Montreal leads call for tighter gun laws before Polytechnique anniversary

As Montreal prepares to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, pressure is growing on the Trudeau government to follow through on its campaign commitment for tighter gun control — and go further in cracking down on handguns.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante issued an impassioned plea ahead of Friday's events marking the Dec. 6, 1989, shooting, which claimed the lives of 14 women.

"I want us to stand strong and talk loud about Canada as a safe place, Quebec as a safe place, Montreal as a safe place," Plante told reporters Tuesday.

Her comments followed a string of shootings in the city, including an apparent road-rage attack that ended in gunfire on a busy highway service road.

"To me, it always brings [to mind] the importance of having a better control of guns and who owns and how they own them," she said.

Extend ban to handguns, advocates say

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed during the election campaign to banning semi-automatic assault weapons.

He also pledged to enable municipalities to restrict or prohibit handguns, but didn't commit to an outright ban.

"We are taking the strongest step in Canadian history to move forward on tougher gun legislation," Trudeau said at the time.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

That plan didn't go far enough in the view of mayors in the Great Toronto Area (GTA), which has seen a rise in gun violence.

Plante, as well, said it's "crucial" the Liberals take the lead on handguns.

"We have to send a strong message that in Canada a handgun is not something you can just get anywhere," she said.

Earlier this week, Montreal was the site of three shootings in less than 24 hours. On the weekend, a man was shot dead and three more injured near a reception hall.

Despite the mayor's concerns, Montreal police say gun violence is not, in fact, on the rise.

In 2018, there were 21 shooting deaths and 104 people injured in gunfire, compared with six deaths and 50 injured this year, according to statistics provided Tuesday.

The majority of gun-related homicides in Canada — 65.3 per cent in 2018, according to Statistics Canada — are carried out with handguns, but there are questions about whether a ban would have the desired effect.

A report released by Public Safety Canada last year said a handgun ban would "primarily affect" collectors and sport shooters who own most of the country's 900,000 registered handguns, but would have only an "indirect" impact on the illicit market by reducing the number of weapons that could be potentially diverted or stolen.

Charles Zach, executive director of the National Firearms Association, is opposed to any additional restrictions. He said gun buy-back programs don't stop "a determined person" from committing a crime.

If not now, when?

Gun control advocates, nevertheless, have been pressing for changes ahead of the Polytechnique anniversary.

The group PolySeSouvient, which includes students and graduates of Polytechnique, wants the federal government to prohibit sales of assault-style firearms and put a ban on national handguns, arguing local ones are ineffective.

"This is a public safety issue and because of that, it's important to move as quickly as possible," said Heidi Rathjen, PolySeSouvient's co-ordinator and a graduate of École Polytechnique.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Rathjen wants to see a commitment in Thursday's throne speech and quick action, given the short life span of a minority government.

She said "it's absurd that we're still fighting this 30 years later."

"We feel that, after 30 years, we're kind of at a turning point. If the government doesn't do anything now, when?"

In a statement Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said on the commitment to ban military-style assault rifles "we will begin that important work as quickly as possible."

Regarding the concerns of Plante and GTA mayors, Blair said, "our plan is to work with provinces and municipalities by empowering them to enact additional requirements to restrict the storage and use of handguns within their jurisdictions."