Taking a shot at a safer country - Keith Roulston editorial
With U.S. President Joe Biden taking baby steps toward controlling the epidemic of gun deaths in the U.S. and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau making much bolder moves by introducing legislation to ban the sale of assault-style weapons and offer to buy them from current owners, the vast difference between our two countries is once again on display.
In announcing his executive actions on Thursday that would, among other things, ban weapons assembled from kits that have no serial numbers, President Biden said, “Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment.”
Reaction from the usual sources was swift. Republicans like Colorado Representative Ken Buck overreacted with the all usual charges: “Biden wants to take away your guns, raise your taxes, abolish your jobs, create a border crisis and keep the schools closed.”
We have a tendency to think that public opinion is so much more positive toward the right to own weapons in the U.S. than in Canada. Yet after Prime Minister Trudeau introduced Bill C-21 proposing a voluntary buyback of many recently banned firearms, a poll by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies suggests two-thirds of Canadians favour stricter gun-control laws – and more than half believe that should include a mandatory buyback program for prohibited firearms.
In the U.S., meanwhile, a 2019 PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist poll found 57 per cent of Americans supported legislation to ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons and 47 per cent supported a mandatory assault weapon buyback program. The figures in the two countries don’t vary that much.
It must be said, of course, that Americans act differently than they feel. The COVID-19 pandemic actually saw eight million Americans buy a gun for the first time in 2020 as they felt uncertainty about their safety. Americans already owned 120 guns for every 100 people.
But regular mass shootings like recent rampages in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, return attention to the toll these weapons exert on the U.S. In 2017, there were 12.21 gun deaths per 100,000 Americans. By comparison, Canada had 1.94 gun deaths per 100,000 in 2018.
And yet even after horrific events like the deadly mass shootings at schools in Parkland, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut, it’s impossible to get political support for greater controls on the sale and ownership of guns. Spouting the need to defend the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s “right to bear arms”, Republican legislators in particular quickly beat down any talk of restrictions. Most Canadians would demand change after similar shootings.
What’s the difference? The National Rifle Association in the U.S. Politicians both love the NRA for its financial support for their re-election campaigns and fear its opposition if they favour changes that might cramp the style of gun owners even slightly. In 2018, CNN reported that more than half of congressional incumbents had received money and organizational help from the group over the years. Eight, including high-profile Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, had received more than $1 million in campaign support.
Yet like many organizations that have been powerful for a long time, the NRA has been infested with rot, particularly its long-time CEO Wayne LaPierre. His annual salary in 2017 was $1.4 million. While the retirement pension plan for the non-profit organization’s employees is underfunded by $41 million and benefits for employees have been frozen, at the same time a special payment of $3.7 million was made to top up LaPierre’s pension.
Recently details of his extravagant lifestyle have been disclosed in a hearing in which the NRA, formerly based in New York but under investigation by that state, seeks to declare bankruptcy and re-incorporate in friendly Texas. It’s been revealed the NRA paid hundreds of thousands for private jets for LaPierre’s travelling security. He wanted the NRA to pay for mosquito control at his mansion in the name of his security. He even charged the NRA $65,000 for Christmas gifts.
After those school shootings, LaPierre said he was so afraid for his safety that he sought refuge on a friend’s 108-foot yacht (with a permanent staff of three) – and this is from the same NRA leader who regularly claims that guns protect people’s lives.
At least these expenses were not paid by taxpayers, unlike former Liberal Justice Minister Allan Rock’s long gun registry that was supposed to cost $30 million and ended up costing $2 billion before it was scrapped by Stephen Harper’s government. Still, if you’re a supporter of the NRA you must feel like a bit of a sucker when you hear LaPierre is living like a king.