Most of the roughly 200,000 people who walk through downtown Toronto’s Union Station on weekdays probably don’t realize that, not too long ago, a shooting range was located directly above their heads.
Located on the seventh floor of Union Station, the Canadian National Recreation Association (CNRA) handgun club opened in 1927 as a place for Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway police to practice their shooting skills. It eventually opened to members of the public.
In 2008, 81 years of target practice came to an end when then-mayor David Miller and Toronto City Council decided to prohibit the presence of shooting ranges on city property. That meant the CNRA and a rifle range in Scarborough, both in city-owned buildings, had to go.
Gun owners in the city say the closures were a pointless measure that only made it harder for them to pursue what is a perfectly legal pastime, while proponents of the move stand by it as a small but important step against gun violence.
These divergent perceptions around guns are perhaps an indication of why gun owners and people who favour stricter gun control have so much trouble understanding each other when it comes to firearms. It underlines the difficulty in coming to policies around guns that the vast majority of Canadians can accept.
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City Councillor Gord Perks says the measure was part of a series of steps the city undertook in the wake of disturbing instances of gun violence in Toronto, such as the multiple shootings during “The Summer of the Gun” in 2005 and other high profile incidents, such as the 2008 death of bystander John O'Keefe, who was gunned down with a legally registered weapon.
“Many of us on council felt that it was very important that we demonstrate to the community at large and other orders of government that we had to take the issue of guns in our society to a new level,” he says. “That we had to say, as a government and as a city, that guns were not part of our community. Period.”
Tom Bradbeer, the last president of the CNRA before it closed, says all 130 members of the CNRA eventually did find spots in other gun clubs. But it proved extremely difficult, given the city also prohibited the establishment of new gun clubs and the existing ones already had long waiting lists. Bradbeer himself now shoots target practice at a range in Newmarket.
Bradbeer says the two range closures had no measurable impact on gun violence in the city.
“It did nothing except show Mayor Miller to be an absolute coward when it came to standing up and saying these people are legitimate gun owners, they are target shooters, they have nothing to do with the violence on the street,” he says.
Bradbeer points to the long waiting list at private gun ranges in Toronto as further evidence of the measure’s low impact.
“I think you’d be surprised how many urban people are members of clubs and gun enthusiasts,” he says.
It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the level of gun ownership in Toronto, with different sources offering varying numbers. According to a 2012 report in the Toronto Star, 85,000 people are legally permitted to possess a gun in Toronto. A quarter of licensees did not report having guns in their possession, while another quarter had more than five weapons registered. The city is home to roughly 2.6 million people.
Perks acknowledges that it’s hard to see any impact on gun crime from the range closures, but that is because other measures the city championed previously, such as keeping the annual Toronto Sportsmen Show out of Exhibition Place and the federal government’s long-gun registry have been overturned by other politicians in subsequent years.
“We’ve lost a lot of momentum that the overall policy framework was based on, and so it’s difficult to show results,” he says.
To Bradbeer, more effective measures would be to impose harsher penalties for those caught possessing guns illegally. He says the legal handgun owners he knows are only interested in using their guns on the range and are actually prohibited from carrying their gun anywhere apart from the gun range and their own homes.
“If you have a loaded handgun on your person, you have it for a reason,” he says. “It’s either offensive or defensive. And neither one of them is acceptable.”
Perks points out, however, that municipalities have limited options when addressing gun violence, since the federal and provincial governments have jurisdiction over laws around illegal possession. Expelling shooting ranges from city property was, at least, something the city had the power to do—and such relatively small measures are meaningful, he maintains.
“You can’t get anywhere on the path of removing guns from our society until you have clean hands yourself. So it’s a first step,” he says. “And I acknowledge that it’s a first step.”
In the course of interviewing these two men for this story, one thing became clear: not only do they have very different views on what to do about gun crime. They also see guns very differently.
Perks speaks of guns exclusively as a weapon, and points to statistics that underline their potential danger: studies show having a gun in one’s house, even a lawful one, dramatically increases one’s chance of dying by violence. Suicide rates increase when guns are present in a house, and any altercation that takes place in a home has a new place to escalate to if a firearm is present.
“So taking steps to reduce the presence of guns in our society saves lives,” he says.
Bradbeer, on the other hand, says he sees his gun ownership exclusively as a pastime. Unlike many Americans who see guns as a way to protect themselves from criminals and government interference, Bradbeer says target shooting enthusiasts he knows in Canada do not consider their guns as a means of security.
“You would never be able to shoot again because you’ve broken the law,” he says. “Your handguns would be confiscated and that would be it. You’re done.”
“If you’re thinking of becoming a gun owner for security, Canada is not the place.”
Watch Up In Arms: How the Gun Lobby is Changing Canada, and explore your own views on gun laws with the interactive Up in Arms: What do you think?