OTTAWA — The shootings in Buffalo of Black Americans and the mass slaughter of schoolchildren and teachers in Texas are heartbreaking yet prominent backdrops to what happened in Ottawa on gun control on Monday.
Canada has its own litany of more recent mass tragedies, including the 2017 Quebec City mosque slaughter of six Muslim Canadians or the 2020 rampage of a gunman who killed 22 in rural Nova Scotia.
Yet if you needed a reminder of how any debate over gun violence quickly becomes political and triggers knee-jerk reactions in Canada, look no further than to how the House of Commons responded to the latest tragedy south of the border. What should have been a simple gesture of respect on Monday became an awkward moment on the Commons floor when the NDP proposed a vote to express sorrow and condemn the Uvalde schoolchildrens’ slaughter in Texas last week.
It took three tries to test whether the politicians in the Chamber would give unanimous consent. Twice, there were “nays.” A reporter in the gallery saw a Conservative MP say no. The Speaker was urged to try again, and finally, nobody objected.
It underscored divisions in Parliament that have simmered for decades, starting from the 1989 Polytechnique massacre when calls grew for gun control.
Little more than an hour after the vote, the Liberals introduced their latest bill to further tighten laws north of the border.
The complex new bill picks up where old measures left off and introduces new measures to curb the prevalence of handguns in Canada, and to impose, eventually, a mandatory buyback-or-destroy program of “military assault style weapons.”
No more waiting for provinces or municipalities to act on handgun violence. No more voluntary buybacks as once proposed. Now the government says it has a plan to start, by the end of the year, buying back some 1,800 models of assault-style weapons banned since the Liberals first passed a May 2020 cabinet order.
Still, the reality is, Parliament is less divided today than it might appear.
The Liberals have had willing partners since 2015 to enact stronger gun control measures: the NDP (who used to be more divided on such issues) and the Bloc Québécois (who are pushing for tougher action).
BQ critic Kristina Michaud reiterated her party’s support for a full handgun ban Monday, saying shootings in Montreal show the rise of a “real gun culture at home.” The BQ wants gun trafficking at the border halted.
“With all due respect to hunters, action also must be taken against all military style assault weapons and not just on a model-by-model basis,” she said. “These types of weapons are not made for duck hunting and have no place in the society that ensures the safety of its citizens.”
For NDP critic Alistair MacGregor, the Liberals’ proposed handgun “freeze” is “vey significant,” but he has a “healthy dose of skepticism” because Liberals never “follow through,” he said in an interview.
“I don’t want this to be a bill that’s just introduced, and then sits there on the order paper, as a shiny trophy on the wall,” he said. He said if the government is willing to push the bill forward, the NDP is keen to study it and support many of its measures.
“Gun violence is a very complex problem. Legislation is only one small part of the puzzle. We still have to do a lot of things like anti-gang diversion programs, domestic violence, the smuggling of illegal handguns, and so on. Those all have to work together in order for us to effectively tackle this problem. We can’t get all of our hopes just on one piece of legislation.”
Meanwhile, the Conservatives insisted — as they have for three decades — that the Liberals want to restrict the rights of “law-abiding” Canadians, hunters and sport shooters, doing nothing to stem gang violence or illegal smuggling from south of the border.
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Conservative MP John Brassard repeated those themes on CBC Monday: “The real problem in this country has to do with gangs and criminals who are importing firearms, mostly from the United States, using illegal guns on our streets.”
To halt guns at the border, the Liberals said they will offer more “resources” for the RCMP and CBSA to halt the flow of illegal weapons. Officials said the key tools in that arsenal are proposals to hike the maximum jail penalty for smuggling to 14 years from 10 — the maximum term short of a life sentence in the criminal code; requiring a firearms licence to import ammunition; and new immigration powers to bar entry to anyone previously charged or convicted of gun trafficking.
Beyond more slogans and promises of weapons buybacks or bans that have often been announced, amnestied, delayed and, in many cases, not yet implemented, what happened Monday? Quite a lot, and perhaps not as much as the government would want.
The Liberals stopped short of the national handgun ban that gun control advocates wanted.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted that over the past several years, neither his pitch to provinces nor to municipalities to implement their own handgun bans and to tailor it to their needs has worked.
Instead, Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino have introduced a handgun “freeze” that will bar future sales, purchases, transfers or importation of handguns between individuals anywhere in Canada.
The bill, once it passes, will “cap the market” at what officials say are 1.1 million handguns currently in legal circulation. About one million of those belong to individuals and the rest are held by businesses, museums and law enforcement. Once law, the freeze will allow new handguns to be acquired only by elite sport shooters training or competing in Olympic- or Paralympic-approved events, peace officers or licensed private security companies.
It could take months before the bill passes or regulations become law. The federal government says it does not expect a massive run on handgun sales in the meanwhile, because it takes three to six months to get a handgun licence.
“Our expectation is that the market will slow down immediately,” senior government officials told reporters.
And although it was not a national handgun ban as demanded by many gun control advocates, it nevertheless won praise from several groups representing gun violence victims, as did new “red flag” measures to prevent the use of firearms in cases of domestic violence and to protect the identity of complainants, or to crack down on the use of large-capacity ammunition cartridge magazines.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said a national handgun freeze “is a major step in the right direction, though it must be accompanied by tougher border measures, tougher penalties and investments in antiviolence programs.”
Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control founded after the Polytechnique massacre, said the bill contains several measures that will reduce gun violence and reinforces “Canadian values because there is no ‘right to own’ guns in this country.”
Cukier called the handgun freeze “the game changer” that will stem the flow of guns. “Legal handguns are a significant source of handguns used in crime and are the guns most often used in mass shootings. Canadians want them banned.”
Ken Price, father of Samantha Price, a survivor of the July 22, 2018 Danforth Avenue shooting, said in a written statement that the “proposed phasing out of private handgun ownership is a major step forward and shows that the government has been listening to the voices of victims.”
PolyRemembers, another group of survivors of the 1989 Montreal massacre, welcomed the changes, too, with several members standing onstage behind Trudeau and a bevy of ministers.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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