Gun Violence Across the Border

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By Danny Zhang

I was sitting in Wilson Café last Wednesday, preparing for a job interview with a friend, when my phone buzzed with a New York Times Breaking News update.

“Gunfire Reported in Canada’s Parliament,” it read.

It was a headline that no Canadian thought they would ever see. In disbelief, I opened my laptop, went on the CBC News website, and followed the tragedy as it unfolded throughout the day. 

Shortly before 10 a.m. on that tragic day, a mentally unstable Quebec man with Islamic extremist sympathies shot and killed, with a rifle, an unarmed soldier standing on ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. He then drove his car towards the Parliament complex, located less than half a mile away, and barged through the central doors of the main Parliament building. Once inside, he was pursued by police and parliamentary security personnel down the Hall of Honour, a central passageway leading to the Library of Parliament in the back of the building. He was eventually subdued just outside the Library, after the House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms, a man with a largely ceremonial role, fatally shot him.

In the aftermath of the attacks, I have thought a lot about what this attack reveals about the differences between Canada and the United States. Firstly, our Parliament, unlike the U.S. Capitol, is so open that its main doors (through which the attacker entered) do not have metal detectors. Its front lawn, on a beautiful sunny day, is filled with picnic-goers, Frisbee-throwers, and even yoga practitioners. Although we have seen political violence in our nation’s history before, most notably during the October Crisis of 1970, Canadians viewed this attack as a strike against that very openness of our political institutions and the freedoms we enjoy.

However, we Canadians were more shocked that this kind of gun violence could happen in our country. Mass shootings and lone wolf terrorists are things we associate with the United States. To give you some perspective, the city of Ottawa has a population of 885,000. The murder of the soldier at the National War Memorial was just the city’s fifth homicide of the year. Indianapolis, Ind., with a comparable population of approximately 840,000, has already seen 115 murders this year. In 2007, the rate of death by firearm in Canada was 0.51 per 100,000 residents. In that same year, the American rate of death by firearm was six times higher, at 2.91 per 100,000.

While guns and gun control are a politically charged topic, especially in big cities like Toronto, we do not have a constitutional right to bear arms, nor a potent gun lobby like the NRA. I think the relationship between our low violent crime rate and our robust and sensible gun laws is more than a coincidence but as a student of political science, I am also aware that the differences between the gun laws of our two countries are a matter of deeply rooted political culture. We never had a revolution to throw off our colonial masters. We never had a need to keep guns in our house because we were afraid of tyranny. And we never had the kind of mistrust and skepticism in government that you Americans do.

Finally, I would be remiss to finish this op-ed without addressing the difference in the way our and your media networks covered the attacks last week. In the aftermath of the attack, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) provided calm, fact-based, and reliable reporting, led by the most familiar journalistic face in Canada, Peter Mansbridge. The American channels, especially in cable news, sensationalized the attack with their shouting anchormen, flashy breaking news banners, and the plopping of the Anderson Cooper news team in downtown Ottawa hours after the shooting. As Canadians, we are proud that good journalism still prevails in Canada and that quality of journalism was especially on display during the crisis on our publically-funded national network.

Perhaps we were too naïve as Canadians to think that this kind of thing would never happen in our country. After all, we are a staunch ally of the United States and usually stand side-by-side with you in major foreign policy decisions. We were with you in Afghanistan for more than 10 years before ending our combat mission in 2011. Our current government is a stronger supporter of the U.S.-led operations against ISIS. We have had close calls before with terrorist plots and given what has happened in Madrid, London, and Oslo in the last decade, we were maybe overdue for something like this.

No doubt, the attack on Parliament has changed Canada in many ways. As the country heals from this national tragedy, we will have to have a conversation about the balance between our freedom and our security, the state of Canadian multiculturalism, and even issues of mental health. I hope that we will find a Canadian answer to the tough questions, one that allows us to remain, as our national anthem says, “the true north strong and free.”

Artwork by GLORIA BRECK