The Canadian government’s swift push this week for tough new limits on firearms is adding fuel to the fierce debate over gun reform south of the border in the United States, where last week’s shooting massacre at a Texas elementary school has sparked Congress’s latest effort to curb endemic gun violence — and triggered new questions about why U.S. policymakers have been so ineffective at doing so.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that his government would push to halt new sales of all handguns, while also proposing a new buyback program on military-style semi-automatic rifles, the purchase of which is already prohibited nationwide.
The proposals are much more aggressive than those being floated by Congress in the wake of last week’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle killed 19 fourth-grade students and two teachers.
Gun experts are citing numerous reasons for the cross-border contrast, some of them legal, some cultural and some political. But taken together, they point to the same reality that’s practically defined America’s gun violence debate for the past several decades: What reforms are possible in other countries won’t be happening anytime soon in the U.S.
Indeed, even the more tepid policy changes being pushed by President Biden and Democrats in Congress — including an expansion of background checks prior to gun sales and red flag laws designed to disarm violent people — confront long odds of being enacted this year in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition. And those partisan divisions, some experts warn, have created a culture of inaction that’s gained strength by feeding on itself.
“Partisan politics have a way of reinforcing themselves,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert at the UCLA School of Law. “All of these proposals require more political support in Congress than they currently have. And for them to get adopted is going to mean that there’s got to be some changes.”
In Canada, Trudeau’s aggressive campaign to tackle gun violence was initially prompted by a mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020, when a lone gunman killed 22 people and injured three others, marking the deadliest rampage in the country’s history.
But the prime minister said the latest round of reforms was also inspired by last week’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“Unfortunately, the reality is in our country [gun violence] is getting worse and has been getting worse over the past years,” Trudeau said Monday in announcing the proposals. “We need only look south of the border to know that if we do not take action, firmly and rapidly, it gets worse and worse and more difficult to counter.”
Trudeau has proposed a countrywide “freeze” on the sale, import and transfer of all handguns, designed to put a permanent cap on the number of those weapons within Canada’s borders. He’s also vowing to implement new limits on high-capacity magazines, install new red flag laws and launch a buyback program for the so-called “assault” rifles that were already in the hands of Canadian gun owners before the 2020 ban on hundreds of models of that style of weapon.
The reforms are reminiscent of aggressive gun laws adopted by other countries following mass shootings, including a ban on certain firearms in Australia after a violent attack in 1996, and a similar prohibition in New Zealand in the wake of a shooting massacre there in 2019 that left 50 people dead.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with Biden on Tuesday at the White House to discuss the issue. Speaking to reporters afterwards, she noted that her country’s political culture allowed lawmakers to adopt changes that would not be possible in the U.S.
“Our political system is very different,” she said. “We had the ability with, actually, the unanimous support of parliamentarians to place a ban on semiautomatic, military-style weapons and assault rifles. So we did that.”
Capitol Hill’s response to Uvalde has been much more tempered.
While the House Judiciary Committee is set to vote Thursday on a slate of eight anti-gun violence bills — including proposals to raise the purchase age on assault rifles and ban the new sale of high capacity magazines — those proposals have little chance of moving through the Senate, where Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to any new limits on the sale or possession of firearms.
Such opposition is forcing the Senate’s Democratic gun reformers to focus on a tiny sliver of reform proposals, including an expansion of red flag laws and federal background screenings before gun sales. A bipartisan group of senators has been in steady talks since last week in search of a compromise that can win the support of at least 10 Republicans — the number needed to defeat a GOP filibuster in the 50-50 Senate. Even that has gained little momentum so far.
“To be clear: Using this horror to infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens — before we even know what might have prevented this tragedy — and accusing anyone who disagrees of being complicit in this abhorrent crime is not a solution that will make us safer,” Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said in a statement after the Uvalde shooting, summarizing the sentiment of most GOP senators.
One factor driving the debate is cultural: Many Republicans consider the Second Amendment to be sacrosanct, and any effort to curtail gun rights to be a nonstarter. Winkler, of UCLA, noted that California gun owners simply ignored a state ban on high-capacity magazines, predicting the same trend would follow if Congress tried to implement something like Canada’s buyback program for assault rifles, which are wildly popular in the U.S.
“There are 400 million guns in America, and the people who have these weapons are the least likely to participate in any kind of buyback program, whether it’s voluntary or mandatory,” said Winkler, the author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms.”
“There’s going to be a lot of noncompliance.”
Legal factors are also governing the current debate. Daniel Webster, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on gun violence prevention, pointed to a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Heller v. District of Columbia in 2008, and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 — both of which recognized “an individual right to own handguns for protection within the home,” he noted. Those rulings almost guarantee that the high court would overturn any effort by Congress to adopt something like Canada’s ban on handguns.
“Of course, such a proposal is a political nonstarter in the U.S. as well,” Webster added.
Not insignificantly, the nation’s powerful gun lobby has pressured Republicans on Capitol Hill to oppose virtually any new gun restriction, raising concerns that support for such measures would prompt a primary challenge from the right.
“The NRA’s and gun voters’ grip on the Republican Party — that has really shifted,” said Winkler. “It used to be that there were more Republicans who were willing to support gun-safety regulation and there just aren’t anymore.”
The combination of factors has frustrated gun reformers, who lament that even the most popular changes can’t gain a foothold on Capitol Hill. Background checks, for instance, are widely popular across the political spectrum.
“In a democracy, when you have a problem like that, you’re supposed to respond with legislation that protects lives, that takes appropriate steps, consistent with your constitution or with your laws,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) told CNN on Monday.
“We obviously have been unable to do that in this country.”