Minister drops ‘assault weapons’ from gun-ban consultations

Someone pauses in front of the Stars of David with the names of those who were killed in a deadly shooting in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue on October 29, 2018.

Border Security Minister Bill Blair has dropped the term “assault weapon” from his firearm vocabulary after an initial series of roundtable discussions in a government study of possible bans on handguns and assault rifles in Canada.

As he continues an examination of the potential ban, Blair now uses the term “assault-style” rifle.

Blair disclosed Wednesday that handguns were the centre of attention in talks that began after he launched the review earlier this month, but he said the government’s use of the term assault rifle, or assault weapon, came up in discussion with gun advocacy organizations who oppose the term.

After a spike in handgun shootings earlier this year, including a handgun attack that killed a young woman and a girl in Toronto, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advised Blair in August to examine a “full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada” as part of his new role as minister for border security and organized crime reduction.

While groups demanding tighter gun control have described models of semi-automatic rifles used in mass shootings in Canada and the U.S. as assault rifles, gun owners who use the restricted weapons for sport target shooting object to their depiction as assault weapons.

Many of the sport rifles — including the AR-15 semi-automatic carbine used in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last Saturday — are modified civilian versions of tactical military rifles originally designed for combat.

They’re common in Canada, with 7,490 AR-15s and variants listed in the RCMP National Firearm Registry as of January 2017.

Summing up his consultations so far with the firearm community and gun-control groups, Blair said a Public Safety Canada discussion paper at the start of the consultation drew attention because of its statement that assault weapons are not legally defined in Canada’s firearm legislation.

“There was some discussion about it, and that’s one of the reasons I refer to it as assault-style rifle,” Blair said in an interview after the weekly Liberal caucus meeting.

“I think it’s an important distinction, and there are a number of ways in which that can be defined, but there were a number of perspectives on it, as well,” Blair said. “I think it was important to hear from Canadians, and to hear from all of those different viewpoints on … that style of weapon, and how we might ensure the safety of all Canadians.”

He made the comments in response to a reporter’s comparison of the cross-country dialogue on a possible ban to a “guns and gangs” summit that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale hosted last March.

New gun-control legislation in its final parliamentary stages, in the Senate, is primarily aimed at the reinstatement of mandatory licence validation in the purchase of non-restricted firearms, along with mandatory record-keeping by gun sellers and wider background checks.

The legislation, Bill C-71, also restores tougher controls over models of imported Swiss and Czechoslovakian semi-automatic rifles after the former Conservative government lowered their classifications before the 2015 federal election.

Blair suggested the AR-15 tactical rifle, popular in part for its low price, could be one of the rifle models that require a more definitive classification.

“There are a number of variations of it, and we don’t have a precise technical description. Restricted firearms have a more technical definition; assault-style rifles are less precisely defined,” Blair said.

In the interview, Blair elaborated on the distinction he was making. “It’s an examination of handguns and assault-style weapons, and I think it’s an important distinction to refer to that because I’m not speaking about a specific weapon or a specific configuration.”

The engagement paper posted by Public Safety as part of the consultation cites a U.S. Department of Justice description that was applied in a U.S. federal ban on assault weapons under then-president Bill Clinton and Democrat lawmakers in 1994.

“In general, assault weapons are semi-automatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire,” says the former U.S. law, the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act.

After widespread opposition from the National Rifle Association and gun owners in the U.S., then-president George W. Bush and Congress did not renew the act when it expired in 2004.