Under the gun: Why the NRA's political tactics don't work in Canada

August 5, 2011

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(WBEZ/file)
Gun rights advocates have a far tougher time in Canada than in the United States.

The National Rifle Association is good at what it does. Good at mobilizing its members and good at lobbying Congress. Canadian groups trying to do the same thing are largely stymied in their efforts.

The NRA's political tactics just don't work in Canada, and it’s largely because of the way the governments of Canada and U.S. are structured.

Most don't think of the NRA as the “little guy,” but in Canada they are.

“This is the nerve center and this is where all our political work and grassroots activism stuff all happens from here,” said Tony Bernardo, the director of the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action, a gun-rights lobbying group fashioned in the mold of the NRA.

The NRA's political arm in the U.S. is also called the Institute for Legislative Action.

Bernardo says he coordinates with the NRA, relying on their expertise or supplying them with expertise when he can, in the same way that gun control advocates coordinate efforts across the border.

"Lobbying is not a deep dark mysterious exercise,” Bernardo said. “It's educative.  A lobbyist is a teacher.”

Bernardo's group works out of a sparsely furnished six-room office in a one-story brick office park just north of Toronto.

Sixth in a series

The cities of Chicago and Toronto are the same size. Chicago has about 450 murders a year. Toronto? About 60. In the series, Under the Gun: Murder in Chicago and Toronto, WBEZ’s criminal and legal affairs reporter Robert Wildeboer asks: Why?

Previously

 

As a gun-rights advocate, he's got an uphill battle in Canada. For starters, he has a hard time getting his own base excited. “The problem we have in Canada is that of Pavlov's dogs.  We've had restrictive handgun regulations in Canada since 1935 so all the shooters that are out there right now have never known anything different,” Bernardo said.

Then there's the fact that Canada's got a parliamentary form of government. In the U.S. the NRA can focus its attention on individual legislators, winning them over one by one.

In Canada, representatives have to vote with their party, or else they get kicked out of the party and can't run in the next election. For Bernardo, that means instead of exerting all his power on one legislator at a time, he has to convince a whole party that his policies make sense.

“It takes longer for things to happen.  You educate a member of parliament, and that member of parliament passes that information to other members of parliament until basically you've got the party,” he said.

Convincing a whole political party is hard, and Bernardo is further hampered by federal spending limits. In a national election, advocacy groups, like a gun-rights group for example, can spend only C$150, 000.

Michael Bryant (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)Michael Bryant, the former attorney general of Ontario, made a name for himself by clamping down on gun violence. “Third parties, lobbyists, lobbies, in a Canadian election?  Not a pivotal role at all.”

He says the Canadian version of the NRA is limited in what it can spend on elections, plus they can't really buy influence with legislators because Canadian politicians don't raise that much money.

Canadian law limits their spending to about a hundred thousand dollars per election, and that's for a seat in the federal parliament, the Canadian counterpart to Congress.

“Somebody supports me in my campaign by making a donation to my campaign of a thousand dollars which would be about the maximum that they could donate and they want to meet with me about an issue, obviously there's a pressure to meet with them because they supported me financially,” Bryant said.  “Well there just aren't that many people in that category and there can't be that many people in that category because of the spending limits that are in place.  In the United States, I can't imagine how many meetings have to be taken by congressman and senators by their donors because they have to spend so much time raising money.”

Bryant says the Canadian spending limits mean there's not enough money for candidates to get on TV. “The level of debate that takes place is driven by information that's been filtered through the media as opposed to commercials with what I would say is misleading information,” Bryant said.

Mike Quigley, a Democratic congressman representing the 5th district of Illinois on Chicago's North Side, said people are deathly afraid of the NRA.  “I think the American public would like to see reasonable gun control legislation, middle ground but the NRA has this headlock on Congress that they have like no other lobbying group, put a stranglehold on thoughts about gun.”

Quigley been pushing gun legislation and speaking out against the NRA.

“If anyone wonders that we occasionally have victories, no.  This is total defeat, running from the battlefield.  Republicans make no pretense of this.  They're pro-gun but the democrats have run from the battlefield,” he said.

Quigley says the NRA doesn't let politicians take the middle ground in the gun debate in this country. “They warn people, you're either with us a hundred percent or we're gonna tell people to be against you.”

He says most races are so close that legislators don't want to risk losing a couple percentage points because they were targeted by the NRA, so they stay mum on even seemingly sensible gun control measures.

Under the parliamentary system in Canada, members have to vote with their party so they're not vulnerable to this individualized pressure from lobbying groups, one of the reasons Bernardo has such a hard time getting political traction.

Quigley can criticize the NRA because his urban liberal district isn't exactly the bread and butter of NRA membership.

And he says the NRA has given up on him, but the director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, Richard Pearson, has set his sights on the congressman. “There's some people that just simply don't like firearms and they want to get rid of all of them and he's one of ’em, and we're after him.  We're gonna go after ’em right in their own home district and we're gonna make it as difficult as possible for them.”

Pearson says they don't want to give up any middle ground because gun control advocates want more and more middle ground and they never stop. “There is no compromising with these people because they always want to compromise on the compromise and pretty soon you have nothing left so we're not going to compromise,” he said.

Tony Bernardo (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)The political fight is inextricably linked in Pearson's mind with freedom. Firearms protect the people from tyranny, and while there are downsides to firearms ownership, it's worth the price to ensure our freedom.

Trying to counter the assertion that the NRA is eliminating the middle ground in the debate over guns, Pearson was asked if there was some sensible legislation to improve public safety that they could support.

“See I think everybody in Quigley's district should have a 9-millimeter in their pockets.  Now, why doesn't he meet us on the middle ground there.  I want to meet on our middle ground, not his middle ground.”

Back in Toronto, in his somewhat vacant office space, Tony Bernardo looks on the American gun debate with pleasure. “I'm really delighted to see that our American friends have seen through the lies that have been purported by the anti-gun groups.  States are loosening firearms laws.  They've recognized the fact that the two things, crime and firearms are not related to each other.”

Bernardo says he'll keep pushing for gun rights, within the parliamentary system, with the spending limits. He's focused on the debate over rifles right now and will deal with Canadian handgun rights another day.

He says you have to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

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