TORONTO—A spate of gun violence in Canada, including a shooting Friday that left four dead, is fueling calls to strengthen gun laws in a country that has been largely free of the mass shootings that afflict the U.S.
Two police officers were killed in the shooting in eastern Canada, which came three weeks after a mass shooting in Toronto killed two people and injured 13 others.
“These are warning signs, and you need to nip it in the bud,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has been calling for a handgun ban in the city.
There have been 241 shootings in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, this year as of Aug. 5, some in popular tourist areas. This year’s total is more than double the 110 shootings during a similar period in 2014, according to the Toronto Police Service.
Though Canada’s gun laws are much more restrictive than in the U.S., gun control proponents say a loosening of rules under a prior conservative government has led to a surge in gun ownership and more shootings. Many advocates are calling for a return to the rules of the past, along with more aggressive restrictions, such as an outright bans on handguns.
The government, led by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said last month it would consider banning handguns. Meanwhile, his government is shepherding a bill through Parliament that would toughen gun-license background checks and demand that vendors keep detailed records of all sales for 20 years. There is now no requirement for gun sellers to track sales.
Opinion polls show there’s broad support for gun control. Almost 70% of Canadians supported the idea of a strict ban on guns in cities in a poll conducted by Ekos Politics late last year, up from 64% in 2009.
But gun rights activists say the proposed government measures are an overreaction.
“We have very, very stringent and patently unfair gun laws that do not prevent incidents like these,” said Blair Hagen, an executive for Canada’s National Firearms Association, a lobby group.
Gun crime in Canada has jumped in recent years. In 2017, firearms were used in more than 2,700 violent offenses, an 85% increase from 2008, according to Statistics Canada.
Along with the high-profile mass shootings, there has also been an increase in gang-related shootings, sometimes catching bystanders in the crossfire.
In June, Stacey King’s daughters were playing in a park in their Toronto neighborhood when a man got out of a car and started shooting. Her 5-year-old daughter was shot in the stomach and her 9-year-old in the leg.
“It’s the first time this ever happened in my neighborhood,” Ms. King said. “This needs to be stopped.”
Toronto’s shootings have claimed 328 victims, a fraction of the 1,785 victims in Chicago this year, according to a count kept by the Chicago Tribune, but the comparison to the U.S. only goes so far, say gun control advocates.
“We tend to compare ourselves to the U.S. and say, ‘Aren’t we peaceful, aren’t we virtuous, aren’t we great,” said Peter Donolo, who led the communications team for former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien. “We should stop comparing ourselves to Chicago and start comparing ourselves to Melbourne.”
Australia, which banned most semiautomatic and automatic guns in 1996, tightened background checks and established a national firearms registry, ranks 16th in terms of gun deaths, according to a 2010 ranking by the World Health Organization. Canada ranked fifth, behind the U.S., Finland, Austria and France.
Unlike the U.S., Canada’s constitution doesn’t guarantee its citizens any right to bear arms. But the country has a long tradition of rifle ownership, particularly in rural areas, that has grown from its history of hunting and trapping.
Any gun owner in Canada needs a firearms license that can take several months to process, even after authorities complete background checks. Those who want to use restricted weapons, such as many semi-automatic rifles or handguns, must get licenses to own the firearms, as well as another to even take them out of their homes to places like gun clubs.
Canada once had a federal gun registry, established a few years after a 1989 massacre at a Montreal college in which 15 died. The country’s former Conservative government, under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, repealed it in 2012. It also loosened requirements for vendors to keep records and made it easier for people to get licenses.
Canadian government data show that the number of restricted firearms more than doubled to 840,00 in 2016 from 385,000 in 2004.
On Saturday, police in the eastern Canadian city of Fredericton, New Brunswick, charged 48-year-old Matthew Vincent Raymond with four counts of first-degree murder for shooting two police officers and two civilians. Officials have given no motive for the shootings.
Although Mr. Tory, the Toronto mayor, has backed a handgun ban, the premier of Ontario, Canada’s largest province where Toronto sits, opposes the idea. “I wouldn’t support a ban on handguns,” Doug Ford said. “There’s lots of legal, responsible handgun owners.”