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John Ivison: Forget the buyback, spend the money on stopping guns at the border

Despite the heated rhetoric on all sides, the usefulness of any of these legislative changes is questionable

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Gun control the right way: Some of the 62 illegal firearms — most smuggled into Canada from the U.S. — seized by police in Project Barbell.
Gun control the right way: Some of the 62 illegal firearms — most smuggled into Canada from the U.S. — seized by police in Project Barbell. Photo by Toronto Police Service

OTTAWA —  Le Journal de Montréal, the biggest-selling newspaper in Quebec, featured Carey Price, carrying a hunting shotgun and wearing full camouflage, over the headline: “Price Takes it Out on Trudeau” over the government’s gun control legislation.

On his Instagram account on Saturday, the popular Montreal Canadiens goalie said he wants to “keep my hunting tools.”

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“I am not a criminal or a threat to society. What (Justin Trudeau) is trying to do is unjust.”

No politician relishes going head-to-head with a revered sporting icon. In a press conference on Monday, Trudeau said he is listening to concerns that some of the firearms his government is looking at banning are used primarily for hunting — a rare example of him bowing to pressure.

The thought must also have occurred to Yves-Francois Blanchet, the Bloc Québécois leader, who has supported the Liberal legislation to this point.

After Price’s intervention, Blanchet said of Bill C-21 on Twitter: “It’s necessary — first compassionately protect the lives of civilians through law and border controls; don’t unduly affect sports hunting; have the courage to face misinformation and toxic social networks; reject willful partisan confusion.”

On that latter point, the assumption is he meant the Conservatives, who have been vocal in their criticism of two controversial new amendments to the bill.

But there has been plenty of wilful partisan confusion coming from the Liberals too — they have said that hunters won’t be affected by the legislation, yet even government experts admit it will mean some hunting rifles are banned. It’s small wonder the Liberals can’t explain what is going on, when they don’t seem to understand the changes themselves. If they did, they might have pointed out that what appears to be the Benelli Super Black Eagle rifle in Carey Price’s hands is on the list but only to clarify that it is exempt from its provisions.

If the Liberals thought they might make political gains by imposing stricter gun controls on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre, in which 14 young women were shot dead, they appear to have misjudged the mood of the country — something the opposition parties have noted.

The Bloc’s defence of the legislation seems to be wavering. A spokesman issued a statement on behalf of Bloc critic Kristina Michaud and said it is the party’s position “for now.”

Michaud said the Bloc is in favour of better gun control and a ban on assault weapons. “We are currently studying the government’s proposal in committee, with the aim of offering greater control of firearms without harming hunters.”

The Bloc’s position may prove pivotal because the NDP is withdrawing its support until the government clarifies what weapons are banned under its amendments.

  1. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shake hands on March 24, 2022, shortly after sealing a deal in which the NDP would support the minority Liberals for the remainder of the term.

    Liberal gun control bill raises questions about NDP support

  2. Murray Smith, an RCMP technical specialist, acknowledged to the Commons public safety committee on Thursday that some hunting firearms would be prohibited under an amendment to the Trudeau Liberals' gun control legislation.

    John Ivison: For the sake of national unity, Liberals should drop hunting rifle ban

Alistair MacGregor, the party’s public safety critic, said there is no reason to have military assault weapons in Canadian communities. “But the Liberals introduced a last-minute amendment to their firearms bill without New Democrats’ knowledge. Many Indigenous people, hunters and farmers have raised concerns regarding the potential impact of these changes, and we are taking those concerns very seriously.”

MacGregor said the NDP will make sure any amendments do not ban guns primarily used for hunting.

The NDP agrees with the principle of the original bill but, like the Bloc, has a number of predominantly rural ridings where hunting is a way of life.

Charlie Angus, the northern Ontario NDP MP, said what was a handgun bill is now penalizing legitimate gun owners. “I think they have overreached.”

In the House, Liberal MP Rachel Bendayan said Bill C-21 is an attempt by the government to prevent a recurrence of the Ecole Polytechnique shootings. “But we are now in the midst of a disinformation campaign led by the gun lobby,” she said.

Angus has a canny instinct for political self-preservation but neither he nor his NDP colleagues are stooges for the gun lobby.

The reason the NDP and even the Bloc are re-assessing their support for C21 is because it is a mess. The list of prohibited weapons includes, perhaps understandably, rocket launchers and the Thompson submachine gun. But it also includes the Ruger No. 1, a wood-stock, single-shot hunting rifle that doesn’t meet any of the criteria in the definition of what constitutes an assault weapon.

Gun control in this country has long balanced the desire to avoid the carnage we see south of the border, with legitimate property rights and freedom concerns. When one or other party goes too far, the public outcry generally forces the offender back toward consensus. That appears to be what is happening at the moment.

The path of gun regulation has seldom run smoothly.

The firearm registry brought in after the Ecole Polytechnique shootings produced cost overruns that became a lingering sore for the Chrétien and Martin Liberals. In 1995, the Department of Justice said gun control measures would all but pay for themselves from registration fees; by 2002, it emerged the program would cost $1 billion — the infamous “billion-dollar boondoggle” -— and only bring in around one seventh of that in fees.

The Conservatives sought to repeal the registry but didn’t have the votes until they won a majority government in 2011. They came close in 2009, when they secured the backing of some Liberal and NDP MPs, including Angus. But, in one of Michael Ignatieff’s few successes as Liberal leader, he whipped his MPs to ensure Conservative support for a private member’s bill that repealed the registry was narrowly defeated.

Despite the heated rhetoric on all sides, the usefulness of any of these legislative changes is questionable — one study by McMaster University’s department of medicine found that between 1981 and 2016, there were no significant changes to the overall homicide or suicide rate following changes in legislation.

What is clearly effective are police operations like Project Barbell, which, Toronto police said on Monday, had resulted in multiple arrests and the seizure of 62 illegal firearms, most of which had been smuggled into Canada from the U.S.

In the House of Commons, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino boasted about the $450 million invested in the Canada Border Services Agency over the past two years, which may or may not have had any impact on Project Barbell.

But that is where the money should be spent. The country would be far better served if the government redirected the billions it will have to spend to compensate rural hunters and gun collectors toward fighting guns and gangs in our cities and at the border.

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