Tory gun strategy includes mandatory minimums and avoids banning weapons

TORONTO — The Conservatives are promising mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes and to list known street gangs in the Criminal Code, similar to the way terror groups are identified, as part of the party’s gun strategy unveiled Friday on the campaign trail.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s policies focus on punishing criminals as opposed to banning weapons — the approach pursued by his main opponents, the Liberals. Scheer called the Liberal plan “lazy and ineffective” because it creates more laws for “law-abiding” gun owners to follow, which he said are ignored by criminals.

“What this plan does is goes after those repeat and dangerous offenders,” Scheer said at Toronto hotel, flanked by plain clothes police officers and people who work with victims of crime. “And its on the advice of various police chiefs from across the county … We are listening to the experts on this issue.”

Conservatives chose Toronto, the city where calls are loudest for governments to do more to combat gun crime, to announce their plans. The country’s largest city is often labelled one of the safest big cities in the world, but Statistics Canada data shows gun crime in Toronto increasing since 2015, with particularly big spikes in the last two years.

Scheer said, if elected, his government would establish five-year minimum sentences for people who are convicted of ordering or participating in violent criminal activity. And he would make the possession of a smuggled firearm a criminal offence with a mandatory sentence of five years in prison.

His government would also extend what’s known as reverse onus bail hearings, where its up to the defendant to show grounds for release instead of up to the prosecutor to show grounds against release, to all gang members. Scheer also wants to “reduce court delays” by listing known gangs in the Criminal Code, the same way the government lists terrorist entities such as Al Qaida and Hamas.

“This will spare prosecutors from repeatedly having the establish that the gang in question is a known entity with criminal intent each time a gang member is on trial,” he said.

Scheer also promised to get Canada’s border agency to do more to try and stop illegal guns from crossing over from the United States.

He cited Toronto police chief Mark Saunders in saying that 80 per cent of guns in the hands of gang members are coming into Canada illegally from the U.S.

Scheer promised a Canada Border Services Agency task force to work with their American colleagues to disrupt gun smuggling routes.

Liberal candidate for Scarborough Southwest and former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair tweeted that Scheer “doesn’t want to talk about guns” and is instead trying to “bring American-style gun laws to Canada.”

The Liberals’ plan bans all so-called “military-style assault rifles,” creates a gun buy-back program and seeks to give authority to municipalities to further restrict or ban handguns.

Scheer said that plan won’t work to reduce gun crime because “a drug dealer doesn’t stop to think, ‘Do I have the right permit?’ as he’s travelling from one part of the (city) to another to sell illegal drugs.”

He said creating more laws and restrictions on firearms will only create more headaches for law-abiding people an shift “precious” police resources away from focusing on violent crime.

At a recent campaign event, Toronto-area mayors welcomed the Liberals plan — but they said it didn’t go far enough. Local leaders said they wanted a national prohibition on handguns.

But Marcell Wilson, co-founder and co-executive director of Toronto’s One By One, which works with at-risk youth, said he prefers the Conservative plan.

Wilson, a former leader of what he called one of the largest gangs in the country, the United Blood Nation, stood behind Scheer during the announcement on Friday.

“Banning legal guns doesn’t affect my community whatsoever,” said Wilson, who grew up in a Toronto housing project called Swansea Mews. “We work directly with gang members and offenders coming out of prison and none of us — including me — were (gun permit) carriers.”

He said young men are attracted to gangs because they live in relative poverty compared to those around them and they lack activities to keep them from getting bored.

The poverty in Toronto isn’t anywhere near the levels in places such as Jamaica or Africa, he said, but young men in the city don’t know they aren’t actually “impoverished.”

“All they see is all the things around them that they cannot have or that they feel they cannot have,” Wilson said. “The goals that seem unattainable to them. You breed that into someone and it starts to build resentment and kids acts out.”

He said the Conservatives were the only party who reached out to his group for advice.

“We were invited here, and I appreciate that,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2019.