The 1989 school shooting at the École Polytechnique, also known as the Montreal Massacre, was, and remains the worst in Canadian history. 14 people were killed by shooter Marc Lépine, all women, before he turned the gun on himself. This exceeds the victim death toll of the later Columbine massacre by one, though it’s eclipsed by the events in Newtown, Connecticut this past December.
Some people might be surprised that we have school shootings in Canada. It’s true: we’re not immune to those rare bouts of madness that drive a person to do the unthinkable. There may always be people whose minds break in that way, no matter where you live, no matter how much headway we make against society’s endemic problems. And yet the numbers tell a story of gun violence in Canada that is wildly divergent from that of the United States.
The Canadian story begins in the small town of Altona, not far from where I live, where a disgruntled teacher killed several school trustees and children before turning the gun on himself, way back in 1902. It’s one of 11 such incidents in Canadian history, and the second worst. The majority of school shootings here have only had a single death, and the most recent, in 2010, ended without loss of life.
The United States, meanwhile, has had school shootings in every decade since the 1850s, and the last two full years to go by without one of these horrific events? 1990 and 1981. Last month alone there where eight gun attacks in schools in the United States. It’s getting worse instead of better, perhaps even exponentially so.
To what can we attribute such a stark difference between two such culturally and economically similar countries? Some hint might be found in the public response to these tragedies. The Montreal Massacre sparked a huge public outcry that became a powerful and ultimately successful movement for tighter gun control. Lépine was armed with a semi-automatic rifle that was legally obtained and registered to him. A few years later, he would not have so easily been able to obtain that type of weapon.
In the wake of Columbine, and more recently, the Newtown shootings, the public response in America has been almost exactly the same — on the left. But it’s also been immediately met by a counter-current from conservatives defending the second amendment and decrying gun-control advocates as reactionaries or un-American. Yet this is only a political issue in the United States.
We certainly have conservative politicians and voters in Canada, but the right to carry weapons simply isn’t considered a partisan issue. Most of us don’t argue about gun control because we don’t have a centuries-long history of casual access to guns which we’re afraid to lose. Many of us hunt, but not with assault weapons, and not without proper training and deep respect for gun safety. Beyond hunting, few feel the need to own a gun and are happy to limit their use. And this isn’t just Canada, but virtually every Western country outside of the United States.
Easy access to guns is clearly a critical factor in incidences of gun violence. Before first-person shooter video games and copycat killers and mass media madness, in the middle of the 19th-century, American kids were even then bringing in guns to school and shooting people. Maybe by mistake, maybe as crimes of passion, or maybe as pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder. It was easy to get guns, and so momentary lapses in judgement became irreparable mistakes.
At one time, everyone accepted guns as a ubiquitous tool of rural life. It wasn’t about being gun crazy. It’s just how things were. The part I just can’t figure out is how the idea of needing lots of guns became so entrenched that decent people would actually fight tooth and nail to keep them out there.
Here in Canada, I’ve been threatened with a knife by someone at a party I didn’t even know, robbed several times while tending shop alone, and just recently, almost witnessed a completely pointless and random assault on public transport. We’re not saner up here. But fewer of our crazy people have guns, and that makes a considerable difference.