Could Canada’s gun buy-back programme be a model for the US?

As the US reels from yet another mass shooting, its northern neighbour is trying to get rid of assault weapons

The gun buy-back programme rendered up to half a million weapons illegal in Canada, but owners were given a two-year amnesty. AP
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Heidi Rathjen will never forget the day a gunman walked into her university in Montreal and opened fire.

The misogynistic attack left 14 women dead. Among the wounded was Ms Rathjen's friend, Natalie Provost, who was hit four times.

Following the 1989 massacre, the two women became outspoken advocates for gun control, arguing that semi-automatic weapons of the type used in the attack on the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal had no legitimate use.

"It was traumatic for everyone,” she recalls.

“But I was amongst the luckier ones, who didn't face the killer or see people get shot.”

Ms Rathjen and Ms Provost are now among those voicing satisfaction after a buy-back programme of more than 1,500 different types of assault weapons got under way last month.

The buy-back programme was part of a ban on most assault weapons enacted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following a mass shooting in Nova Scotia in May 2020 that killed 22 people — the deadliest in Canadian history.

The programme rendered up to half a million weapons illegal, but owners were given a two-year amnesty. The amnesty was later extended by Mr Trudeau, who was elected to a third term in 2021.

Commemorating the 25th anniversary of Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 2015. The 14 beams of light on Mount Royal represents 14 victims. Photo: Creative Commons

“These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only — to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time,” the Liberal Party leader said at the time.

“There is no use and no place for such weapons in Canada.”

Mr Trudeau also introduced several pieces of legislation to ban such weapons.

Last October, the government ordered a freeze on the sale and transfer of handguns.

“We made a commitment to those law-abiding gun owners who had bought these firearms when they were legal, that they would be fairly compensated,” said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

He added that the government was working with a gun industry group, the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, to identify which weapons needed to be collected.

“[We have] already identified approximately 11,000 assault-style firearms, including parts and components, within the existing inventory of firearms vendors across the country.

“These are the first assault-style firearms bought back under the programme, and show that we’re moving forward with this landmark federal initiative.”

Canada's gun buy-back programme is the latest example of governments compensating gun owners after firearms bans.

Biden calls for assault weapons ban - video

Biden calls for assault weapons ban

Biden calls for assault weapons ban
Biden calls for assault weapons ban

New Zealand did something similar in 2019 after banning semi-automatic weapons following the Christchurch mosque shootings, and Australia has initiated buybacks after outlawing many types of guns following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania.

In the US, several cities and states have attempted gun buy-back programmes, but in a country with more guns than people, the initiatives have had limited effect.

At the centre of the opposition to gun regulation is the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which has long been used by firearm enthusiasts to protect “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”.

Critics say the nation’s founders — writing those amendments in an era when soldiers were armed with flintlock muskets — could not have envisaged the deadly weapons that can be bought today, often with the bare minimum of checks.

A 2022 Supreme Court judgement, known as Bruen, even defended a person’s right to openly carry a handgun, ruling that a New York state law seeking to regulate such matters was unconstitutional.

Canada has a high level of gun ownership compared to most countries, with an estimated 34 weapons per 100 people, but it pales in comparison to the US, where the number is 120 per 100.

Gun deaths are far lower in Canada. In 2021, there were 14.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people in the US, compared to fewer than two deaths per 100,000 in Canada.

Campaigners say that while Canada may look good by such a comparison, it needs to do more, particularly when compared to nations such as Japan, the UK and Australia.

The buy-back programme will help, says Wendy Cukier, president for the Coalition for Gun Control.

“It definitely brings us more in line with other industrialised countries,” she says.

“I think what is even more significant is the measure currently being debated before parliament, which is to prevent the import, sale and transfer of handguns.”

Ms Cukier says she wishes the US would do more to regulate weapons, not simply for its own citizens but also to help Canada, as cross-border trafficking of firearms is a major problem.

“Close to 90 per cent of handguns recovered in crimes come from the US,” she says.

“So the lack of gun control in the United States fuels gun violence, not just in the United States, but around the world.”

Polls show solid support for gun control in Canada. As many as 70 per of Canadians support a handgun ban, while 55 per cent “strongly oppose” people owning assault-sale weapons.

Only about 11 per cent of those polled believed people should own such weapons.

Heidi Rathjen, a survivor of the 1985 Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal mass shooting. Photo: Heidi Rathjen

Ms Rathjen was 22 when gunman Marc Lepine entered an engineering class at the celebrated Montreal institution, ordered the men to leave and opened fire on female students.

The attack was widely as an intentional attack on women and it was later discovered the gunman, who killed himself at the scene, had identified a hit list of targets he considered feminists.

After Canada passed a comprehensive weapons ban in 1995, Ms Rathjen left the movement. She returned to activism after those regulations were weakened under a series of conservative governments, notably one led by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Speaking from Montreal, Ms Rathjen, founder of the group PolySeSouvient - or "Poly Remembers" - tells The National: “I was sure I wouldn't be doing this forever.

“Unfortunately the gun lobby never rests. And we have an incredibly strong gun lobby in Canada. The gun control groups are minuscule compared to the gun lobby.”

Canada's buy-back programme is taking place in two stages: the first through retailers and the second through individual gun owners.

The CSAAA, a gun industry group, said on Twitter it was co-operating with the orders. It is reportedly being paid more than $500,000 to help identify, buy and then destroy the banned weapons.

But it added: “CSAAA does not support the unfounded [executive] or subsequent legislation brought on by the federal government.”

Meanwhile, there are signs that views are changing in the US, at least as far as assault weapons are concerned. Washington state recently became the 10th state to ban the sale of AR-15s and other assault-style weapons.

“These weapons of war, assault weapons, have no reason other than mass murder,” Governor Jay Inslee said as he signed the bill.

“Their only purpose is to kill humans as rapidly as possible in large numbers.”

Speaking out against gun violence in the US - in pictures

Updated: May 09, 2023, 3:12 PM

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