Firearms have been recognized world-wide as a public health problem—they figure prominently in suicides, accidents, homicides and conflict-related deaths. While “small arms” have become the weapons of choice in conflicts, more people are killed with guns in countries not at war. There is a gender dimension to the problem. While men are more likely to be perpetrators and victims of small arms violence, small arms figure prominently in violence against women. Worldwide there are approximately 750 million small arms, most of them in the hands of civilians and one-third owned by Americans.
There have been international efforts to establish standards to regulate small arms in order to reduce the risk of misuse and to combat the illegal gun trade. Virtually all illegal guns begin as legal guns and regulation is an important way to reduce the diversion to illegal markets. There have been many regional agreements governing firearms imports and exports:
Efforts to establish rigorous international standards have, however, been stymied at every turn by the powerful gun lobby and its political allies. For example, while basic standards for the regulation of civilian firearms are norms in most jurisdictions, efforts to include these in the Program of Action were blocked by the United States in response to lobbying by the National Rifle Association.
In spite of this, many countries recognize that regulating civilian possession is essential to meeting the Program of Action’s obligations. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the Special Rapporteur on Small Arms and Human Rights have both maintained that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens, particularly women, from the violence associated with firearms. They have also maintained that states failing to regulate adequately civilian possession of firearms may be failing to meet their obligations under international law.
Canada which at one time was regarded internationally as a leader in innovative strategies to combat firearms violence, specifically armed violence against women, and a driver for strict international standards, has regrettably backslid, in part under the influence of the gun lobby.
The 1995 Firearms Act requires 2 million gun owners to be licensed, all guns to be registered, and bans military assault weapons. As Alberta’s Chief Justice Catherine Fraser wrote, it is “About the protection of public safety from the misuse of ordinary firearms. This is to be accomplished through a simple but compelling concept—individual responsibility and accountability for one’s ordinary firearms. This is a small price to pay for the privilege of being allowed to possess and use a dangerous weapon.”
Most countries license gun owners and register firearms and this requirement is contained in many regional agreements, for example the European Union Directive 2008/51/EC.
Canada’s gun control laws have contributed to a significant reduction in death and injury. In 2007, 400 fewer Canadians died of gunshots compared to 1995. Suicides, particularly among youth, and spousal homicides with firearms have plummeted. The laws are supported by public health and safety groups and women’s safety experts, including organizations such the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, and the YWCA of Canada.
In spite of this the Conservative government has vowed to end the requirement to register 6.8 million non-restricted firearms (rifles, shotguns and some sniper rifles), introducing five separate Bills also aimed at destroying the existing records. Last September, the House of Commons voted narrowly to shelve their latest attempt. Groups working to reduce the illicit gun trade such as Project Ploughshares and the International Action Network on Small Arms noted that eroding our domestic gun control laws would weaken the impact of Canada’s calls for improved national standards elsewhere.
Last December, the government further backtracked on our international obligations to fight the illegal gun trade by delaying for a third time the implementation of marking and tracing regulations which are essential to ratifying Canada’s participation in CIFTA and the Firearms Protocol.
Canadians want action to prevent gun violence and their government to take a strong stand on the fight against the illicit trade in small arms. While Canada used to be leading the way, its position is steadily slipping.
Wendy Cukier is national director, Coalition for Gun Control.
Founded in the wake of the Montreal massacre, the Coalition is the only national non-profit organization working to reduce gun injury, death, and crime in Canada. It is endorsed by more than 300 community, child safety, rights, and crime-prevention organizations. See http://www.guncontrol.ca for more information.