Accused mass murderer Alexandre Bissonnette, the only suspect in the Quebec City mosque shooting, is reportedly a legal firearms owner.
According to Le Journal de Quebec, Bissonnette, 27, who allegedly shot six worshippers to death on January 29, had two guns on him the night of the shooting—a CZ 858 rifle and a 9mm pistol.
Owning a pistol requires a restricted license in Canada, which means that police—in Bissonnette's case the Sûreté du Québec—would screen a person for mental health issues, violence, a criminal record, and would check in with at least two character references. But the system relies partially on self-reporting and on the applicant's references to be truthful.
Bissonnette is believed to have received his license two years ago, but Le Journal de Quebec report says he was more recently taking medication for anxiety and had issues with alcohol. The article also said people in Bissonnette's gun club found his behavior "bizarre" but never spoke out about it.
Though limited, this information suggests that there are holes in Canada's licensing system.
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 are a couple of issues with the self-reporting aspect of licensing here. First off—a person can just lie about their mental health status.
"All that's really hanging over your head is if you lie on an application and you get caught, you're probably never going to get a licenses after that."
And while a person's name can be run through Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) to look for any incidents involving police, authorities don't have that option to detect a history of mental illness, Somerset said.
"That's a confidential health record, it's not something police can easily search. It's not something where they can go to every psychiatrist in Quebec City and ask 'Is this guy being treated for anxiety?'" And allowing cops access to that information would be an infringement of civil liberties.
Somerset pointed out that while you would hope a gun owner's references would mention concerns, "your references are your buddies."
He told VICE due to the correlation between drinking and violence, things like a history of drunk driving offenses should be a red flag when someone is applying for a license. He also suggested that a person's interests in extreme ideology should be flagged.
Bissonnette's acquaintances described being a right-wing troll—one even called him an "ultra nationalist white supremacist." He allegedly admired far right French politician Marine Le Pen.
Somerset said these interests should catch the attention of the cops overseeing Canada's licensing regime.
"Someone who reads Infowars and believes right wing conspiracy theories or is a member of the Soldiers of Odin, I wouldn't suggest that you automatically report those people," he said. "But when you see somebody who is just off, I think we need to be more willing to say 'Maybe this guy shouldn't have a gun.'"
To that end, he said there can be an us-versus-them attitude between gun owners and cops, which is perhaps why fellow gun owners who saw Bissonnette acting "bizarre" on the range may have been reluctant to speak out.
Somerset is a former Canadian soldier and hunter, who is pro gun control. His book has been highly criticized by the Canadian firearms community.
Rod Giltaca, President of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, told VICE no us-versus-them attitude exists. He said gun owners want nothing to do with alleged murderers like Bissonnette.
"I would think if someone had a legitimate concern they would have brought it to the attention of the police. We have seen countless examples of mildly concerning or even benign behavior from many infamous murderers in recorded history and we still haven't figured out how to pick them out of the crowd," he said.
When asked about the larger flaws surrounding Canada's licensing laws, however, Giltaca said there are no easy solutions.
"The truth is that there is no regulatory system on guns, knives, hands, or cars that can eliminate violent behavior," he said, noting that most of Canada's 2.1 million legal gun owners are law abiding citizens.
"Politically it's far easier to create more regulations that mass murderers and criminals will continue to ignore. This tactic fits neatly in a single election cycle and leaves the root cause untouched."
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