Blake Brown: Conservative leadership and the changing demographics of gun ownership

Credit to Author: Hardip Johal| Date: Thu, 13 Feb 2020 02:00:58 +0000

In the 2017 contest for the federal Conservative party leadership, the firearms community was an engaged voting block and most of the contenders sought the support of gun lobby organizations. However, the 2019 election and the changing demographics of gun ownership suggest that Conservatives should be wary about linking themselves too closely to groups that aim to roll back many of the gun control laws passed since the late 1960s.

The number of Canadian firearm owners has declined since the mid-1970s. A 1976 survey estimated that Canada had approximately 2.5 million gun owners. In comparison, in 2018 2.2 million Canadians possessed firearm licences. Given the increase in the nation’s population, the percentage of Canadians owning guns has decreased substantially. By contrast, between 20 and 30 per cent of Americans own a firearm.

Gun ownership rates are comparatively lower in the parts of the country likely to be pivotal in the next federal election. While relatively high percentages of residents in the Conservative strongholds of Alberta (7.4 per cent) and Saskatchewan (9.5 per cent) own guns, the firearm ownership rate in key battlegrounds are more modest. Gun ownership rates in Ontario dropped from nine per cent in 1976 to 4.3 per cent in 2018. In Quebec, the rate dropped from 8.6 to six per cent in the same period. British Columbia also saw a steep decline — from 11.6 to six per cent.

In the past, gun owners have exerted considerable political clout. For example, in 1976 the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced a bill that, among other things, would have forced all gun owners to get a licence. The backlash from firearm enthusiasts forced Trudeau to retreat, and to instead pass legislation that only required gun purchasers to acquire a Firearms Acquisition Certificate.

Horrific events have at times overcome gun owner resistance to increased regulations. Following the 1989 Montreal Massacre, the groundswell of support for tougher regulations overwhelmed the opposition. Both the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals passed important new gun control bills that, among other things, limited the capacity of magazines, banned many models of handguns, created a universal licensing system, and imposed safe storage regulations.

Despite representing a small minority, gun lobby groups continue to be loud and aggressive. They demand that Conservative leaders adopt firearm policy positions opposed by most Canadians. For example, at the Conservative party’s 2016 policy convention gun groups pushed the party to adopt the so-called “Simplified Classification System” for firearms, which would make almost all semi-automatic rifles, including the AR-15, non-restricted.

One of the loudest organizations, the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, recently touted the fact that firearm owners “played an active and important role” in the last Conservative leadership contest. It has also expressed views about the current race, concluding, for example, that Jean Charest was unacceptable because he “hates guns and gun owners.” “There is no place for Charest as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada if you’re a gun owner,” the group told its members.

This kind of advocacy can have concrete results, but not necessarily the results gun groups want. In the 2019 federal election, the Liberal party saw firearm regulation as a winning issue and highlighted the efforts of prominent Conservatives, including Andrew Scheer and Michelle Rempel Garner, to curry favour with gun lobbyists.

Peter MacKay has already declared that he will undo any gun control laws passed by the current parliament, much to the pleasure of gun lobbyists. Conservatives, however, should question if tying the party to groups seeking to weaken the current firearm control regime is worth potentially alienating the many Canadians who do not own guns and have concerns about public safety.

R. Blake Brown is professor of history at Saint Mary’s University and an adjunct professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.