OTTAWA—The federal Liberals will not legislate a national handgun ban, but will campaign next fall on allowing municipalities like Toronto to enact additional restrictions on handguns, says Bill Blair, the federal minister in charge of the file.
Blair, the former Toronto police chief and minister in charge of border security and organized crime, said in an interview the Liberals will propose banning “assault style” firearms but they believe an outright handgun ban would not significantly enhance public safety and would be too expensive for questionable benefit.
That confirms what the Star first reported in December — that the Liberal government would stop short of an outright handgun ban, and would focus instead on prohibiting “assault style” firearms. The potential cost for Ottawa to buy back handguns that Canadians had legally purchased and owned under current laws was pegged by federal sources as high as $2 billion.
However, Blair said communities with concerns about handgun violence should be empowered to pass their own tighter controls, for example to require higher levels of secure storage on firearms than would be required under federal criminal law, and the Liberal proposals should be debated in a campaign.
“What I believe is that we can work with — and it would have to be done through the provinces — but work with the municipalities so that they may be able to effect additional regulation regarding storage,” Blair said in an interview with the Star.
“In a place like Toronto, or Montreal or lower mainland B.C. there may be other measures that can be put in place that would make these firearms far less accessible to diversion into the hands of people who would commit crimes with them,” he said.
“So it isn’t something as, quite frankly, as blunt as an outright ban, but I believe there are appropriate restrictions that should apply everywhere in Canada, and there may be some additional regulatory restrictions that could be put in place tailored to the local circumstances of a jurisdiction that wants to do more.”
The new proposals seem certain to please no one including gun-control advocates like the group PolyRemembers.
Nathalie Provost, who was shot four times and survived the 1989 massacre at École Polytechnique, said she applauded “the idea” that Blair was floating but she was “sad that there’s no action now.”
“They were telling us in the 2015 platform they would be doing something about that, so it’s not a lot, and it’s too late.”
She questioned the proposal to let cities enact regulations, saying Quebec has “done its best” by setting up its own firearms registry after the federal Conservatives killed the national database. “But it’s a federal law because it’s a federal problem.”
“Great, they’ll do something about handguns for cities, but you know those handguns are really easy to move from one place to another—I’m not really sure how effective this proposition will be to bring a greater sense of security in our cities, will it have a real effect?”
On the weekend another Polytechnique survivor Heidi Rathjen said if the Liberal government “truly believes that the legal availability of assault weapons puts the public at risk, then why not enact measures that are available to them right now, while they are still in power? Why make an urgent public safety measure contingent on being re-elected?”
Rathjen, co-ordinator of PolyRemembers, said the government could move to immediately prohibit specific models of assault style firearms by a cabinet order as the first step towards a ban, saying there is a rush by gun enthusiasts to “stock up on weapons like the AR-15.”
“It would also confirm the sincerity of the Liberals’ determination to prioritize public safety and to complete the job if re-elected. Given the current Liberal platform, Canadians need to be convinced that, this time, the promise to get rid of assault weapons is more than just words on paper.”
MP Pierre Paul-Hus, the federal Conservative critic for public safety, criticized Blair’s statements, saying the Liberal plan is a desperate move.
“For four years, the Liberals have failed to address gun crime. Instead, their policies senselessly target law-abiding gun owners. Now Justin Trudeau is desperately trying to change the channel from his political corruption and scandals right before the election,” he said in a written statement.
“Criminals do not register their firearms, and they will not comply with arbitrary bans. Conservatives will always stand up for the rights of law-abiding firearms owners, and will also take practical steps to keep Canadians safe.”
Paul-Hus cited the Conservative plan to tackle gun violence, which includes creating a firearms smuggling task force within the Canadian Border Security Agency, and which he said would “ensure that possessing a smuggled firearm means prison time.”
Blair acknowledged that any proposal to regulate firearms differently from province to province, because municipalities are creatures of provincial legislation, is “not without complication…But I think there is merit in exploring it with them.”
Blair said he recommended against an outright handgun ban coast-to-coast because he had “concerns about how effective that would be and I have concerns about how expensive that would be.”
However he said the Liberal party believes there is broad support for a ban on “assault-style” firearms. There is no definition for what exactly that means, which the Conservatives have leapt on to attack the Liberals for targeting law-abiding gun owners.
Blair told the Star “there are some weapons that are just frankly too dangerous to be allowed in society, their sole purpose and design was to very efficiently take lives, and I’m talking about military design weapons that are usually referred to as assault style weapons. They take large capacity magazines, sending semi automatic fire that some people can readily convert…I think there’s no place in Canadian civil society for such weapons.”
Blair did not say how much a buyback of those kinds of weapons could potentially cost the federal government, but owners who bought their firearms in compliance with current law should be “fairly compensated” if Ottawa were suddenly to ban them, he said.
The $1.5 billion to $2 billion estimate for a handgun buyback was based on a loose estimate of 1 million handguns registered in Canada.
Federal sources estimated there is “probably” twice that number of illegal, unregistered handguns in circulation.
The RCMP-led Canadian Firearms Program says 861,850 handguns were registered to individuals in Canada as of Sept. 30, 2018.
The Mounties say those handguns are registered to 292,701 licensed gun owners.
On top of that, according to the federal government, there are about 100,000 other non-handgun firearms — usually rifles and shotguns — legally owned and registered in Canada.
Blair led cross-country consultations after Trudeau asked him last summer to examine “a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians.”
Blair defended the decision not to introduce legislation in this government’s mandate, or to regulate via cabinet order any prohibition on assault style weapons immediately, saying the proposals need to be fully debated on the campaign trail.
Citing a “lot of polarized opinion” in Canada on the gun control issue, Blair said the doing the right thing is important, but it’s also important to do it “the right way.”
“I think the right way to do that is not in the dying days of a parliament using regulations and a government-in-council order but as a complete suite of measures” introduced in the next parliament.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc