OTTAWA—The federal government is considering further restrictions on handguns but will stop short of an absolute ban, as the cost to buy back legally owned handguns is pegged as high as $2 billion, the Star has learned.
Escalating gun violence across the country, including Toronto, spurred calls for the federal Liberals to act. After public consultations, deliberations are now underway with a proposal being readied to take to cabinet early next year.
Among options under consideration are the imposition of tougher legal obligations on gun owners such as mandatory storage in secured lockers at a shooting range, not at home, and wider powers for police to preventively suspend a gun owner’s licence where there is a risk someone may be harmed. For instance if a health professional raises an alarm about an individual’s mental health, police would be able to act to suspend a licence in absence of a criminal charge or the registration of a criminal conviction.
A senior government official who was granted anonymity in order to discuss the debate underway within government, said no final decisions have been made about whether to propose a ban on handguns and assault weapons.
In the case of the latter, there is no precise definition in law of just what an assault weapon is, but the government wants stricter controls on “assault-style” firearms, said the source.
Overall, the Liberal government is looking to package a combination of measures that will be effective at addressing gun violence and at curbing the diversion of legal guns into illegal hands; and there are doubts that a ban will have the desired effect, according to the insider with knowledge of the file.
It appears, however, there is public support for a handgun and assault weapon ban in most parts of the country, with the source citing internal polling that indicates 70 per cent of Canadians would support a ban. The numbers vary across regions, the source said, with the highest support in Quebec at 76 per cent, roughly 73 per cent in Atlantic region, 70 per cent in the Greater Toronto Area and support dropping to as low as 50 per cent in western Canada.
(That overall number — 70 per cent — appears slightly higher than a recent opinion survey by Nanos Research conducted for CTV News, published in September, which said 48 per cent support a ban, while 19 per cent “somewhat support” a ban.)
After the tragic Danforth shooting last summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Scarborough Southwest MP Bill Blair as minister of border security and organized crime reduction, and instructed Blair, a former Toronto police chief, to work with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to examine “a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians.” Blair has said he wants to complete his examination by the end of this year.
On Thursday in Montreal — where the 29th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre was marked — Trudeau pointed to Bill C-71 which his government has already introduced in the Commons that tightens some aspects of current gun laws, but said “we are very open to doing more.”
“Certainly there is the problem of criminals’ access to assault weapons and handguns and we will be looking at measures to continue to keep our communities safe.”
The mayors of Toronto and Montreal have urged Ottawa to adopt an absolute ban on handgun sales. Toronto Mayor John Tory also wants the Liberal government to enact tougher penalties for gun traffickers, tougher bail controls on accused persons with a track record of gun crimes, along with stricter gun storage laws.
The deadline for online consultations has passed, and Blair completed stakeholder consultations last week.
The source said the federal Liberal cabinet is not expected to deal with whatever recommendations arise from Blair’s examination until the New Year.
A second Liberal source suggested it is more likely that the government would look at enacting stricter storage, transportation and transfer regulations than an outright ban.
There are 1,400 shooting ranges across Canada where restricted and prohibited gun owners could be required to safely store their guns. Gun laws already require secure storage and handling of firearms and ammunition.
Yet advocates of stricter gun laws like Wendy Cukier, a co-founder of the Coalition for Gun Control formed nearly 30 years ago in the wake of the 1989 Montreal massacre at École Polytechnique, say a ban on handguns and assault-style weapons is crucial.
In an interview, Cukier said “an integrated approach” to gun violence is needed, including better screening of licence applicants, support for victims, and more resources for intelligence-led policing to counter smuggling, and she added a ban is key to that.
“Whatever the measures are, they have to reduce access and reduce the risk that people who shouldn’t get those guns will get them,” said Cukier in an interview. “And I don’t know what besides a ban could achieve that result.”
She added had governments acted sooner, the number of restricted and prohibited weapons would not have already ballooned from about 350,000 in 2004, to about 1 million, according to the annual reports of the commissioner of firearms.
The notion of banning certain firearms raises questions such as whether Ottawa would “grandfather” those owners who already have legally registered handguns and allow them to keep their weapons, or whether the government would buy back their weapons.
The source 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. The source added there are “probably” twice that number in illegal, unregistered handguns in circulation.
In fact, 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.
The federal government’s consultation document published to inform public debate on a handgun ban says in most cases, individuals own handguns for sport shooting or as part of a collection and it acknowledges “most gun crimes are not committed with legally-owned firearms.”
But the same document outlines a big concern for Blair and the government: that thefts from legal owners represent a growing source of illegally-acquired domestic handguns and other firearms, citing a 70-per-cent increase in break-ins to steal a firearm between 2010 and 2017 (from 673 to 1,175 incidents, according to Statistics Canada). It says there is no information about whether the thefts were from individuals or businesses, or whether they were related to improper storage or transportation of firearms.
It acknowledged any ban of handguns or assault weapons “would primarily affect legal firearms owners, while the illicit market would be indirectly affected as there would be fewer available to potentially divert.”
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says if he formed government he would review laws and repeal any regulations or policies that unnecessarily target law-abiding gun owners. He says he would ensure Parliament, not the RCMP, has sole authority to reclassify guns, and he would provide more money for police to target gangs, to support programs for youth, and to conduct rigorous background checks on would-be gun owners.