On a university campus in Montréal on December 6, 1989, a lone gunman deliberately targeted innocent victims, killing 14 young women and injuring another 14 before turning the weapon on himself. The horror of this tragedy led the Canadian government to institute a gun registry law in 1993, which became a source of controversy for many gun owners regarding the mandated registration of unrestricted guns and the larger bureaucracy to regulate it. The law was eventually modified by Canada’s ruling Conservatives in April 2012—abolishing the firearms registry that was established after the Montréal tragedy. The two Canadian opposition parties in Parliament—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—opposed the Conservative initiative.
Since 1989, other tragedies have occurred in both Canada and the United States. Every time such an incident occurs, the initial instinct is to raise the issue of access to firearms and the proliferation of gun-related violence. Gun violence has no boundaries; while Canada has greater restrictions in terms of access, the fact remains that gun violence is still high in North America and the conversation must take place beyond the initial shock of the crime.
The U.S. Constitution provides an explicit right to bear arms. In itself, this has resulted in the reluctance by the political leadership to deal with the issue of gun violence and bring the conversation to a national level. To his credit, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has attempted to start a national conversation on the matter. Following the recent murder-suicide of an American football player, sportscaster Bob Costas tried to follow Bloomberg’s efforts—a comment that resulted in swift condemnation from the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) and its like-minded allies in the media—which put an end to the national conversation.
In Canada, the abolition of the 1993 gun registry is still an open wound to the families and victims of the 1989 tragedy. Successive Québec governments have decided that the province will act unilaterally: the prior government (Liberal Party) won a court injunction to prevent the destruction of existing gun registration information, while the new Parti Québécois administration promises to eventually create a gun registry of its own once the legal recourse has ended. When the senseless violence of December 1989 is recalled, one can only understand the drive to provide the authorities with the tools to best curb the potential for gun violence.
Granted, there are issues outside of prevention that have to be considered. Most firearm owners are law abiding and claim to possess their property for recreational and, in some cases, self-defense purposes. However, one cannot deny the potential hazards of such an instrument if used out of emotion or an alternative motive. The conversation is needed in both countries, and political leadership is required if we are to reduce the tragedies that result from the violent use of guns. Merely remembering the victims is not enough.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.