The federal Liberals have introduced new firearms-control legislation that would freeze the import, sale and transfer of handguns, but would not go as far as banning them outright.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the new legislation, Bill C-21, at a news conference on Monday. The measures would allow existing owners to keep their handguns.
Asked why the government did not propose a ban, Mr. Trudeau said the bill will provide “significant tools” to reduce the number of handguns in communities and protect people from gun violence. ”This is a concrete and real national measure that will go a long way towards keeping Canadians safe,” he said.
Gun-control advocates say the new legislation is just a first step toward curbing firearm-related violence in Canada.
Bill C-21 would also allow for the automatic removal of gun licences from people who have committed domestic violence or engaged in criminal harassment, such as stalking. And it would create a new “red flag” law that would allow courts to require that people considered a danger to themselves or others surrender their firearms to police.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told the news conference that the government is also committed to introducing a mandatory buyback program for assault-style weapons. He said the details would be announced after consultations with the industry.
The Liberals pledged to introduce a mandatory buyback program during the 2021 election campaign.
The government promised Monday to ensure such firearms are automatically prohibited when they enter the market in the future. “We will continue working to ensure any new weapons that fit the definition of assault-style weapon are captured,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a news release.
The buyback plan has won praise from gun-control advocates, but Conservative MPs and others opposed to the idea have suggested it targets legitimate gun owners rather than preventing illegal firearms from falling into the wrong hands.
The government has been promising action on firearms for some time. Mr. Mendicino said in March that the government would bring in “very proactive” firearms legislation.
Two years ago, the government announced a ban on over 1,500 models and variants of what it considers assault-style firearms. And, during the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals promised a buyback program for “all military-style assault rifles legally purchased in Canada.”
But in 2021 the government tabled a previous gun-control bill, also titled C-21, that would have instituted a voluntary – not mandatory – buyback program for assault-style weapons.
The bill would also have allowed municipalities to ban handguns, and would have created a criminal offence for increasing the sizes of gun magazines beyond legal limits. The legislation died on the order paper when the federal election was called last August.
At Monday’s news conference, Mr. Mendicino said the government has tabled changes to the Firearms Act to bring the handgun prohibitions into force as soon as possible. A statement issued with the new bill’s announcement said the regulations will come into force in fall 2022. Both the Minister and the Prime Minister said they hoped opposition parties would help expedite the legislation’s passage.
The new bill is arriving at a time of heightened attention to gun violence, after mass shootings this month in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y. The Liberals warned in their 2021 election platform that “American-style gun violence is rising” in Canada.
On Friday, Statistics Canada reported that violent crime involving firearms had increased from 2013 to 2019, following several years of declines. In 2020, there were 29 victims of firearm-related violent crimes for every 100,000 people in Canada, up from 19 victims in 2013, based on police reports.
Nathalie Prevost, a spokesperson for the gun-control advocacy group PolySeSouvient, said following Monday’s news conference that the handgun freeze is a good first step.
“That’s a very big win for those who believe in gun control in Canada. It’s a federal freeze, not just a freeze,” she said, “That’s very, very important. We don’t have to decrease the importance of that decision.” Ms. Prevost was shot four times in 1989 when a gunman stormed École Polytechnique in Montreal and killed 14 women.
Claire Price, whose teenage daughter Samantha was among 13 people shot and wounded in 2018 during a gunman’s rampage in the Danforth area of Toronto, said she was surprised by the handgun measure. “I didn’t expect any announcement on a freeze on the sale of handguns,” she said. “I needed to hear these words now.”
“There’s always more to do,” she added. “This is definitely only one piece of a large puzzle.”
Blake Brown, a professor at Saint Mary’s University and the author of a book about the history of guns in Canada, said it will likely take months, if not years, to enact this raft of changes if the legislation passes. After the 1995 federal Firearms Act achieved royal assent, he noted, it took years before the gun licensing regime it ushered in was fully in place.
Prof. Brown pointed out that freezing the sale of handguns is a much cheaper approach than banning them and buying back the estimated million or so of them registered to people across the country.
He added that a multi-pronged approach is needed to solve gun violence, including intercepting more illicit guns flowing north from the U.S.
Police services across the country provide a patchwork of information on guns used in violent crimes. Those data suggest the majority of the firearms are not purchased legally or stolen from licensed Canadian gun owners, but rather smuggled in from the U.S.
“You can’t fix this: you can’t snap your fingers and spend some money and make sure that no guns ever cross the border,” Prof. Brown said.
Mr. Mendicino told reporters on Monday that 55,000 new handguns are registered annually.
That is roughly how many new guns will likely be purchased over the next several months by enthusiasts leery of the coming freeze, according to Rod Giltaca, chief executive officer of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights.
Mr. Giltaca said handgun owners at the country’s 1,400 gun clubs are part of a very serious culture that Ottawa is wrongly targeting in its efforts to reduce violence and increase public safety.
A.J. Somerset, a hunter and former soldier from Windsor, Ont., who is also the author of a book about North America’s gun culture, said gun control is valuable and does work, but that the government’s proposed measures won’t necessarily stop the violence plaguing several cities.
Ottawa could better solve the problem of gang violence by providing more funding and services aimed at alleviating poverty in cities, Mr. Somerset said. He added that the federal government could also legalize some drugs to reduce violence associated with the illicit market.
The federal Conservatives expressed reservations about the legislation.
Raquel Dancho, the party’s public safety critic, said in a statement that gun crime increases every year, despite existing restrictions.
Some mayors said they were hoping for more action on handguns.
“Today’s announcement of a national handgun freeze is a major step in the right direction, though it must be accompanied by tougher border measures, tougher penalties and investments in antiviolence programs,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said the proposed new measures would make her city and others across the country safer.
“We hope that the step taken today by the Canadian government leads to a complete ban on handguns and their removal from our streets and from the hands of young people,” she wrote on Twitter.
IAN BAILEY AND MIKE HAGER
The Globe and Mail, May 30, 2022