Latest gun debate reflects increasing polarization of public debate

If the recent reaction is any indication, the latest government efforts to overhaul Canadian gun laws this fall is likely to spark yet another testy and emotional debate on gun ownership in this country.

In a July 23 announcement, public safety minister Steven Blaney told reporters the Conservative government plans to introduce new legislation that would ease restrictions on gun transportation and allow for a renewal grace period for gun owners who’s licences have expired.

Right now, gun owners with expired licenses risk immediate jail time, which Blaney said was “not acceptable.” People should not be criminalized for paperwork errors, he said.

Under the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, those with expired licences would not be al-lowed to buy ammunition or new guns but would no longer face possible jail time because of the lapse in licence. The length of the proposed grace period has not been set.

The new rules would also decree mandatory firearms safety courses for first-time gun owners, combine the two existing licences into one and change the Criminal Code to prevent individuals convicted of domestic abuse from legally owning guns.

Public and political reaction to the announcement was instantaneous.

Gun owners and firearms groups, along with several Conservative MPs, took to Twitter to praise the federal government’s ongoing efforts to remove bureaucratic red tape from the file.

They said the move was the natural next step now that the highly controversial long gun registry is defunct.

Opponents disagreed.

The Coalition for Gun Control said the proposed legislation was a step “backwards.” While other countries are strengthening their gun laws, Canada’s laws were growing weaker by the day, the group charged.

Many more opponents, mainly members of the general public, were seething on Twitter, expressing their dismay by how far Canada’s gun legislation had sunk. Several folks even went as far as to accuse all gun owners of being potential murderers, accusations that were rapidly shot down by gun supporters.

One is wise to avoid reading too much into Twitter reaction, considering the ongoing debate amongst journalists about its accuracy. However, the slew of comments on the gun file is indicative of a growing trend in conversations about Canadian policy.

Lately, it seems, debate on controversial subjects such as gun control is too often mired in extremes. Those who are vehemently in support of something butt heads in dramatic fashion with those who are just as opposed, while middle-of-the-road debate is tossed to the sidelines.

While radical points of view have always existed in debate, the rise of social media now means these extremes are easily accessible. The risk, then, is that these outermost viewpoints, which tend to garner a lot of reaction, can sometimes overpower moderate debate.

Reactionary debate is also more likely to push people’s buttons and force individuals to take a stand on an issue they may know little to nothing about. GMO debate, anyone?

Forcing people to make up their minds is a strategy that political parties have often used in the lead-up to elections as a way of gathering more party support.

With a federal election looming in the wings, each party is now attempting to distinguish itself from the other. Triggering debate on emotional subjects is a tried-and-true way of doing just that.

Amending gun legislation plays to the Conservative base: often farmers, hunters and gun enthusiasts sick and tired of jumping through one bureaucratic hoop after another.

Throw in the words “common sense” in the bill’s title and already the Tories have an edge because who can argue with common sense? Those who do risk being accused by the Conservatives of favouring red tape, or worse.

Debate in this country is becoming more politicized by the day with an “us against them” mind-set managing to creep into policy chatter far too often.

Not all Canadians are gun owners, nor are all Canadians against owning guns. Politicians and stakeholders would be wise to remember there is a role for guns in this country just as there is a need for ensuring public safety.

Respectful, middle of the road debate with opinions and viewpoints from all sides is a Canadian tradition and one worth protecting before it’s too late.

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