Canadian ban on “military assault rifles” only one of many steps needed

Updated to indicate that the AR-15 assault rifle has not been identified as one of the two types of now banned assault style weapons used in the N.S. massacre. As yet, the RCMP and the Public Safety Minister have declined to provide further details on makes and models.

Through a Cabinet order-in-council amending regulations to existing legislation in the Criminal Code of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday 1 May that the federal government is banning a range of 1,500 “military-style” assault weapons, effective immediately:

Today we are closing the market for military grade assault weapons in Canada….

The ban includes the Ruger Mini-14 used to kill 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in December 1989, the AR-15 used in countless American mass shootings, and the CSA-VZ-58, carried by the gunman in the Quebec Mosque shooting in 2017. Assault-style rifles were also used in the murder of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta in 2005, the murder of three RCMP officers in Moncton in 2014, and, most recently  in the 2020 massacre of 23 people in Nova Scotia. In this latest case, the RCMP seized two assault style rifles but have not yet indicated their specific types. Public Safety Minister Blair has confirmed these models are also covered by the ban.

The order has a two-year amnesty period for current owners, and there will be a compensation program that will require a bill passed in Parliament. In the meantime, these weapons can be exported, returned to manufacturers, and transported only to deactivate them or get rid of them. In certain limited circumstances, they can be used for hunting.

In a statement earlier this week referencing a “large consensus” among Canadians who want less violence and fewer deaths from firearms, Prime Minister Trudeau went on to say:

There is no need in Canada for guns designed to kill the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time….

While the classification of an “assault weapon” is not currently a term with legal definition in Canada, the federal government describes this type of weapon as:

…semi-automatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire.

For the full text of the new regulations click: Assault rifles banned.

The Prime Minister’s assertion of public support would appear to be strongly born out both in a very recent survey by the well-regarded non-profit Angus Reid Institute as well as a detailed poll of public opinion released in May 2019 which also showed a majority of Canadians supporting a handgun ban.

The results … show an overwhelming majority – nearly four-in-five – support a complete prohibition on civilian possession of the types of weapons used in the Montreal Massacre in 1989, and most recently, the rampage of an assault weapon-carrying murderer who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia last month.

Significantly, two-thirds (65%) strongly support such a move, giving federal policy makers a clear mandate to go forward.

For a brief history of assault-style weapons in Canada, see: Should Canada ban assault-style firearms? (Prof R. Blake Brown, theconversation.com, 14 Jan 2020).

While this action is most welcome and long overdue, a host of related problems also need urgent attention.

The problem of unlicensed gun owners

Writing in the conversation.com on 30 April 2020, Professor R. Blake Brown focuses on the cache of weapons held by the Portapique, N.S. mass murderer, including several unregistered semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles:

It’s troubling that Wortman could accumulate the weapons and ammunition necessary to carry out his rampage. And it’s possibly evidence of an enduring problem: gun smuggling from the United States, which provides a stream of illegal weapons for criminal gangs in Canada.

It also highlights that some seemingly law-abiding Canadians create private gun collections outside of the normal licensing and registration systems.

Professor Brown recalls the history of legislative steps to make such activity easier, not harder:

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper responded to [professed gun lobby] fears of confiscation by limiting the federal government’s ability to track firearms. Most famously, his government passed legislation in 2012 to abolish the long-gun registry, despite resistance from police organizations, victims’ groups, the government of Québec and a sizeable public investment in the creation of the registry.

Professor R. Blake Brown, elucidates further:

The Conservatives also took steps undermining the firearm licensing system and the ability of police to trace weapons that received less public attention…[including] legislation that rolled back requirements passed in the 1970s that required gun retailers to record the sales of non-restricted firearms.

Despite continuing opposition from the Conservative Party of Canada and “gun rights” groups, the Liberal government passed Bill C-71 in May 2019 reinstating the record-keeping requirements although gun control advocates lament the slow pace of enacting supporting regulations to bring the new laws into effect.

A CBC report summarizes the impact of the Bill C-71 amendments thusly:

The legislation enhances background checks, forces retailers to keep records of firearms sales and tweaks the authorization to transport (ATT) rules — but many of those changes have been in limbo because the prime minister’s cabinet hasn’t issued the necessary orders to implement the new regulations. They are listed on the government’s website as “amendments not in force.”

The illegal arms market/sources of illegal arms

There is also a need for much further study on the illegal arms trade in Canada. A 2015 report on the website of the Canadian Department of Justice states:

9.2 Sources of Illegal Firearms

It is important to know more about how offenders get firearms, their motives for owning and carrying them, and the nature of the local firearm markets. Canadian studies have not yet focused on these issues, and U.S. research findings cannot be transposed to the Canadian situation.

Critics and supporters of the assault rifle ban alike agree that more must be done to clamp down on the illegal arms trade. As noted earlier, the RCMP has confirmed that the Nova Scotia shooter used firearms obtained illegally both within Canada and from U.S. sources to carry out his crimes. Public Security Minister Bill Blair added:

But I can tell you that every firearm begins legally and then moves into an illegal market…

Illegal smuggling over the Canada-U.S. border is the source of “untold thousands of firearms floating around the country”. While the number of domestically-sourced guns used in the commission of crimes has been climbing in recent years, the U.S. is still believed to be the source of “anywhere from 70 to 90%” of these mostly handguns.

Last year, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) was granted an extra $51.5 million in funding over five years to enhance screening, detection and training around firearms smuggling. The RCMP were also given $34.5 million over five years for the new Integrated Criminal Firearms Initiative to enhance intelligence gathering, technology and investigations. But critics say this is a drop in the bucket, given the sheer volume of cross-border activity on a daily basis.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

While critics of the assault rifle ban are right to call for more extensive border control measures, it is hard to see how these would be a substitute for, and not a corollary to, banning legal possession of assault-style rifles. At a minimum, the ban means it will no longer be possible for a Canadian to legally purchase that type of weapon in the USA or Canada and then either use it to commit a crime or resell it on the black market in Canada.

And what about handguns?

The two Angus Reid Institute surveys cited earlier show broad Canadian support not only for a ban on assault rifles but also on handguns, the latter being the weapon of choice in the majority of cases where guns are used in the commission of crimes in Canada (eg. in two-thirds of crimes with weapons in urban settings). Even more disturbing is the significant increase in violent crime involving firearms since 2013.

The Small Arms Survey, a project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, estimated in 2018 that Canada has the fifth-highest gun ownership rate in the world, with the USA having the highest. And OECD numbers as of 2010 (when Canada was experiencing an overall decrease in violent crime) rated Canada fifth among 36 OECD nations in number of gun deaths per capita.

A 2017 Statistics Canada report provides more details:

55%: More than half of firearm-related homicides in 2017 were committed using a handgun. Rifles or shotguns were used in 23 per cent and other types of firearms, such as fully automatic firearms or sawed-off rifles or shotguns were the primary weapon in 9 per cent of all firearm-related homicides.

And see also this review of American studies that overwhelmingly demonstrate the following:

…where there are higher levels of gun ownership, there are more gun suicides and more total suicides, more gun homicides and more total homicides, and more accidental gun deaths.

Despite these alarming statistics and trends, the Justin Trudeau government has only reiterated earlier promises to enact legislation enabling municipalities to regulate handguns within their respective jurisdictional limits.

For the manifold reasons why this is an insufficient response, see our blog: Canadians want a ban on handguns and assault weapons (rideauinstitute.ca, 27 May 2019). Note also that both the Liberal-leaning Toronto Star and the more Conservative-friendly Globe and Mail printed editorials in the wake of the assault rifle ban advocating a ban on handguns as well.

For a recent article outlining further steps needed, see also: Advocates say new firearms ban part of ‘suite of protections’ needed to protect women from violence (Duncan McCue, cbc.ca, 3 May 2020).

Whither Canada?

We commend the Government of Canada for decisive, albeit long overdue, action to ban assault-style weapons in Canada. We call on them to expeditiously bring into force the Bill C-71 amendments already enacted and to begin the process for legislating a full a ban on handguns.

 Photo credit: Wikimedia images (AR-15 Carbine)

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