A week ago, Toronto suffered its deadliest ever mass attack and guns had nothing to do with it.
Alek Minassian, 25, has been accused of deliberately plowing a rental van into dozens of Torontonians near Yonge and Finch, killing 10 people, and injuring many others. He has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder, though he is expected to face additional attempted murder charges.
In the wake of mass murders, many of which are carried out by firearms, we often hear about gun control. When the weapon used is not a gun, but a van or a knife, something different happens—people who are against gun reform point to it as an example that criminals will be criminals, and no amount of regulation will change that. It’s a disingenuous line of logic, for reasons I’ll outline below, but wildly popular no less.
Vehicle attacks have become highly publicized after terrorist attacks like the Bastille Day massacre in Nice, France that left 86 dead in August 2016 and the London Bridge attack last summer that killed seven innocent people and left the three perpetrators dead. According to the University of Maryland’s global terrorism database, vehicles have been used in 122 incidents since 2010, not including car bombs.
In America, where there are more than 350 million guns, and 30,000 gun-related deaths a year, the debate over firearms is the most polarizing. It’s common for the National Rifle Association and its supporters to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” after every public gun massacre. Following the London Bridge rampage, US President Donald Trump, a vocal supporter of the gun lobby, tweeted, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That's because they used knives and a truck!” Likewise, after the Christmas Market truck attack in Berlin in 2016, right-wing media personality Ann Coulter sarcastically tweeted, “Regardless of one's politics, I think we can all agree that the horrific German truck attack underscores the urgent need for gun control.”
Following the Toronto rampage, Guy Morin, vice president of the Quebec-based gun lobby group Tous contre un registre des armes à feu (which translates to "united against a firearm registry"), tweeted his thoughts on the “uselessness of controlling the object to save a single life” as well as a meme depicting a van sitting on top of a trigger with the caption “while we're trying to record large-scale hunting weapons...” Last December, Morin's organization was panned for wanting to host a pro-gun rally at the memorial site for the victims of 1989 École Polytechnique massacre.
Morin told VICE he believes there’s too much emphasis on controlling “objects” i.e. guns and not enough on detecting the potential perpetrators of murderous acts.
“The van attack demonstrates that even if we had registration, permits and a bunch of stuff like that, it would never prevent a [sick person] from committing the act,” he said.
“If we ban firearms for instance, we see that they’ll use a car. If we ban cars, they’ll find another object. They’ll always change objects, no matter what they will always find a way.”
The Canadian government has already announced plans to tighten up gun control through bill C-71, which includes a permit requirement for transporting some restricted firearms, record-keeping measures for gun sellers, and enhanced background checks.
Morin told VICE he is against the additional transportation permit.
“There is no law or restriction that we could add, that would somehow help with the problems related to firearms.”
A.J. Somerset, the London, Ontario-based author of Arms: the Culture & Credo of the Gun, a book about North American gun culture, told VICE there’s an element of truth to the idea that attackers may find another way of carrying out a rampage if guns aren’t available, but that’s not a justification for lax gun control.
“The argument that if you take away guns, people will just vehicles is like saying if you take away bombs, people will just use guns. Nobody would agree that we should have no controls on explosives,” he said, noting that while restricting guns, such as the AR-15 commonly used in mass shootings in the US, may force some people to adapt, it will also likely prevent some attacks from occurring.
“Throwing obstacles in people’s way will stop them.”
Another example often cited by gun enthusiasts who don’t want to see gun laws change is the 2014 train station massacre in Kunming that left 29 victims dead after four people stabbed them with knives.
Somerset said these types of attacks aren’t all that common, and that it is easier to run away from a knife than a gun.
Kris Brown, co-president of US-based Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told VICE the arguments about how vans and knives can be just as deadly as guns amount to a red herring because the vast majority of mass murders that take place on American soil are carried out with guns.
“It is statistically a much lower risk associated with these kinds of attacks, horrible as they are,” she said. “What really kills people in the United States, in any kind of mass attack, are guns.” She also noted that there isn’t a spike in van and truck attacks in countries with tighter gun control.
The Brady Campaign is advocating for three pieces of gun reform currently before congress—a requirement of private gun sellers to do background checks; the ability for law enforcement or family members temporarily seize firearms from people who pose a risk to themselves or others; and an assault weapons ban which would mean the AR-15 would no longer be sold in the US.
“The AR-15 is modelled after a military grade M16 assault weapon. It’s designed to be able to shot at a long distance, with high-capacity magazine attachments that can spray many, many bullets in rapid fire, at a velocity that’s three times that of a regular pistol and can shoot the front and back through a helmet,” said Brown.
“It’s designed for combat. And it’s being used… in an undeclared war against our own American citizens in schools, at concert halls, at baseball fields, in movie theatres across this country.”
A trauma surgeon who spoke to the New York Times said the exit wounds from a AR-15 bullet can be a foot wide and shatter multiple organs.
The Parkland, Florida school shooting that recently took the lives of 17 people has ratcheted up the gun control debate in the US, mostly because many of the student survivors have been calling out politicians and the NRA head on.
Brown told VICE the kids’ voices have added a sense of urgency to the issue. If congress doesn’t push through the reforms, “we have something called an election in November,” she said.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.