When the federal government unveiled its ban on 1,500 kinds of “assault-style” firearms on Friday, it was billed as an important move to reduce violence against women.
“On average, one woman dies of domestic violence in Canada every three days,” said Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who drew links between assault weapons and gender violence.
“These guns make it easier to commit mass murder. The culture around their fetishization makes our country inherently more dangerous for the most vulnerable: women and girls. It is unacceptable in 2020 that gender is still a factor in how safe you feel.”
Certainly, women’s groups have long pushed for stricter gun control in Canada. Those calls intensified after police revealed the recent rampage in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people started with a domestic violence incident at a home in Portapique.
For Nathalie Provost, the assault-rifle ban was a longtime coming. Provost was shot four times by a gunman at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. The ban includes the weapon used in that shooting: a Ruger Mini-14 rifle.
“I’m not sure we will be able to erase the possibility of having those kinds of awful massacres like they had in Nova Scotia … but if we can decrease the risk of death and injuries by gun, I think we will have succeeded in something very important for all Canadians,” she told CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup.
Still, if the goal is to reduce the killing of women and girls in Canada, also known as femicide, gender advocates believe the assault-style rifle ban is merely a first step in a larger battle.
‘An important milestone’
Amanda Dale calls the ban on assault weapons “an important milestone,” arguing the Nova Scotia mass killings were rooted in misogyny reminiscent of the Montreal massacre and the van attack in Toronto.
She’s a longtime member of the advisory panel for the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA) and head of a Toronto legal clinic dedicated to fighting violence against women.
“These guns were used in mass murders in which women were often the target, so it’s a very important step forward,” she said.
Yet as sensational as mass shootings are, they account for a small fraction of homicides in Canada. When it comes to femicide, the larger problem is intimate partner violence.
In 2018, guns were the most commonly used weapon when women were killed by an intimate partner, accounting for approximately one-third of cases, according to analysis by the CFOJA.
However, it’s less clear exactly what types of guns were used in those homicides.
“Information on the type of gun used in shootings was available in only 40 per cent of the cases, but where information was known, handguns and long guns were almost equally represented,” wrote the authors of #CallItFemicide, which reviewed 148 killings of women and girls in Canada in 2018.
Hunting rifles and handguns
The report suggests intimacy and rurality increase the risk of femicide for women and girls, which raises questions about licensed long guns.
“In the murder of women, we most often see hunting rifles used, because they are ready [at] hand in an escalating situation often,” said Dale.
“Additionally, we see the rates of domestic violence much higher in rural areas … and that’s where we see those guns.”
Dale argues the assault rifle ban is merely part of a “suite of protections” required to protect women from violence.
Provost, meanwhile, says banning assault rifles “is just a beginning,” suggesting that “this government has to do something at a [federal] level on handguns.”
During the 2019 election campaign, Justin Trudeau said a Liberal government would leave it to cities to restrict or ban handguns. Provost doesn’t believe that will work.
“It will be a real cacophony. It will be a patchwork of inapplicable laws,” said Provost. “If it’s tough to do gun control at the Canadian level, imagine it at the city level.”
‘Also taking guns away from women’
Gun lobbyists, on the other hand, are furious about the new ban, saying it misses the mark if it’s intended to protect women from domestic violence.
Tracey Wilson of the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights argues that the focus should be on providing resources to women living with abusive spouses.
“If it’s really about protecting women, let’s not forget that they are also taking guns away from women when they’re doing that,” said Wilson.
“[The government] coming to my home and taking my firearm away from me now doesn’t do anything to help women out there who are suffering right now.”
Provost expects the gun debate to remain heated in Canada, but disagrees gun control is unfair to law-abiding citizens with legally owned firearms.
“There are too many very dangerous weapons legally owned,” said Provost.
“Mass shooters like Alexandre Bissonnette or Marc Lépine were law-abiding citizens until they did something awful and incredible.… I’m still having that wound in my flesh, 30 years after. And if you ask all the families who lost their daughters, they’re still crying today.”
Interviews by Kirthana Sasitharan and Kate Cornick