Ottawa is set to reveal this week whether it will force all owners of banned assault weapons to give up those firearms, after an earlier, unpassed bill that would have made the surrender optional drew intense criticism from gun-control advocates.
The new, firmer mandate, if it materializes, would be contained in a firearms bill the Liberal government is set to table as early as Monday. The bill is expected to mark a revival of sorts for Bill C-21, proposed gun-control legislation that died on the order paper when a federal election was called in August.
The Liberal Party pledged during the 2019 election campaign to introduce a buyback program for “all military-style assault rifles legally purchased in Canada,” only to design a voluntary – not mandatory – buyback program, revealed when C-21 was tabled in early 2021. That bill proposed increasing penalties for gun smuggling and creating a criminal offence for altering magazine capacities beyond lawful limits. It also proposed allowing municipalities to ban handguns.
Bill C-21 also would have allowed existing rifle owners to keep prohibited guns under a grandfathering process. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said early last year his government had decided on a voluntary system after studying and rejecting measures introduced in New Zealand. The government there banned and mandated buybacks of tactical-style rifles following a 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch that left 51 people dead.
The bill was met with swift criticism at the time, notably from gun-control groups that felt it didn’t go far enough. “It was a total failure,” Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of PolyRemembers, formed by survivors of the 1989 École Polytechnique shooting that left 14 women dead, said on Sunday. “Bill C-21 was an empty shell that was designed to do as little as possible and provide talking points to the politicians.”
During the 2021 election campaign, after C-21 had died, the Liberals pledged to make it mandatory for owners of banned assault rifles either to sell the firearms back to the government for destruction or have them rendered inoperable at federal expense.
The federal government has given various other indications the buyback program to be introduced in its new firearms bill will be mandatory. The measure is specifically mentioned in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to his Public Safety Minister, Marco Mendicino. In March, Ottawa extended amnesty on possession of banned firearms until fall 2023, which Mr. Mendicino said was needed to finalize a mandatory program, which could be launched this spring, “if not as quickly as possible.”
A spokesperson for Mr. Mendicino declined to comment on the new bill’s contents and said the minister was unavailable. During an appearance on CTV’s Question Period on Sunday, Justice Minister David Lametti offered no further clarity on whether the grandfather clause would reappear in the new bill. He said he wouldn’t preempt the details in the legislation, adding “there are a number of different measures that we had signaled, as well as what we had done” with Bill C-21. “Everything is still on the table,” he said.
The bill arrives at a particularly charged time, following high-profile mass shootings in Uvalde, Tex., and Buffalo, N.Y., this month. The killings have intensified political debate south of the border on toughening gun laws. 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 decline. 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.
Statscan cautioned there were “data gaps” regarding firearms, among them the fact that “there is no consistent definition of a shooting applied by police services.” The agency also said that “little information” is collected about firearms associated with crimes.
Rod Giltaca, chief executive officer of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said he fears the new bill will curtail the rights of licensed gun owners and have a negligible effect on public safety. “Any measures that hold criminals accountable, or demonstrably increase public safety, we’re in favour of,” he said.
The Statscan report said 59 per cent of firearm-related violent crimes involved handguns in 2020, with a higher rate in urban centres. Several groups are hoping for a federal handgun ban, rather than bans imposed by lower levels of government.
“That doesn’t mean downloading responsibility to the cities. That doesn’t mean downloading responsibility to the provinces,” said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control.
The Liberal government has spent more than $920-million since 2016 on a variety of gun control measures.
In the spring of 2020, it banned more than 1,500 models of “assault-style” firearms, including the VZ58 rifle, one of the weapons used during the 2017 shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six Muslim worshippers.
Earlier this month, it introduced final regulations requiring businesses that sell guns to keep records of sales and inventories, confirm buyers’ identities and ensure they have valid firearms licenses. The regulatory change is happening three years after the underlying Bill C-71 received royal assent.
The regulations drew criticism from the federal Conservative party, which said in a statement that that the government was bringing back the national long-gun registry, created by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien in the 1990s and ended by the Harper government.
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