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Matt Gurney: Trudeau's Goldilocks moment, but for pistols instead of porridge
We've heard a lot about crassly opportunistic politicians exploiting low-info voters. I wonder how many of Canada's urbanites would be surprised to realize that this time, that means them.
In my 15 years or so of writing about firearms policy, here’s been a constant problem: gun policy is complicated, the broader public doesn't know much about it, and it's hard (impossible?) to make any coherent arguments without laying out the context, both of the specific proposals and the broader background. Working through what was announced yesterday, and how this clarifies a worrying shift in how the Liberals approach gun control, is going to be a bit of a process.
As of Tuesday morning, we are short a lot of details, because the Liberals chose to make their high-publicity announcement before they provided any technical briefings. (We'll come back to that later.) At first glance, it seems that lot of what the Liberals announced is stuff they'd either already committed to do or, in fact, already exists. (The Liberals?! Re-announcing stuff? Well, I never!) There is currently confusion about the ammunition magazine capacity limit — most non-gunnies won't know the difference between an internal magazine and a detachable one, but it's a huge difference, and the proposed legislation is unhelpfully vague. So stay tuned. But the actual centrepiece of the proposal, I have to admit, made me burst out laughing. On Twitter, I called it "peak Liberal." It really is a pretty perfect example of what's wrong with how the Liberals govern, but why they're great at politics.
The big reveal was a "freeze" on handgun sales in Canada, and their importation. Existing owners can keep theirs. It's not clear exactly when this will go in effect, so I imagine gun stores across the land are going to set sales records in the next few days. Once in place, the sale or transfer of a handgun — from either a store to an individual or between individuals — will be eliminated. Again, "frozen," as the Liberals call it.
At the most basic level, new government policies are intended to solve a problem: you see something that's wrong with the status quo, and you try to enact a policy to improve it. Parties tend to wrap their policies in lots of rhetorical flourishes, but if you tune out what the politicians are saying and look at what they're doing, you can get a decent sense of what their actual goal is. And there's been an interesting shift in what the Liberals have been doing with gun control these last few years. Monday's announcement is perhaps the ultimate example of this yet, the purest form of the new normal we've yet seen.
The Liberals are making a series of announcements that won't actually change, at all, how safe Canadians are from gun violence. The announcements do get a lot of attention, though. Because, clearly, getting the attention is itself the goal. The public-safety talking points are just the PR frosting on top of what is an entirely political exercise. Why else make the announcement before you give the press the technical briefings? The sequence tells you all you need to know. (The Star’s terrific Stephanie Levitz said all that needed saying on that front yesterday in a short Twitter thread.)
This is new. Up until a few years ago, while Conservatives and Liberals disagreed on a lot of the details, but they shared a common concept of what the purpose of our system was: to regulate the licensing of gun owners, set standards for storage and transport, and generally seek to keep gun crime (especially violent gun crime) in Canada at its generally low levels. The system functions very well. It is a genuine success story for government policy. Most of the firearm homicides in Canada are committed with guns smuggled in from the United States, outside the framework of our gun control. Canada's millions of lawful owners, and their many millions of firearms, are seldom responsible for crimes. The system works about as well as it can — you can tweak it, but it's fundamentally sound.
What has changed in recent years is the shared understanding of the purpose of our gun control system. The Conservatives are, to put it mildly, in a state of transition of late, so who knows what the future will bring. But as of now, their gun policies remain within that once-shared framework: the problem isn't civilian ownership of firearms, it's crimes committed with guns. The Liberals shared that common framework at least up until at least 2018, during Justin Trudeau's first mandate (his only with a majority). The Liberals spent genuine time and energy crafting Bill C-71, their first crack at reforming our gun laws, and didn't change much from the Harper-era rules. The bill was a mixed bag, to my mind, with some good ideas mixed in with some bad ideas, but it was a serious bill — a thoughtful effort that was within the general consensus of what our gun laws are for and should do.
And then things began to change, starting around 2019 — which, no doubt entirely by coincidence, was the year the Liberals lost their parliamentary majority and became electorally dependent on a hyper-efficient vote in the country’s large urban areas.
The Liberals have always used guns as a wedge against the Conservatives, of course, but that was just sort of a happy coincidence born of their fairly modest policy differences. Now creating that wedge, pleasing as it is to those last-remaining Liberal voters in the big cities, itself seems like the point. Because in terms of actual public-safety benefits, most of what the Liberals have proposed since losing their majority is bullshit.
I don't mean bullshit as in "bad." (Though I think most of the proposals are indeed bad.) I mean it as in "nonsensical." There has been a noticeable uncoupling between what the Liberals say they're doing and why they're doing it, and what they're actually doing. Take, for example, the assault weapon ban they rushed out after the Nova Scotia shooting, committed with smuggled guns from the U.S.: The Liberals like to tout how they banned 1,500 models of assault rifle, but they've left even more models of rifle that are functionally identical to the banned models untouched. I can't buy an AR-15, but I can walk into a store today, flash my firearms licence, swipe my credit card, and walk out with something that's basically the same: same calibre of ammunition, same kind of magazines, same semi-automatic rate of fire. Likewise, the handgun freeze they announced Monday? It leaves Canadians in possession of an estimated million handguns.
If it's bad for Canadians to have handguns, if it's a threat to public safety, what good is a plan that just locks in the threat?
Tune out the rhetoric, look at the proposals. What's being accomplished here?
Journalist Stephen Maher had what was perhaps the most revelatory announcement on Monday. He asked a government spokesperson what the rationale behind the freeze was and then tweeted that he'd been told: "The reason we’re not changing the classification [which would ban handguns outright] is that it would mean that people who currently own handguns legally would be breaking the law. By doing it this way, we’re putting a cap on the market and stopping importation/sale/transfer of handguns while permitting those who currently own them legally to keep them."
Okay, but ... why? What kind of sense does that make? If the Liberals see a need to stop the importation/sale/transfer of handguns, they must think handguns are a problem. But they're also explicitly letting people who have legal handguns keep them, which tells us they don't think they're a problem.
This is bizarre policy. If handguns pose a threat to the public that must be stopped, you can't let people keep them. If there's no problem with people keeping them, there's no point in stopping them from being imported, bought or sold. The policy announcement Monday, interpreted literally, implies that the Liberals have concluded that Canadians own the exactly the right number of handguns. More would be a problem, and fewer is no benefit. It's Goldilocks, but for pistols instead of porridge.
There is no coherent rationale for this. Trudeau could start getting rid of handguns overnight. He has the power to immediately ban them and begin a buyback or confiscation process. Handguns are registered; he knows where they are, so it's not a logistical problem. He would have the support of the NDP in doing this, so it's not a political constraint, either. There's only one possible explanation for this proposal: if the Liberals aren't banning the guns, they're acknowledging the guns aren't the problem. It's the same for their "military style assault rifle" plan: they're banning some semi-automatic rifles that fire the various ammunition calibres, but not all semi-automatic rifles that fire the various ammunition calibres. Clearly, the rifles aren’t the problem. There's no way to read this without concluding that the purpose of the announcements is the announcements themselves.
"Oh Matt," you might be thinking. "Don't be silly, they'll ban them eventually. It's an incremental plan." Well, yeah, probably. That's worse. Again, the stated rationale is that these firearms are a danger to public safety. What possible justification is there for the Liberals, by their own claimed internal logic, to not ban them by now? Is there some minimum threshold of death needed before they'll act and they're just patiently waiting to reach it? Imagine if this was a product recall for contaminated food, and the government announced that they weren't going to shut the production down, just cap it, and you can keep and eat the contaminated food you already have. People would rightly think that was bonkers.
What looks like confusing policy becomes clear once understood as politics. The Liberal have moved away from the previous shared understanding of the purpose of our gun control laws was and now view gun control as political signalling to their urban base voters, voters who won't know enough to realize how bizarre and toothless the proposals are. And that's it. The more vulnerable the Liberals have become politically, the harder they've worked to make a lot of noise on guns without actually coming down with a policy that goes all the way toward the obvious natural conclusion of their proposals. Excellent politicians that they are, they know actually solving the issue isn’t in their interests — it’s better for them to keep stuff in hand to roll out, bit by bit, every time there's a tragedy. That only makes sense if one of these things are true: the Liberals are either willing to let Canadians die to give them more political cover, or they know the freezes and bans won't actually save lives, so feel no real urgency to actually do anything.
This is either a cynical ploy or an unconscionable choice. It can't be anything else. It'll work, though. It works because the public doesn't know enough about our laws to independently analyze what the Liberals are proposing. We've heard a lot in recent years about crassly opportunistic politicians exploiting low-info voters. I wonder how many of Canada's well-educated, white-collar urbanites would be surprised to realize that this time, that means them.
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