that’s something that tweaking the Firearms Act is never going to address. Canada could ban all guns tomorrow, making it so that not a single person in this country could legally possess a firearm, and yet we’d still be more vulnerable than, say, the U.K., because the Brits don’t share a border with a country with more guns than people, and you can’t fly a drone from Michigan to Lancashire.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that it is still worth tightening restrictions on legal gun owners by “freezing” handgun ownership, for example, while trying to address gun smuggling at the border at the same time. The counterargument is that the government has now risked losing a potentially valuable ally in legal gun owners – who want to see the illegal gun trade dry up probably more than any other bloc – while fomenting false hope amongst the rest of the population that such measures will meaningfully curb firearms-involved violent crime. That hope might provide ephemeral comfort in the wake of the tragedies we’ve observed in the U.S., but it won’t solve Canada’s most intractable gun crime issue. It’s not clear what will.

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