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Politics Liberals want to prohibit more assault weapons rather than ban handguns

Ottawa has officially ruled out a countrywide ban on handguns, but the Liberals will be running in the next federal election on a plan to prohibit and buy back some military-style assault weapons that are currently legal in Canada, minister Bill Blair said.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the former Toronto police chief said months of consultations on gun control have led him to reject the possibility of a full ban on handguns, despite official requests from the cities of Toronto and Montreal.

“I believe that would be potentially a very expensive proposition but just as importantly, it would not in my opinion be perhaps the most effective measure in restricting the access that criminals would have to such weapons, because we’d still have a problem with them being smuggled across the border,” said Mr. Blair, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction.

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Gun control is one of the most divisive issues in the country, but Mr. Blair said the campaign leading to the Oct. 21 election will be the right moment for Canadians to decide whether additional measures are needed to improve public safety.

The Liberal and Conservative parties have been battling for decades on this issue, and Mr. Blair’s recommendation to prohibit some types of weapons stands to put the debate at the forefront of the political agenda in the coming months.

“There are some weapons that are currently available in our society that represent an unacceptable risk," he said. "They have been used tragically in a number of incidents in which a large number of people have been killed, because these weapons were designed to be efficient in the taking of lives.”

Mr. Blair said the government should not simply prohibit new sales of these weapons and allow current owners to keep them under a form of grandfathering. Instead, he said the Liberals will propose to buy them back.

“In fairness to those individuals [who have already lawfully acquired these weapons], if we were going to prohibit them and remove them from society, we would want to consider the best way to compensate them for the forfeiture of those weapons,” he said.

He said the cost of the measure and the firearms to be banned have yet to be determined. Still, Mr. Blair mentioned that he would be targeting the types of weapons that have been used in mass shootings in Canada, the United States and New Zealand.

There is no legal definition for assault rifles in the Criminal Code. The most commonly cited example of a military-style assault rifle, the AR-15, is classified as restricted, meaning it is subject to a central registry and can only be fired at an approved range. Still, other semi-automatic, magazine-fed rifles firing identical rounds can be found in the non-restricted category, which can used for hunting and have no registry.

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The pro-gun-control group PolySeSouvient has identified eight assault-style rifles that have been approved for the Canadian market over the past two years as non-restricted firearms.

There are tens of thousands of magazine-fed, semi-automatic rifles in the country and choosing which constitute military-style assault rifles will prove controversial.

“If this government wants to prohibit every firearm originally designed to kill people, they’d have to prohibit every firearm on the market,” said forensic firearms expert Alan Voth. “I can’t think of a single rifle design that doesn’t have some kind of military ancestry.”

Emblematic of the classification quandary is the Ruger Mini-14, a semi-automatic rifle used in the École Polytechnique massacre that ticks many of the boxes associated with military-style assault rifles. But with its wooden stock, it looks more like a classic hunting rifle than a pistol-gripped, military-style rifle. It remains non-restricted.

In addition to prohibiting some weapons, Mr. Blair said the Liberals will want to strengthen the rules on the safe and secure storage of firearms and make a series of changes to firearms laws. Among other things, the measures would allow authorities to suspend firearms acquisition licences over concerns that their owners could harm themselves or others, and aim to deter “straw purchases” in which guns are legally purchased and then resold to criminals.

He also opened the door to giving greater powers to provinces and municipalities to regulate the sale and use of firearms on their territories.

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Mr. Blair argued that a majority of gun owners would not be affected by these rules.

“It is not, in any way, my intention nor my recommendation that we would do anything to restrict the activities of hunters and farmers or sports shooters who follow the rules, who are obeying the law and don’t represent a risk themselves to public safety,” he said.

The pressure has been growing on the federal government to enact stronger gun-control measures after the 2017 shooting at a Quebec mosque, in which six Muslim men were killed, and the 2018 shooting along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, where two people were killed and 13 injured.

Liberal MPs in the Toronto area have been particularly involved in pressing the government and the party to deliver tougher gun-control measures, while members from more rural areas of the country are concerned about a backlash at the polls.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has criticized efforts by the Liberal government to enact tougher gun-control laws. He unveiled a policy last year to crack down on gang members and smuggled guns, adding that changing the rules for law-abiding firearms owners is pointless.

“It’s lazy government to ask people who follow the rules to follow more rules,” Mr. Scheer said.

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