We remember (part four)

It’s impossible not to be thinking about guns this week. Two recent high-profile mass shootings in the United States – the Buffalo grocery store shooting on May 14th and the Uvalde elementary school shooting on May 24th – left a total of 31 people, 19 of them children, dead, another 20 physically injured and countless more permanently traumatized and grief-stricken.

In both cases, the shooters were young men; in fact, at 18, they were practically boys. Both used semi-automatic weapons which they had obtained legally.

Guns will be one of the many topics under discussion at the inquest into the September 22, 2015, murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, which begins next week in Pembroke, Ontario.

The issue of access to firearms has also arisen in the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission’s independent public inquiry into the mass shootings and surrounding events that resulted in the deaths of 22 people, just as it was an issue in the Desmond Fatality Inquiry, also in Nova Scotia.

Guns, guns and more guns

Basil Borutski had a firearms possession and acquisition permit in his wallet when he was arrested on September 22, 2015. These licences are valid for five years: he first obtained one in 2007 and renewed it in mid-2012, with an expiry date of October 17, 2017.

However, his permit was revoked in December 2012, because of a court-ordered 10-year weapons ban that resulted from domestic-violence related convictions and, in 2014, a lifetime weapons ban was issued against him because of other domestic violence offences.

Despite this lifetime ban, Borutski still had possession of his permit. While he would not have been able to use it to buy a restricted firearm, he could have used it to buy an unrestricted firearm as well as ammunition.

In any event, Borutski apparently did not buy the gun he used on September 22, 2015: he claims to have found an old gun “years before the killings.”

Similarly, Lionel Desmond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffered from extreme PTSD, despite many calls for help (some from him, some from others) and police interventions, slipped through the systems intended to ensure that people who posed a risk of harm to themselves or others could not obtain firearms licences. On January 3, 2017, he used his licence to buy the rifle with which he killed his wife, Shanna, daughter, Aaliyah, mother, Brenda, and himself.

In both these cases, the laws and regulations needed to keep men who posed a risk to themselves and others from buying and owning guns existed, but they were not properly enforced.

“All those bullets”

The connections between guns and intimate partner homicide are well established, as is the link between intimate partner violence and mass killings.

Guns play a particularly prominent role in rural communities, because of their presence in many homes. They are used for legitimate purposes like hunting, but they are also used by abusers to terrify and coercively control their partners. Pulling out a gun to clean it during an argument, waving the gun around when the woman “defies” him in some way, leaving ammunition lying around the house: all are powerful ways abusive men can use firearms to keep their partner submissive. (Think of Miles Naslund, for instance, who kept a loaded handgun on the coffee table beside his favourite armchair, cocking and uncocking it whenever his wife or kids annoyed him.)

In 2018, firearms were present in more than 600 incidents of intimate partner violence. IPV victims generally are five times more likely to be killed when there is a firearm in the house.

Women in rural communities are especially vulnerable: while only 12 percent of femicides in urban areas involve the use of a firearm, the rate in rural communities is more than double that, at 29 percent.

“One day he told me I was going to be a hunting accident, we were up in the bush, 40 miles  away, with the two children, the gun and all those bullets.”

Inching forward

Yesterday, the federal government introduced Bill C-21, which proposes a national freeze on the purchase, sale, importation and transfer of handguns. Given that there is virtually no legitimate reason for civilians to have handguns and there has been a 71 percent increase in the number of registered handguns in Canada between 2010 and 2020, there is just no doubt that this is a good move.

Other elements in the Bill include the removal of firearms licences from anyone involved in domestic violence or criminal harassment offences, implementation of a mandatory buy-back program for assault-style weapons banned by the government in 2020 and a requirement that people deemed a threat to themselves or others turn in their firearms.

Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendocino introduced the Bill, calling it:

“a milestone amidst a long and difficult battle . . . which has claimed too many lives, leaving empty chairs at the dinner table and empty desks in our classrooms.”

Bill C-21 is a milestone — one many gun control advocates thought they might never see – so let’s hope the party politics can be set aside to ensure smooth and rapid passage of this important step forward in gun control.

Then, let’s hope that the new regulations will be enforced by those with the responsibility to do so.

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