OTTAWA — Nowhere in the Liberal government’s latest attempt to craft clear, practical gun control legislation — by introducing a new handgun “freeze”— does it say “thou shalt not buy, sell, import, trade or transfer handguns.”
Instead, the mechanism to slap a freeze on the acquisition of handguns is found in the legalese of a 55-page bill — and accompanying regulations — that are typical of the morass that is firearms law in Canada.
It’s a classic example of the Liberals’ beleaguered efforts at gun control, which can often seem like more talk than action to its supporters and critics alike.
Take the effort to depoliticize the classification of firearms.
The Liberals came to power in 2015 promising a reversal of what they called the Harper government’s politicization of decisions around gun control.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper gave cabinet — not the RCMP where the Canadian Firearms Centre is housed — the final say on how guns should be classified and which types should be banned.
While the Liberals proposed to repeal that policy with a law introduced in 2018 (and which passed in 2019), unwinding that policy remains a work in progress.
Senior officials say it was a complex bit of work, made messy by the fact that doing so would have inadvertently left off the list certain assault-style weapons the Liberals wanted to ban.
The proposal is once again revived in this year’s version of another gun control bill that died on the order paper before last year’s election, both coincidentally called C-21.
The latest bill would remove cabinet’s ability to “downgrade firearms classification” — that is, give the power to loosen restrictions (or un-ban) a prohibited weapon back to the RCMP.
However, the power to tighten restrictions — to upgrade the classification or ban certain firearms — will remain with cabinet.
The Trudeau government used that power in May 2020 to issue a cabinet order banning some 1,500 models of what it called “assault-style firearms” — a move made weeks after the April 2020 rampage in which a gunman wielding semi-automatic rifles and handguns killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia.
It was a measure that found widespread public support, according to a May 2020 Angus Reid survey, and was effectively used as a political wedge by the Liberals against Conservatives, who flip-flopped over whether they would retain the prohibition in last year’s federal election.
But an amnesty on current ownership is in place until Oct. 30, 2023 — while the government figures out a way to get those guns out of circulation through a buyback program. So far, of an estimated 100,000 such weapons, only 153 firearms have been surrendered to police, while 22 have been “deactivated,” says the public safety department.
It’s not the only delayed measure.
It was only three weeks ago, on May 18, that a number of other measures proposed in that 2018 bill were finally brought into effect: all of those highly touted measures to require expanded background checks to cover a license applicant’s lifetime, to impose tighter firearm transportation requirements, and tighter requirements on businesses to validate licences, and keep inventory and sales records for 20 years.
Meanwhile, the federal government has again deferred regulations to require that specific markings be stamped on firearms to make them more easily traceable.
Now, take that handgun freeze.
It’s not an outright ban, although the Liberals have campaigned, on and off, to introduce one since at least 2005, when Paul Martin promised a ban after Toronto’s deadly “summer of the gun.”
The mechanism to make it happen is this: the government is going to order the chief firearms officer to stop issuing certificates that authorize the transfer of guns to individuals (unless they are exempted) or the transportation of handguns from ports of entry.
It’s a roundabout strategy, made necessary by the fact that Canada as a free trading country can’t simply ban imports of a legal product — and, for now, handguns are indeed still legal.
Advocates for victims of gun violence were unanimous in welcoming it.
Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control, who has been calling for just such a freeze for years, said it was potentially a “game changer.”
Timing, of course, is everything.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the freeze on handgun sales and transfers on May 30 — two weeks after the targeted shooting deaths of 10 Black Americans at a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket, and a week after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Tex.
“We need only look south of the border to know that if we do not take action firmly and rapidly, it gets worse and worse and more difficult to counter,” he said.
The American news media were transfixed by Canada’s gun control push.
Trudeau later told an America podcast it didn’t come out of the blue, and that his government has been working on such measures for seven years.
He said the gun rights lobby in Canada was becoming more vocal, with rhetoric from south of the border about Americans’ constitutional right to carry arms creeping north and promoted by right wing media.
The message from his government was clear.
“In Canada, gun ownership is a privilege, not a right,” said Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair. “It’s a privilege that is earned by those Canadians who adhere to our strict laws or regulations and our requirements regarding licensing, training, storage and use of a firearm.”
Liberals credit a group called Danforth Families for Safe Communities for coming up with the idea of a handgun “freeze,” calling it an “elegant” proposal to stem the handgun trade after the failure of Trudeau’s original plan to outsource the power to ban handguns to provincial or municipal governments.
The idea of a patchwork of bans never appealed to the premiers or mayors tasked with implementing them, Trudeau admitted.
It also never appealed to either the supporters or opponents of gun control.
Danforth Families spokesman Ken Price is more optimistic about the freeze — although, he said, it wasn’t his group’s idea, and is just one step among many he’d like to see.
“From my perspective, it’s not all about the law or changing the law,” said Price. “It’s about enforcement and resources” to stop legal guns from being stolen or falling into the wrong hands, to stop illegal guns from being smuggled across the border, and to help communities with anti-gang or youth-at-risk initiatives, he said.
Conservatives and critics in gun-owning circles say they support those latter approaches, too.
Price’s daughter was wounded in the Danforth gunman’s 2018 attack that left two people dead and 13 injured, and he was among those who stood on stage behind Trudeau and several ministers as they unveiled the latest measures.
He agrees with Trudeau that the gun lobby is more vocal and organized than ever, but suggests gun control advocates — and victims of gun violence — may have less impact because they are a more diverse lot. Victims of domestic abuse, gang violence or random mass shooters may focus on different approaches, he said, whether that’s better ways to tackle imminent threats from a partner, illegal smuggling, background checks on gun owners or mental health supports.
The Liberals say they will tackle all of it.
Along with a handgun freeze, the Liberals now propose stronger “red flag” laws to suspend or revoke a gun owner’s licence and to protect complainants’ identities, new powers for border and police to combat illegal gun trafficking using expanded wiretap and immigration authorities, and tougher sentences for smugglers.
But the rollout of the latest gun control package was a public relations mess. There was no technical briefing for MPs or media before the bill was tabled, or before a late-day news conference.
More importantly, by May 30, the parliamentary clock was already winding down.
If the government had hoped to enact the handgun freeze sooner rather than later, it would have had to introduce the bill on or before May 6, in order to allow the requisite 30 parliamentary sitting days required by law.
Now there is a run on handgun sales across the country, to the apparent surprise of the federal government.
On May 30, senior officials said they didn’t expect a spike in sales because, they reasoned, the market would slow down as merchants stopped importing handguns that would soon be illegal to sell.
Plus, they said, it takes three to six months for would-be gun owners to get a license to acquire a restricted weapon; by then, they predicted, the regulations halting sales would be in effect.
Officials confirmed this week until the freeze takes effect, businesses in Canada that sell handguns can still import them.
Canadians who have a license to possess and acquire a restricted weapon — say, a handgun — can still buy them.
And that’s exactly what they’re doing.
At some point, however, gun control advocates and the government believe the new measure will achieve in practice what those groups have been demanding for decades, and what the Liberals promised. They say a freeze will be a ban in all but name.
The other significant move announced by the government was the promise of a mandatory — not voluntary, as previously contemplated — buyback program, which will require owners of newly banned “assault-style” weapons to sell them to the government for destruction, or have them rendered inoperable at the government’s expense.
In the past, Ottawa has almost always allowed current owners of newly prohibited weapons to keep them. This time, it says, will be no “grandfathering” once the government works out the details of the buyback program.
Asked why the government needs so much more time to get that buyback program up and running, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino made an observation that could more generally be applied to all firearms regulation in Canada.
“It’s complex,” he said.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc