OTTAWA –A week after the federal government proposed to freeze handgun sales and bring in tougher measures to curb illegal gun violence, gun vendors say handguns are flying off the shelves.
“It’s insane,” said an employee at a York Region firearms store.
Sales are “going crazy,” said Sylvia Shi, manager of Solely Outdoors in Markham.
“It’s very busy. We sold over a couple of hundred handguns in three days,” she said, adding business has “more than tripled” the usual pace, before politely saying she had no more time to speak.
At G4C Sports Gun Store Canada in Markham, nobody had time for an interview because “we are all busy doing transfers for handgun sales,” said one employee, adding the store had to bring shipping department staff in to help with transfers.
“It’s amazing in a sad way,” he said. “Because Mr. Trudeau banned the guns, everybody fears there’s never gonna be a chance for them to own a handgun, so they buy.”
In Alberta, Derek Fildebrandt, a former MLA who is now publisher of the Western Standard, tweeted Monday that his company told staff it “will loan them up to $500 (interest free) to put toward the purchase of handguns & other restricted firearms. Buy em’ while you can folks.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet called Tuesday for all parties in the House of Commons to unanimously support an immediate freeze on handgun sales, in order to combat the run on guns by those who already hold valid licences for the restricted weapons.
That’s because the Liberal government’s showpiece measure announced last Monday to freeze the sale, importation and transfer of handguns contained in Bill C-21 is not likely to be studied and passed until the fall. And regulations that are aimed at doing that in practice — by freezing the chief firearms officer’s power to issue certification for the transport and transfers of handguns — also require at least 30 parliamentary sitting days, and will not take effect before the Commons’ summer break starts.
Blanchet suggested the handgun freeze alone has the support of the Liberals, BQ and NDP, and said the Commons should agree to require just 10 sitting days — in other words, allow the freeze to take effect at the end of this week.
“I hope the Conservatives would be open to that,” said Blanchet, calling his proposal “parliamentary common sense.”
The Conservatives have said they believe the bill is targeting law-abiding gun owners and not the real problem, which they say is illegally smuggled weapons crossing the border into Canada.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Tuesday a proposed handgun “freeze” is a key measure he’d like to pass immediately.
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Nevertheless, Mendocino defended the government’s overall plan, saying other strategies like new X-ray machines to screen trucks at the border, more resources for police and border guards, and supports for communities dealing with gang violence are already in progress.
However, the main legislative measures the government has proposed to tackle illegal handguns — such as increased wiretap powers for police, more powers for border officers to bar entry to suspected traffickers, a tougher 14-year maximum sentence for smuggling and trafficking offences, new permitting requirements for importation of ammunition, and more powers for the Canadian Firearms Program to flag suspected “straw purchases” — will not become reality until the fall or later, after parliamentary committee study and debate.
In the meantime, other than bringing the handgun “freeze” into force sooner by getting all parties onside, there is not a lot the federal government can do to stop legal gun owners who already have a possession and acquisition licence for restricted weapons — handguns — from buying them.
The Public Safety Department says almost 2.2 million individuals are licensed to possess firearms in Canada, and 1.1 million handguns are registered as restricted weapons. One million of those handguns are held by 276,000 licensed gun owners, with the rest registered to businesses or museums, officials say. About 700 businesses are authorized to sell restricted firearms, which include handguns, in Canada.
A senior government official told the Star on Tuesday that the federal government is aware of the increased handgun sales, but the freeze is not in effect until the law, or the regulations supporting it, come into force.
Canada’s Firearms Act requires up to 30 sitting days after tabling before new firearms regulations can take effect, unless the House and Senate public safety committees decide not to study them or to report back to the respective chambers.
“Handguns are almost sold out in Canada as it stands right now,” Tracey Wilson, a spokesperson and registered lobbyist for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said in an interview.
“Most stores are posting on social media saying that they’re almost sold out. I’ve got pictures and pictures of empty gun cabinets from stores all across the country.”
Wilson said she is not concerned by the pace of sales, adding “whether or not they’re sitting in a store or sitting in the locked gun cabinet of a gun owner, I don’t think it really makes any difference in the big picture.”
A bigger concern when it comes to handguns is that the Liberal plan, she said, will leave many small business owners in the lurch with inventory they cannot sell once the halt on transfers to individuals takes effect, while failing to tackle gun smuggling and trafficking, and anti-gang initiatives — measures she said the coalition supports. She said the government is willing to spend “billions” on targeting legal owners while spending a pittance on those other approaches.
The data is not clear when it comes to how many handguns used in violent crime are “illegal” — whether they were acquired legally then stolen, or legally purchased then diverted to an unlicensed user via so-called “straw purchases,” or smuggled into Canada.
Officials citing 2020 data from the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario and from the RCMP’s national firearms tracing centre say that based on some 4,000 guns that were traced nationally, a majority — 58 per cent — were “sourced domestically” and 42 per cent were smuggled.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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