The case for and against (and against) a municipal handgun ban

Coquitlam target shooters weigh in on the prospect of a municipal handgun ban

Nobody was killed, not this time.

It was 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Still light out. Two men by Smith Avenue and Clarke Road. An argument and then . . . shots fired.

One man was rushed to the hospital.

We know we have a problem with gun violence but, generally speaking, that’s the first and last thing we agree on.

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In February, the federal government put forward legislation that would hand the power, as well as the responsibility of dealing with handguns, to municipalities. Theoretically, four votes on a city council would get guns out of town as sure as a TV sheriff settling a frontier.

It’s the rare idea that some gun owners and gun control advocates agree on. Both say it’s unworkable.

View from the range

The Port Coquitlam & District Hunting & Fishing Club is actually in Coquitlam.

Nestled in the northern section of Burke Mountain just before forest overtakes the city, around 4,000 hunters, shooters and archers adjust their aim at the club each year.

A club member fires a round at the Port Coquitlam & District Hunting & Fishing Club. Also pictured is Richard Cho, who died after accidentally shooting himself while at a competition in Kamloops in 2017. photo supplied

For Lance Smith, the club has been part of his life since he inherited his father’s old hunting rifles.

“It was the people, not the sport, that drew me into firearms,” he explains.

Smith doesn’t hunt, although he’s not against hunting for sustenance. For him, guns are a hobby, not much different than golf. It’s what makes a possible ban so alarming.

“Why are you coming after a group of society whose hobby happens to be firearms?” he asks. “We’re not the ones that are committing the crimes. We’re the ones following the laws.”

The federal government’s efforts would be better directed toward gang prevention and mental health initiatives, Smith says. Canada’s real problem, Smith argues, is cross-border gun smuggling.

“We are on the longest border in the world with a country that has the most firearms in the world.”

The Canadian Border Services Agency reported seizing 389 firearms so far in fiscal year 2020-21.

During that same period, border agents nabbed more than 20,000 pounds of marijuana and 181,000 cartons of cigarettes.

The case for a national gun ban (just not this one)

The argument, according to the Coalition for Gun Control, is simple: “Handguns are designed for killing and should not be readily available in cities or in rural communities.”

However, this idea of banning handguns in select cities is “not a workable solution,” according to the coalition.

The group argues that legally owned guns are often used in domestic violence, the murders of police officers and in mass shootings.

The coalition also makes the argument that more stringent gun laws will save lives – particularly the lives of women.

“Women are more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner and that guns are the most commonly used weapon in such killings,” the coalition stated. “One of the strongest risk factors for women remains whether the perpetrator has access to a gun.”

The idea of a municipal handgun ban has also been criticized by family members of the women killed in 1989 Ecole Polytechnique misogynist massacre in Montreal. Putting the ban under the auspices of municipalities will create a “needless burden on . . . municipal officials who already have enough on their plate providing local services,” they stated in a recent letter.

Having the same city staffers who watch for off-leash dogs and for plastic bags in recycling bins also deal with firearms bylaws seems like a challenging idea, noted Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West.

“I couldn’t even tell you how a municipality the size of Port Coquitlam would enforce a municipal handgun ban,” West said. “Our bylaw officers aren’t armed.”

While West stipulated he would “wait and see” the eventual legislation looks like, he was wary of targeting gun owners who shoot at the two ranges in the area.

“Neither of them have had any issues that I’m aware of,” he said.

Still, some municipalities welcome that burden.

During a recent chat with Mo Amir on the This is VANCOLOUR podcast, Stewart said that legislation which could stop even one handgun death would be “totally worth it.”

“I am absolutely in favour of whatever new power they can give anybody to get handguns out of cities,” Stewart told Amir.

The mayor noted a recent increase in homicides which he said were likely linked to disruptions in drug supply.

“There is absolutely no place in a city for a handgun,” Stewart said.

It’s a family affair

For Donald Sohm, shooting at the Burke Mountain range is the continuation of a lifelong interest.

“I was born into it,” Sohm says. “I’ve been shooting since I was three years old.”

As a small boy he shot .22 Anschutz rifle his father provided, he recalls

“A little bit more juice than the Red Ryder,” he says with a chuckle.

Sohm goes shooting with his wife, his mother, his little brother and from time to time, his father.

He said he takes the notion of a handgun ban personally.

“Kind of heartbreaking, to be honest,” he says. “Most of us are half-decently well-off. We have families, we care about our communities . . . and are all pretty well adjusted.”

Sohm says he shoots alongside police officers and military members. It’s a good way to bridge the gap between civilians and soldiers and officers, he says.

He’s also careful with his guns. Thirty years later, he still has the .22 he fired as a boy.

The 1 per cent

As of 2004, there were 6.9 million firearms in Canada and, on an annual basis, approximately 99 per cent were where they were supposed to be.

Based on an average over 11 years, 6,867 firearms were reported stolen or missing annually. An average of 1,571 were  also recovered, leaving more than 5,000 firearms unaccounted for every year.

Information rage

There is a page on the federal government’s Department of Justice website that addresses the issue of guns being smuggled from the United States with the following disclaimer: “the true extent of the problem is unknown and cannot presently be estimated.”

There are three ways to get a gun illegally: make one, smuggle one, or steal one that’s legal. “Unfortunately, there is very little information in Canada on any of these activities,” the Department of Justice concedes. “Very little is known about stolen firearms in Canada, what happens to them after they are stolen, how often they are recovered, and how often they are used in crime.”

The problem is exacerbated by a disagreement on terms. In discussing the situation with CBC in 2020, Statistics Canada spokesperson Peter Frayne explained that what police refer to as “a gun used in a crime” changes across the country.

The range

Around the time other people were getting into extreme sports like rock climbing and mountain biking, Keith Loh thought he’d try shooting.

Since 2018 he’s been president of the Port Coquitlam & District Hunting & Fishing Club.

Discussing the notion of a municipal gun ban, there’s one word Loh keeps saying: “unworkable.”

If a ban were enacted, it’s been suggested that the club could become a central storage hub for guns and ammunition.

“This is a very unworkable idea,” Loh says.

Storing guns would make the Burke Mountain range a target for thieves. And, he adds, while the club generates decent revenue, they don’t make enough money to turn the place into a fortress with 24-hour security.

The federal and provincial governments already know who gun owners are and what guns they own, Loh says. Putting that information in the hands of the municipal government raises the odds of an information leak, something Loh says would create: “a shopping list for gangsters.”

For club member Smith, the tighter restrictions are largely political posturing by the federal government.

“Everybody from premiers to police chiefs on down is saying: ‘You’re not fixing the problem,’” Smith says.

Smith notes that a previous push for a handgun ban failed to gain support from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

At the time, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer told CBC that Canada’s firearms laws were already strict. The overriding problem, he suggested, was much bigger than legal loopholes.

“There will always be an influx of guns from the United States into Canada,” Palmer said.

Smith and Clarke

The man shot on Wednesday night in Coquitlam is expected to recover. His injuries are not life-threatening.

Police do not consider there to be a risk to the public.

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