Canada's Gun Lobby Takes on "Enemy" Federal Government
Looking for allies in Ottawa, lobbyists look to reform the Conservative party and take down the Liberal government
This is a story about what it means to live with gun violence. Its author, Joe Bongiorno, was at Dawson College in 2006 when it became the site of a mass shooting. And while Joe tells us about that day and the toll it took on those who were there, he’s able to take a step back and really dig deep into our national debate over gun control. To tell this story, Joe spoke to survivors, researchers and even people trying to make guns and ammunition easier to access in Canada. Ultimately, Joe — like all of us — is trying to figure out how we can live in a less violent society. I love this story. I think you will too.
By Joe Bongiorno
“I remember being in the cafeteria and just starting to hear loud noises and what seemed like gunshots. I only knew that sound based on video games I had played.”
Jonathan likens the sound of gunfire to the gunshot effects in Rainbow Six, the first-person shooter we played together as kids in his parents’ basement.
Students yelled. Others ran off. Gut instinct kicked in, and Jonathan and four of his friends ducked for cover under the table. He had assumed it was a drug deal gone south, but as the shooter fired indiscriminately at students, Jonathan realized that he too was in the crosshairs.
“People started crawling and crawling towards the back of the cafeteria,” he says. Hiding behind a metal pole, he was in a state of shock. His nerves were shot; he started to laugh, wondering how much it would hurt to be shot in the rear. The tremor of each gunshot shook him up.
On Wednesday, September 13, 2006, Kimveer Gil stormed into Dawson College at midday armed with a legally acquired Beretta CX4 Storm and a duffle bag full of ammunition. Gil killed one, injured nineteen, and then turned the gun on himself.
Only later, years after the blood had been scrubbed off the cafeteria floor, and the bullet-riddled walls were patched up, did Jonathan come to terms with how this day had marked him.
Fifteen years on, the CX4 Storm, along with the legally owned Ruger Mini-14 rifle Marc Lépine used to kill 14 women in the Polytechnique massacre in the winter of 1989 — the same weapon Gabriel Wortman illegally acquired to murder 22 people in Nova Scotia in the spring of 2020 — will no longer be for sale in Canada.
As the newly re-elected Liberals move to fulfill their campaign promise of banning 1,500 models of “assault-style” rifles and draft new restrictions on handguns, the country is still divided on how to stomp out gun violence. On one side of the debate, advocates are demanding stricter gun laws. On the other, litigious gun lobbies are targeting the courts, politicians and journalists.
But beyond these factions, experts are calling for greater government investment in communities — more social workers, easier access to mental healthcare, and other solutions to weed out the root causes of violent crime before they sprout.
“We are in a situation in this country where the government of the day is not our friend. In fact, they are our enemy and the opposition to that enemy basically threw us under the bus,” says Sheldon Clare, President of the National Firearms Association (NFA), in a Sep. 23 video posted on social media.
Clare gesticulates against a gunmetal and metallic red conference call backdrop. The Conservative party needs a “significant purge,” he explains to viewers. The backroom players pushing the party towards a more moderate centre need to be axed.
Midway through the election, the Liberals accused the Conservatives of striking a secret deal with the NFA. In leaked audio from 2018, Conservative national campaign manager and the then NFA lobbyist, Fred DeLorey, rallies a crowd of NFA members to vote out Liberal MPs.
The Conservatives subsequently removed their promise to repeal the assault-style rifle ban from their platform.
Clare denies any such collusion, but admits that the Conservative policy reversal alienated some pro-gun voters who were motivated to vote blue to keep their rifles. Despite the Tories’ election loss; however, Clare says he’s pleased with the “significant impact” the NFA had in helping elect Conservatives in 17 ridings and flipping another six.
“We kept Trudeau from getting a majority,” he says, pointing a finger at the screen. “That’s what we did.”
But the campaigning has never stopped. The 75,000-member strong NFA is already lobbying to replace the current government with a “firearms friendly government.” In this pro-gun vision of Canada, citizens have full access to automatic rifles and the right to discretely carry firearms in public for self-protection. No magazine capacity limits, firearm licensing, restrictions, registration, or classifications.
According to Blake Brown, professor of history at St. Mary’s University, pro-gun groups like the NFA punch above their weight in influence over the Conservatives who have been increasingly courting the pro-gun vote in recent years. “Those groups have worked very hard to align themselves with the current version of the Conservative Party.”
Since the government announced the assault-style weapon ban last year, the NFA has lobbied Ottawa’s lawmakers and policy advisors on 33 different occasions, 26 of which were Conservative.
A slow burn
Rewind to Sep. 13, 2006. Jonathan escaped the school turned crime scene and returned to class the following week when the college reopened its doors.
Mass shootings, let alone school shootings, remain statistically improbable. A near impossibility. But it did happen to Jonathan, and he has to live with it.
“It was a slow burn for a long time,” Jonathan explains.
For a while Jonathan was uncomfortable in public spaces where he felt easily targeted. “The metro used to freak me the fuck out,” he says.
Jonathan didn’t seek therapy, but some of his friends did to deal with their trauma. Others in his circle found solace in prescription drugs. He stopped caring about the future. He lived for the pleasures of the moment, but 15 years on, he says the past is behind him. He’s not sure when he fully processed what happened, but the feelings of guilt and anxiety have waned with time.
Since Polytechnique, 83 Canadians have been killed in mass shootings. Ninety-three injured. But not counted among the wounded are those traumatized by psychological injuries.
“I don't think people realize the damage done to everyone else who's there and how hard it is for people to get their lives back,” he tells me.
I nod. I get what he means. I was there, too. Not in the cafeteria but two floors above. I was technically unscathed, but the outburst of carnage clung to my thoughts, reminding me of its terror for years when there was a sudden loud noise in a public place. The fear of being the target of a sudden, unpredictable rampage carried into my days as a school teacher. It resurfaced when I reviewed the active shooter drill for my classroom and when I escorted my high school students through the corridors after the alarm went off.
Jonathan admits that he hasn’t thought much about gun policy, but he says can’t see why anyone would need semi-automatic guns to hunt.
Clare, a college teacher by day, disagrees. Semi-automatic weapons, including those singled out by the order in council ban, are suitable for hunting and sports shooting, he says. Beyond culture and way of life, he thinks Canadians should be able to discreetly carry guns in public places for self-protection. In fact, he suggests that if Jonathan had a gun, he could have intervened and maybe taken the shooter out.
“If you have a weapon, you have a much better chance of intervening than if you don’t,” Clare says.
I imagine a roomful of armed teenage students drawing revolvers as the police arrive on the scene pointing their own weapons. Would more guns really have transformed a cafeteria full of social science majors into hero marksmen or would it have added to the body count? I try to imagine Jonathan emerging triumphant but decide to move on to the next question.
Gunning for litigation
Canada’s gun lobbies are also taking aim at gun bans in court. Following O’Toole’s loss at the polls, the NFA, the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR), along with other pro-groups, manufacturers, and retailers are proceeding with the legal challenges to strike down gun control legislation.
In what the CCFR labels “the largest charter challenge on behalf on gun owners in Canadian history”, the lobby — in partnership with Maccabee defense inc., Wolverine supplies ltd., and Magnum Machine ltd — isn’t only pushing back against the assault-style rifle ban and the RCMP’s classification of firearms. It’s also accusing the government of violating section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“No one has spent the money and assembled the team that we have before,” claims CCFR executive director Rod Giltaca, in a telephone interview.“We're going to try to defend our culture and our property.”
In one video posted to the CCFR Twitter page, a man holds up an automatic rifle at a Calgary shooting range and fires a perfect “5 K” into a target for a $5,000 donation to the legal fund. In another donation post, a dozen men in cowboy outfits fire their weapons across the dry Saskatchewan plains.
But pro-gun groups are not limiting their litigation strategies to government policy. The CCFR is also cranking up its libel litigation efforts to silence journalists and social media users critical of the group.
“The CCFR has kind of made it a mandate to start suing people and taking them to task,” warns Giltaca in an Oct. 7 video posted on his YouTube channel. His background is a neon-lit red-brick wall reminiscent of stand-up comedy club, a contrast to the steely NFA revolver-metal look.
The gun lobby is well-funded and boasts a team of “extremely aggressive” gun-owning lawyers on retainer, Giltaca tells his viewers. Critics who do not take down what the CCFR views as defamatory tweets or comply with cease and desist orders will be served lawsuits of $20,000 to $60,000 and get dragged through the courts for years. “We’re not gonna be the picked-on kid anymore.”
The CCFR filed its first libel suit against journalist AJ Somerset and the Walrus for an article linking the CCFR to Islamophobic groups, an accusation the CCFR rejects. Somerset stands by his reporting and calls the lawsuit a case of Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
Loopholes and losing ground
It happened just after five in the evening. December drizzle flecked the glass campus windows, and students were cramming for midterms when Lépine opened fire. Twenty-one-year-old Heidi Rathjen huddled for cover in a locked, darkened room nearby. The murderer’s bullets never reached her, but they took the life of one of her closest friends.
Tagged the “Montreal Massacre,” it was the deadliest mass shooting event in modern Canadian history until the “Nova Scotia Massacre” in 2020. Now, after three decades of advocacy and three consecutive elections in which the Liberals campaigned on restricting access to assault-style rifles and handguns, Rathjen and her fellow activists in gun control advocacy group, PolyRemembers, feel that legislation for stronger gun laws has eroded.
Despite 82 per cent of Canadians being in favour of the banning assault-style rifles and 61 per cent supporting a ban on handguns, Rathjen says the pro-gun camp has gained ground, especially with the Harper government’s repeal of the national firearms registry in 2013.
According to PolyRemembers, the assault-style rifle ban is riddled with loopholes. In a Sep. 24 letter, PolyRemembers implores the government to finally ban paramilitary weapons and tighten controls of handguns.
Future Conservative governments can easily reverse a voluntary buyback program, says Rathjen. She also highlights that the ban excludes many gun models that are functionally equivalent to the rifle that killed over a dozen of her former classmates.
Loopholes regulating large capacity magazines mean semi-automatic rifles are easily modifiable, with often only a rivet separating the legal number of bullets from a full capacity magazine, she says. For example, the Quebec City mosque shooter, a legal owner of six guns, fired a rifle equipped with two-illegally modified 30-cartridge magazines with 29 cartridges each instead of the maximum of five per cartridge. He killed six, injured five.
As for proposed handgun bans, Rathjen thinks offloading bans to provinces and municipalities would actually cripple gun control across the country. “It would have not only killed the gun control movement, but also guaranteed that we'd have no progress, no real measures on handguns to counter the proliferation of handguns for decades to come.
“When the conservatives are in power, we go ten steps backwards on gun control, and then when the liberals come in, they take maybe one and a half steps forward. And in that dynamic, we're constantly losing over time.”
The upshot of outlawing firearms
But a central question still looms over the duel on guns. Would a farewell to certain kinds of arms meaningfully curtail gun violence? Enter the divisive, disorienting mire at the core of the debate. In short, it’s not so black and white.
Violent gun crime has steadily increased since the Harper repeal of the long-gun registry. Gun crime shot up by 81 per cent between 2009 and 2019 and one-third of homicides are firearm-related.
Doctors for Protection from Guns (DPFG) point to the Australian ban on assault weapons as an example of model legislation to stem the bloodshed. Along with firearm registration and new licensing rules, the Australian agreement included a mandatory buyback of semi-automatic rifles, pump action shotguns, and self-loading shotguns. In United States, the now expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban decreased the odds of mass shootings by 70 per cent, according to one report.
“Guns are the number one [killer] of young women and children in domestic violence situations,” says Najma Ahmed, professor of surgery at the University of Toronto. Ahmed, who treated gunshot victims of the 2018 Danforth shooting, has not only seen a growing number of gunshot victims in the past decade but a rising number of patients threatened by legally owned firearms in cases of domestic abuse.
“Remove the gun from the situation, and things will become much less lethal. I'm a trauma surgeon. I can tell you the case fatality rate for a knife wound is much, much less than for a gunshot wound because guns intend to kill. That's what they're supposed to do. And they're very efficient at it.”
Ahmed wants to go further, straight to the production line. Comparing the manufacturing of firearms to lethal drugs, she would like to see highly lethal guns eliminated from the marketplace based on their characteristics.
In truth, gun violence isn’t limited to homicide or hurting others. Gun murder actually pales in comparison to suicide. Fourth-fifths of suicides are carried out with firearms, and according to the Department of Justice, usually with long-guns.
But while gun control advocates argue that assault-style rifle and handguns bans would lead to a drop in violence, some experts doubt that bans will really pay off the way advocates are hoping for.
In fact, Noah S. Schwartz, political science professor at Concordia University, says that some of the studies cited by gun control advocates are heavily disputed. Some researchers argue that the Canadian long-gun registry failed to impact gun crime while other reports see little observable change in overall gun crime after the Australian ban. Schwartz also thinks that Canadians should avoid comparisons with the U.S. given the country’s general paucity of gun control measures.
To Jooyoung Lee, sociology professor at the University of Toronto, mandatory buybacks are generally more successful than voluntary buybacks, but he says the Australian example isn’t easily replicated given that island nation’s geographic isolation.
Lee also sees a major blind spot in that there isn’t a sufficient amount of data collection in Canada to inform domestic policy decisions like gun bans. This lack of data makes it difficult to figure out where crime guns originate, but the limited information that is available shows that most crime guns flow in illegally from the United States, the world’s foremost gun-toting nation and leading exporter of firearms.
In 2021, 77 per cent of Ottawa’s crime guns and 85 per cent of handguns seized in Toronto were smuggled from the U.S. However, most crime guns in Saskatchewan, typically long-guns, are domestically sourced, often stolen.
Lee thinks Canada should put more pressure on the U.S. to tighten up its gun laws that greatly affect its northern and southern neighbours. “The lax laws in the U.S. are not only killing or harming Americans, it's a global problem, something that's crossing borders.”
Schwartz doubts Canada can influence American gun policy and argues that bans fail to provide a reasonable return on the cost. He also thinks that Canada already has the most effective means of reducing mass shootings in firearm licensing and magazine capacity regulations. “Guns are very, very tightly controlled in Canada, which is a good thing,” he says.
“Obviously, gun control can have a huge impact on gun crime, but […] we've hit a point where on the domestic side of tackling the source of crime guns, there's little that we can do that's going to impact the overall supply within Canada because of the huge amount of handguns in the United States.”
Gun violence, whether in the form of handgun-wielding gangs or mass shooters armed with semi-automatic rifles, is rooted in untreated societal wounds. While pro-gun and gun control advocates may not see eye to eye on gun control legislation, experts are finding common ground on the need for community-led prevention.
“Violence is a symptom of something that is more deeply rooted in societies and communities,” says Marc Alain, criminology professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “It's just the expression that something's wrong and something that we didn't take care of for many, many, many years.”
Lee compares the upstream approach to getting healthcare treatment for preventable disease before falling ill. Reactive, tough on crime and gun control measures alone are incapable of treating the root cause of violence in the community, he says. A dearth of social workers and counsellors, especially for youth transitioning into adulthood, means a shortage of professionals able to intervene before would-be offenders pick up their weapons.
Many mass shooters suffer from latent mental health issues, if not outright diagnosed ones, Lee says. Records of problems in the classroom or bullying are missed or forgotten. “These problems don't just come out of nowhere. There’s a trail.”
The social wounds that fester into gang violence also require preventative care. Creating equitable neighbourhoods, mentoring programs, and affordable housing reduce the likelihood of violence taking root in the community, says Lee.
Young people who don’t see a place for themselves within mainstream society are more likely to get sucked into the cycle of violence, says Schwartz. Reducing economic and racial inequality, investing in marginalized communities, and putting violence interruption programs in place are much more effective long-term solutions than relying on law enforcement on gun control.
On the streets of Montréal-Nord, parents are mourning their children after a drive-by shooting left three last summer dead amid a spike in gang violence.
Meanwhile, in August, a twenty-year old would-be shooter was apprehended after he had repeatedly told colleagues about his desire to shoot up a local high school on the north shore. Three guns were found in his home including two semi-automatic weapons.
The federal election hangover may have passed, but the question of what we should do to stem the violence has not. Come November, assault rifles and handguns will be on the ballot in Quebec as voters elect municipal governments across the province. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante is running on a $110 million pledge to curb gun violence in the city by increasing the police department’s budget and investing in social services. Her opponent, Denis Coderre, wants to hire over 200 new cops to address what he calls a dramatic spike in gun violence.
As gun control advocates continue press the government to fulfill to its promises, pro-gun groups are pushing to keep their arms beyond the next election cycle.
Whoever is elected and whatever laws are passed, survivors like Jonathan are hoping that the communities they call home finally deal with the cradles of gun violence before the next rose is laid on the steps of a school or the street pavement in Montréal-Nord.
About the Author
is a freelance journalist, fiction author, and former high school teacher. His journalism has appeared in CBC, the National Observer, and the Montreal Gazette.
About the illustrator…
Amanda Di Genova is an artist, clothing designer, screen printer and pug owner who works out of Montreal’s North Shore. You can see her
and check out her apparel on
Elektrek Clothing’s website.