Matt Gurney: Canada’s gun laws leave our places of worship inadequately guarded

A friend of mine is actively involved in her cultural and religious centre in a large Canadian city. It’s a hub of local life for her community, but there’s a lot of frayed nerves. The news has been full of attacks on holy sites of late. In Canada, that includes the Quebec City mosque attack, of course. In New Zealand, it was Muslims at prayer in two mosques. In Sri Lanka, Christians in churches on Easter (and diners at local hotels). In suburban San Diego just a few days ago, it was Jews marking the end of Passover at their synagogue, six months to the day after another synagogue, this one in Pittsburgh, was similarly attacked. She’s worried. I can’t say I blame her.

In light of all these attacks, plus a security incident in her community — no one was hurt, luckily, but people were shaken — she and her community looked into getting private security, at least during sensitive times. But in Canada, that’s very difficult to do — our laws have created a perverse scenario. It’s easier to guard cash or jewels, or even holes in the road, than human beings.

Our laws have created a perverse scenario

The problem is that Canada’s gun-control laws severely limit who’s allowed to be armed with a firearm. Before you scoff, I’m not suggesting that Canada simply embrace American-style carry laws — I’m pretty far out on the pro-gun fringe by Canadian standards but that’s a step too far even for me. But in Canada, we’ve gone way out in the opposite direction. It’s almost impossible to have even licensed and regulated professionals armed while on duty, during specific hours and at specific locations. There are exemptions, but they don’t do anyone at prayer in a mosque, church or synagogue any good.

Security guards can be hired as bouncers or as watchful eyes on a concert. But they won’t be armed because the law won’t allow it. Summarizing our firearms law is always tricky — they’re very complicated and not suited to concise overviews. But in general terms, in Canada, it’s lawful for a licensed individual to own a gun, including a handgun, so long as they pass strict tests and continue to meet a high eligibility standard. But said citizen can only take that firearm off their property for a few purposes — visiting a gunsmith’s shop for repairs, taking it to a firing range for target practice, and the like. While in transport, the firearm has to be unloaded and locked up in a secure container or case. In other words, it’s not in an operable state.

Members of the Montreal Jewish community attend a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, on Oct. 29, 2018. Paul Chiasson/CP

There are a few exceptions for professionals. A loaded weapon (typically a pistol) can be worn in a holster, ready for use, by properly trained personnel working in certain remote locations, where protection from animal predators is a real concern. There are also narrow exemptions for professional trappers, for much the same reason: protection from wildlife that isn’t thrilled at the prospect of being trapped. But in an urban area, the exemptions are even narrower. Under rare circumstances — very rare — a citizen may be able to demonstrate that they are in imminent danger of being violently attacked, and carrying a pistol will provide them security that the police are not able to. (This sometimes means police officers themselves, those who work in particularly dangerous assignments, may be given permission to carry a loaded pistol while off-duty, something that is normally forbidden.) And there is also, interestingly, a special exemption for citizens (quoting directly here from the Firearms Act) whose job is the “handling, transportation or protection of cash, negotiable instruments or other goods of substantial value,” when “firearms are required for the purpose of protecting his or her life or the lives of other individuals in the course of that handling, transportation or protection activity.”

To put it more succinctly, the guys driving around in armoured trucks, transporting cash to and from bank branches and ATMs can carry a pistol. That’s about it.

People hold photos of victims at a vigil to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting, in Quebec City, on Jan. 29, 2018. Jacques Boissinot/CP

But you’ll note how carefully the law is written. Even those guards are permitted to be armed only “during the course” of that specific job. If you wanted to hire an armoured truck guard to stand outside your house of worship during a holiday, you couldn’t. Or, if you did, he’d have to leave the holster empty.

You could hire a police officer or two. That’s how Canadian practice has evolved to meet the occasional need for armed security at a private function. You’ll see police officers at major sporting events or outside some houses of worship during important holidays, or even standing at the side of a busy city street during road work, to keep an eye on traffic. Most of the time, they’re there because a private entity — the contractor, venue or congregation — has hired them. It’s a workable solution in some situations, but an expensive one. In Toronto, hiring an off-duty officer to secure an event costs a minimum of $71 an hour, for a minimum of three hours. In Ottawa, it starts at $97 an hour, for a minimum of four hours. In Saskatoon it’s an eye-watering $133.20 per hour, for a minimum of three hours. Depending on the event, or the perceived threat, that might be worth it on occasion. But it would get awfully expensive, awfully quick to have even semi-regular armed paid-duty officers at a sensitive site.

In Saskatoon, hiring an off-duty police officer costs an eye-watering $133.20 per hour, for a minimum of three hours

That brings us back to my friend above. They looked into hiring off-duty police officers after the unsettling incident, but that was ruled out as too expensive. They considered hiring private security, but since the guards would be unarmed, she told me, they didn’t see any point paying someone just to increase the death toll of a tragedy by one. In the absence of a serious threat that causes the police to assign on-duty officers to a location until the danger passes, in Canada, armed security is basically unheard of. We’ve made it impossible to protect a house of worship, a religious school or a daycare. A sack of cash heading for an ATM? That we can do.

Attacks against soft targets like a school or a house of worship remain rare here, thank God. Our relatively tight gun-control laws help make such an event unlikely. The general public probably doesn’t lose much sleep over the thought of an extremist of whatever flavour shooting their way into a holy place or a childcare facility.

There are communities in this country that are threatened

But there are communities in this country that are threatened. There is a danger of mass violence. It would be madness to pretend that what happened in New Zealand and Pittsburgh can’t happen here. Indeed, it already has happened here. Allowing a carefully screened and properly trained guard licensed to wear a holstered pistol while on duty isn’t a magic solution to all the world’s ills, but it’s something that could be useful in some places, some times.

But you can’t do it here, unless you’re trying to secure a bank machine or a jewelry shipment. One needn’t desire American-style open carry regulations to agree that this is a strange situation. A truck full of money can be better secured than a temple full of worshippers. I wish I could believe that this is an oversight we won’t come to regret.

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