I recently published an article in the Huffington Post Canada’s recurring “Change My Mind” feature.
The subject was: Can Government Solve Toronto’s Gun Violence Problem?
My article, alongside a piece by NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo can be read here.
Full version after the jump.
With every highly publicized incident of gun violence, a fresh cycle of soul searching and introspection inevitably begins. Pundits and politicians race to the podiums, cameras and editorial pages.
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the causes of crime, that is, the factors which underlie the commission of these terrible offences, the usual refrain reappears: “More gun control!”
These efforts usually take the form of two distinct, but related, initiatives.
The first is prohibition. There are sometimes calls for complete prohibitions on firearm ownership. Sometimes, certain classes of firearms are singled out for prohibition. This week, it might be semi-automatic rifles. Last week, it was handguns. Next week, it will probably be magazines that hold more than a certain number of rounds. And so on.
The second is increased regulation of gun owners. Politicians promise to make gun ownership even more difficult, and even more expensive. New transportation and safe storage laws are passed. It is no longer sufficient for handguns to be trigger-locked when stored in the home. They must be trigger-locked and stored in a safe. When taking your gun to the shooting range, it has to be completely disassembled, instead of merely locked up.
These types of laws are easy to pass. They don’t require any new government spending. And, since gun owners are a small minority (roughly 2 million Canadians, at last count), they are rarely in a position to block the passage of these measures.
In the wake of a tragedy, like Toronto’s recent Eaton Centre shooting, for example, the public wants to feel like their politicians are doing something to prevent these terrible events from happening again. Gun control is usually that “something.”
In this regard, gun control is the last refuge of the lazy legislator. It is a public policy pacifier – it addresses the imminent need for government to act , or to appear to be acting, in the public interest.
However, these types of gun control proposals all have one thing in common. And that common denominator, by its very essence, dooms them all to failure.
Gun control targets those who are, by definition, already law abiding. That is, the only people who will respect and abide by new gun control measures are people who are law abiding in the first place.
Let’s consider prohibition first. Prohibition has been tried before, in many different areas of the criminal law. Government has long tried to legislate out of existence certain substances, practices and behaviours.
Drugs are prohibited. Prostitution is prohibited. For a time in this country, alcohol was prohibited.
As a criminal lawyer, practicing in our provincial courts on a daily basis, I can state with certainty that prohibition is a miserable failure. It is simple free market economics: When people want something badly enough, there will be suppliers. This is true with drugs and it is equally true with guns.
Take cocaine and heroin for example. Since the early 20th century, these drugs have been absolutely prohibited. Unlike firearms, which can be obtained by law-abiding individuals, following a rigorous background check, there is essentially no legal method for obtaining hard drugs. And yet they continue to flood our streets. Why would guns be any different?
The same holds true with regards to increased regulation of gun owners and gun ownership. There is no link between these types of measures and any significant public safety outcome. By simply saddling the already-compliant with more restrictions, government does nothing to address the core causes of crime and violence in our society.
That is not to say, however, that government has no role in addressing the problem of gun violence.
First, stop focusing on the “gun” at the expense of the “violence.” The real concern, particularly with regards to urban shootings, is not the use of the firearm per se, but the fact that young people are drawn to gangs and the casual use of violence that goes along with membership in a criminal organization.
Second, look at the broader picture. Violent crime is a function of numerous complex social factors. Be it poverty, inequality, social disaffection, mental illness or addiction, there are reasons why people turn to violence and sometimes, homicide, to solve their disputes.
Yes, these problems are difficult. Yes, they are expensive. And yes, we may ultimately fail to successfully tackle all of these complicated issues.
But legislators owe it to their constituents to do more than engage in symbolic gestures which do not address the fundamental causes of crime and violence in our society.
Gun control is not crime control. It is crime control theatre. And when politicians engage in theatre, eventually the curtain will come down, and we will have to leave the performance and walk out onto the street outside, still facing the same problems of crime and violence that we did before.
When it comes to violent crime, Canadians deserve more than theater.