To counter domestic homicide, tighten gun control

Original Article: Amanda Dale  |  The Star  |  June 2, 2018  |

One day at the end of the summer of 2015, a rural eastern Ontario man drove around Renfrew County and shot three of his former partners to death.

In one of the worst cases of domestic and intimate partner violence in Canadian history, he showed up unannounced at their doors carrying a sawed off pump-action shotgun.

There were warning signs.

Three years before the killings, the man had vandalized one of his former partner’s property and threatened to kill her dog and hurt her son.

Two years before the killings, he choked and assaulted another of the women.

In the two weeks leading up to his first murder of the day, he sent that former partner more than 100 desperate texts.

Last week, the Toronto Police Service conducted a conference on domestic homicides that could not be more timely. Half a province away in Ottawa, Parliament was fine-tuning proposals in Bill C-71 to tighten gun regulation. And the changes are desperately needed – firearms are part of the cycle of violence against women across the country and around the world.

While many Canadians congratulate themselves considering how much safer Canada is than the United States, it ranks fourth among OECD countries in rates of firearms death. Canada’s gun violence record isn’t pretty. In 2016, Canada recorded 223 gun homicides, a significant increase over 2012, when there were 171 such killings. And guns figure prominently in the cycle of domestic violence.

Every year in Canada, more than 100,000 women and children leave their homes to escape abuse, seeking safety in a shelter. On any given night in Canada, some 3,500 women and 2,750 children sleep in shelters. Gun violence is present in many of these cases, taking such forms as intimidation, control and the threat of homicide.

A quarter of domestic violence homicides are committed with firearms, an Ontario study found. A study in rural New Brunswick and PEI found that two-thirds of the women whose homes had firearms said knowing firearms were present made them more fearful for their safety and well-being, and 70 per cent said it affected their decisions whether to tell others about or seek help for abuse they received.

Women expressed concern about police response times in rural areas and a general lack of trust of police and the justice system to take them seriously and protect them. At the downtown Toronto legal clinic for gender based violence I work at, screening for the presence of a licensed firearm is a number one screening question in our risk assessment.

Canadians pay a steep price for this gun violence. Each year, we collectively pay $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence, including primary health care, loss of income, social supports to help women rebuild their lives after escaping violence, and other costs ranging from funerals to the intangible human costs of pain and suffering. And the ripple effects are massive – affecting families, communities and generations.

In the face of these realities, some people are trying to remove from Canadian law the prohibition on ownership by civilians of military assault weapons. What a step backwards that would be — propelling us toward American-style massacres.

Instead of arming our neighbours with assault rifles, we have saner proposals for a safer Canada.

It is a terrible irony that where there are more guns there is more opposition to gun control even though where there are more guns there are higher rates of firearm death and injury. Elected officials seem only to care about the screeching of the gun lobby, ignoring the safety of urban and rural women and their children.

Sound familiar?

We urge Parliament to amend the bill to keep guns out of the hands of anyone considered to be a threat to themselves or others, for any reason, such as the concerns of spouses or family members.

Most Canadians would ban handguns altogether – they are classified as restricted and prohibited weapons – but have proliferated in recent years. More than 700,000 are now privately owned.

At a minimum, the proposed legislation must restore previous controls on authorizations to transport restricted weapons. Rather than allowing them to be transported to any gun club in the province (effectively everywhere) the authorization should be narrowly defined.

Most Canadians do not know that today the US has better controls over the sales of rifles and shotguns than Canada does. When the Conservatives dismantled the firearms registry and destroyed the records on more than six million guns they refused to reinstitute the 1977 requirement that gun dealers record firearm sales and make those records available to police when they need to trace guns.

The proposed legislation seems more concerned about imagined gun owner “rights” (there is no right to bear arms in Canada) than public safety and as a minimum the 1977 controls over sales should be restored. New mechanisms are also needed to flag stockpiling.

But apart from what is in the legislation we need a paradigm shift. The issue has for too long been framed as one of gangs and guns, pitting “urban elites” against “law abiding rural gun owners.”

Unfortunately it’s not that simple, particularly when the safety of women is concerned. Women are more at risk in rural areas. And the point of regulation is not to “punish” but rather to protect. To reduce the risk that dangerous people will get access to firearms.

A final fact. Polling shows that while two thirds of gun owners opposed some gun control measures, more than half of the people living with gun owners supported them. And women vote too.