Letter addressed to the Honourable Bill Blair regarding Proposed Firearms Legislation and Considerations Relating to Violence Against Women
May 17th, 2021
The Honourable Bill Blair
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
269 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0P8
Re: Proposed firearms legislation and considerations relating to violence against women
Dear Minister Blair,
I am writing in follow up to our recent meeting of April 7, 2021, to reiterate the need to implement the full provisions of Bill C-71, as well as to share my views on how to strengthen Bill C-21. Key consideration must be given to the impact of firearms on violence against women (VAW) in Canada. Victims and survivors of gun violence, along with various gun control advocacy groups are calling for stronger and more meaningful restrictions and I feel it my duty to raise their concerns and voices to ensure they are heard at the highest levels of government.
You will recall I wrote to you in December of 20201, regarding preventing victimization related to handguns. As discussed in the letter, the ripple effects of gun violence cause enormous harm, trauma and ongoing challenges to communities and families who have lost a loved one, including friends or colleagues of the victims. The intense trauma and stress experienced by surviving family members increases the risk of long-term psychological suffering and mental illness. These risks are heightened when the families and communities of victims are marginalized, lack social support, and endure financial burdens because of gun-related deaths. In the letter, I emphasized that best practices in the prevention of violence take a holistic approach, with coordinated efforts across sectors, such as health, education, community organizations, as well as law enforcement. I remain committed to the recommendations contained in that letter and I recommend the immediate implementation of the provisions of Bill C-71, which at present, have only been partially implemented.
I remain deeply concerned that the rate of violent gun offences continues to increase, as evidenced in the 2019 Statistics Canada data.2 It is also important to acknowledge that the statistics only record the number of direct victims, overlooking the many secondary victims - survivors and loved ones of those lost to firearm related offences - who are often left with debilitating injuries, incomprehensible grief and lingering fear. I support the intent of Bill C-21 to reduce firearms-related crime, in part by restricting access to firearms. Valuable measures within C-21 include the national requirement for carry permits; the ban on assault weapons, as well as some hate crime measures. However, I believe the bill must be strengthened to achieve its intended goal.
‘Red Flag’ Provisions
Access to firearms dramatically increases the potential for serious injury or death in situations of suicidal ideation, untreated psychosis, substance misuse, intimate partner violence and for individuals with impulsive aggressive behaviours.3 Some have criticized the new ‘red flag’ laws, noting they add nothing to the current law.4 Furthermore, VAW advocates have indicated ‘red flag‘ laws may provide a false sense of security, especially for women experiencing Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), whereby, ‘red flag’ provisions often place the onus on victims to report perpetrators. Given the prevalence of coercive and controlling behaviours in IPV and human trafficking, we know that many individuals do not come forward to report perpetrators for a variety of reasons (i.e., fear and intimidation tactics; inability to physically leave their home, etc.). Additionally, dangerous situations involving firearms can arise unexpectedly and be extremely volatile, leaving victims unable to notify appropriate authorities before a crime takes place. Moreover, victims who involve police may be at an increased risk of future harm by their perpetrator. Special consideration must be given to various marginalized communities who may face additional barriers in utilizing ‘red flag‘ provisions, including those who are being trafficked; those living in rural and remote areas; members of racialized communities, such as Black and Indigenous persons who may not trust law enforcement; and individuals who may have precarious citizenship status.
To take the onus off victims, I believe greater utility would result from taking a preventative approach and implementing measures to ensure dangerous individuals do not have access to firearms to begin with. I recommend implementing the rigorous background checks incorporated in C-71 to prevent perpetrators from obtaining weapons legally. Moreover, I recommend strengthening C-21 to allow the immediate removal of firearms by police in situations of physician identified risk.
Municipal handgun bans
Given that most of the weapons used in gang-related violence are illegally obtained, there is concern that allowing individual municipalities to ban handguns would be futile. I believe that there is a dire need for municipalities (with support from provincial and federal levels) to fund primary prevention initiatives that address social issues like poverty, racism, limited educational opportunities, family violence, and mental health issues in order to combat all types of violence.
I believe affected populations require support for healing and I recommend Public Safety Canada provide sustainable funding to community-based organizations to support victims, injured survivors and family, friends, and communities impacted by gun violence, and to those doing primary violence prevention work from a public health perspective. Special consideration should be given to prioritizing funding in cities with higher rates of violent gun crimes, such as Calgary and Toronto.5
Buyback of prohibited weapons
I am in full support of a buyback program, and recommend Bill C-21 be expanded to ensure buyback programs are mandatory and cover more weapons. I understand that some weapons enthusiasts object to the proscription of these firearms; however, these are weapons designed for military purposes, and not for hunting or sport shooting. They have no place in the hands of civilians, as demonstrated by the tragic events that have occurred in our own country and elsewhere.
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
There is a clear link between firearms and violence against women/gender-based violence. In Canadian households, the presence of firearms in the home is the single greatest risk factor for lethality of domestic violence.6 Rural women are particularly vulnerable to homicide by firearms. Saskatchewan reported the highest rate of firearm-related homicides in 2016, and Alberta experienced the second highest rate.7 Shotguns and rifles commonly kept in rural homes are used to intimidate and control women. Firearm use is also prevalent in spousal murder-suicides.
For victims and survivors of intimate partner violence and family violence, stricter gun laws may mean the difference between life and death. While the incidence of victims of IPV involving firearms remains constant at one percent, the number of victims has increased over time. In 2011, the number was 5768; in 2019, it was 6609. As discussed in my recent Submission on the Study of the impacts of Covid-19 on the Justice System, there is mounting concern from victim serving agencies across the country that IPV is increasing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, in light of public health conditions imposed in response to the pandemic, many victims do not have access to the services they need to protect them and/or help them escape from dangerous situations.
This is especially true for individuals subject to coercive control techniques exercised by their partners via intimidation and threats involving firearms. The fear these threats create can have long lasting negative effects on victims’ emotional and mental health. Together with support, there is a need for more effective law enforcement response. Many victims and survivors of IPV have indicated police fail to take their concerns seriously, often with tragic results. For example, a mother whose daughter was murdered by gun violence, reported that the perpetrator received a firearm license, despite having a criminal record.10 I agree with advocates who have noted the need for a national reporting line. Thus, in order to reduce immediate risk to women, children, and vulnerable community members and increase rapid intervention by police/authorities, I recommend the development of a national hotline for citizens that would permit the temporary removal of firearms.
Of course, gun violence also exists outside intimate relationships. In 2019, Statistics Canada reported 1,834 female and 5,037 male victims of gun violence outside of relationships.11 While violence takes many forms, having access to a firearm increases the risk that the firearm will be used. In order to prevent future victimization by way of firearms, prioritizing the voices and lived experiences of victims and injured survivors affected by gun violence will enhance public safety for all Canadians.
I urge you to consider the above recommendations to strengthen Bill C-21 and I look forward to your response on this important issue.
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
CC The Honourable David Lametti, P.C., Q.C., Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
4 In their statement responding to the government’s announcement on Red Flag laws, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP), notes the current law which allows members of the public to report to the Chief Firearms Officer (CFO), has been shown to take too much time, putting individuals, families, and communities at risk. The CAEP indicates the current law falls short in their long-standing request for mandatory reporting of individuals by physicians, which would allow the police to temporarily remove firearms from an individual at risk - as opposed to the current laws, which necessitate petitioning to the courts prior to removal.
6 Canadian Women’s Foundation: https://canadianwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Canadian-Womens-Foundation-Submission-to-SECU-re-Bill-C-71.pdf
7 Canadian Women’s Foundation: https://canadianwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Canadian-Womens-Foundation-Submission-to-SECU-re-Bill-C-71.pdf
10 Toronto Star: April 8, 2021: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/04/08/victims-of-gun-violence-slam-feds-over-gun-control-reform.html