We argue that the provisions which repeal the registry for non-restricted firearms (and the associated protections on transfers of firearms) violate section 7 of the Charter. Ensuring public safety is the most fundamental obligation of the government. Protection against firearms, a lethal weapon, falls squarely within the text of section 7, which addresses life and security of the person. The impugned provisions remove a critical part of the public safety regime enacted to protect women and others against firearms. The loss of this piece of the regime means that women are not able to protect themselves from firearms effectively, and thereby exposes women to increased risk to their lives and physical and psychological integrity.The government removed the registry for non-restricted firearms without any analysis or study to suggest it was not working and when its own evidence suggested the opposite.
In our submission to the court, we argue that the amendments to the firearms legislation are arbitrary, in that they undermine the legislation’s public safety purpose by exposing women to increased danger. Given the dire impact on women, the amendments are also grossly disproportionate to any legitimate government aim. Indeed, there does not appear to be any pressing reason for the amendments, other than to further the government’s political objectives.
The legislative provisions eliminating the long gun registry also violate women’s equality rights under s. 15 of the Charter. The registry was put in place to benefit women and homicides of women with firearms dropped significantly more dramatically than did firearm homicides of men following the implementation of the registry and other controls on firearms. While men are disproportionately victimized by handguns (for which a registry remains in place), women are disproportionately harmed with rifles and shotguns. Moreover, the removal of the long gun registry perpetuates the historical failure to protect women from violence because of the notion that domestic violence was a private matter, not entitled to public protection. The removal of this important public protection, which has been recognized by the RCMP as a “critical component” of the firearms control regime, exposes women to increased danger, up to and including homicide, particularly in their most intimate and vulnerable relationships.
The experts who give evidence in the Clinic’s case on safety measures in situations of domestic violence, the police officers and the Director of the Barbara Schlifer Clinic, universally agree that removing a firearm from the home and ensuring the perpetrator no longer had access to his firearms, was an essential and urgent step to ensuring the safety of women who have experienced or been threatened with domestic violence. In the context of escalating domestic violence, access to firearms results in a 500% increase in the risk of death. As executive director, Amanda Dale, has said about the clients of the Clinic: “She’s not going to be shot dead, that’s a good first step. Now we can work with her because she’s still alive”.
Firearms, and particularly long-guns in Canada, play a major role in domestic homicides. Women who are killed by their partner in the United States are more likely to be murdered with a gun than by all other methods combined. According to Dr. Jaffe, one of the experts called by the Clinic, intimate partners with guns pose a serious risk to women.
In Canada, firearms remain one of the top methods for intimate partner homicides and represent the most commonly used method for killing a female spouse. Moreover, in both intact and estranged relationships, legal marriages and common law unions, women are significantly more likely to be killed by firearms than men.
In Ontario, firearms are currently the second most common method used in spousal homicides. Between 2002 and 2008, 34% of domestic homicides involved stabbing and 21% involved shooting. Similarly, in 32% of cases, the cause of death of the primary victim (which is the (ex) partner) was stabbing and in 26% of cases it was shooting.
Since most domestic violence is ongoing and nonfatal, it is important to understand how firearms are used in non-lethal ways in abusive relationships. Firearms are used to intimidate, threaten, coerce, and generally terrorize women. Homicides are the “tip of the iceberg”. Using guns to these ends is far more commonplace but does not manifest in firearms-related injuries, which are more commonly reported. For every woman who is killed or injured with a firearm, many more are threatened. Women also face physical and psychological harm from firearms to themselves and their children. It must be emphasized that even when a gun is not fired it can cause serious psychological injury to the victim(s).
Altogether, among abused women, approximately 4% report being threatened with a gun by their partner and 1% report sustaining a gun-related injury. Although these may seem like small numbers, the severity and lethal nature of firearm violence greatly increases the risk of serious injury or death when abusers use guns to exert power and control.
The use of firearms in domestic violence has severe consequences whether or not the incident results in death. That said, when domestic violence involves firearms, death is twelve times more likely as compared to those incidents that do not involve firearms. In Ontario, domestic homicides that involve the use of a firearm have more victims when compared to domestic homicides that involve other types of weapons or no weapons at all. Children, in particular, are at serious risk in situations of domestic homicide, with firearms being a common method used to kill children in this context.
Access to Firearms is a Key Risk Factor in Domestic Homicide
The availability of and access to firearms are important risk factors in domestic violence. Households in which domestic violence has occurred are more likely to contain firearms. Access to firearms is strongly linked to domestic homicides, and where there is a prior history of domestic violence, perpetrator access to a gun results in a 500% increase in the risk of femicide.
In Ontario, in 2002, access to a firearm was one of the top five factors associated with domestic homicide. More recently, Ontario coroners have identified access to firearms as one of the top risk factors for whether a woman will die in domestic violence situations in the Province. Over the period 2003 to 2008, access to a firearm was a factor in 40% of the cases reviewed. Consequently, effective procedures and mechanisms to remove firearms from situations where a risk of violence has been identified are essential to the safety of women.
Indeed, there is little disagreement about the importance of removing firearms from situations of domestic violence. The Respondents’ witnesses have acknowledged that access to or ownership of firearms is a primary risk factor for homicide in domestic violence and that when police respond to a domestic violence call, removing firearms can be “critical” and can prevent homicide. Similarly, Department of Justice publications state that “whether there’s a gun in the house” is an important consideration for women in deciding whether to leave an abusive relationship, and that access to weapons, including firearms, can be a sign of “immediate danger” in an abusive intimate partner relationship. Risk assessment tools used throughout the country commonly include “access to firearms” as an important factor to determine the level of a woman’s risk in the context of domestic violence.
While availability of and access to firearms are important risk factors in domestic violence, the Applicant does not dispute that domestic violence is a complex matter with a range of causes and risk factors, and which requires a mufti-faceted response. Firearms are not the only concern. But there is a distinction between factors that can and cannot be controlled. There is a long list of causes of death of women in Canada, but attention should be focused on what causes can be prevented. We can and should get lethal firearms out of escalating situations.
There is also a distinction between broad societal trends or factors, such as the economic status of women, marriage rates, or the employment status of perpetrators, and more targeted interventions in high risk situations.
When it comes to immediate risk and imminent danger, firearms are at the nub of the matter. As Dr. Jaffe stated, if police officers attend at a domestic violence occurrence, they “don’t ask if somebody’s employed or unemployed…The first thing worried about is the presence of weapons.” Moreover, although stabbing has become a greater proportion of domestic homicides as controls over rifles and shotguns have increased (and homicides with rifles and shotguns have plummeted), still, it is critical to remove firearms from these situations. Dr. Jaffe: “I can tell you that if your sister’s life is in danger and the police are responding to her home, they’re not going to ask if there’s any knives in the home because it’s assumed that there’s knives everywhere…But they will be wanting to know – they will be wanting to check if there’s guns in the home”.
In a similar vein, Amanda Dale, the executive director of the Clinic, stated that in the Clinic’s work with women experiencing domestic violence, firearms are in a risk category of their own: “The immediacy of the firearm ready hand in an escalating domestic violence situation is the single largest indicator from our perspective of her risk for lethality”.