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Minister Bill Blair speaks at a town hall on handguns in Toronto on Sept. 23, 2018.Chris Donovan

A Toronto town hall that saw repeated angry outbursts and interruptions from an unruly audience offered the Liberal government its first glimpse of the road ahead in its work on a possible ban on handguns.

In advance of formal public consultations, Toronto-area Liberal MPs Julie Dabrusin and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith hosted a public event Sunday to discuss gun violence, an issue the government has vowed to crack down on ahead of next year’s election. But despite support for a ban from some of Canada’s largest cities, the meeting, which saw repeated interjections from a small but determined number of pro-gun audience members, highlighted just how divisive the issue may still prove to be.

“I know there is a great diversity of opinion. There are some people with very strong feelings on this issue,” Bill Blair said afterward. Mr. Blair is the newly appointed Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction.

Mr. Blair, a former Toronto Police chief who spoke at Sunday’s event, has been tasked with stick-handling the handgun issue. He said that moving forward, "evidence” will help guide him. But at the town hall, even the evidence proved contentious.

As he sat onstage speaking, Mr. Blair cited Toronto Police figures indicating that an increasing proportion of guns used in crime are coming from domestic sources (as opposed to illegally through the border) – at least of those guns that police are able to track. That comment drew loud booing, with some shouting that the minister was misrepresenting the data.

Sunday’s town hall took place just minutes away from Danforth Avenue, the site of a mass shooting in late July that saw a lone gunman kill an 18-year-old woman and a 10-year-old girl. That shooting and the outrage that followed touched off a national debate about gun crime in Canada, and sparked a flurry of activity in Ottawa surrounding the issue.

Immediately following the Danforth shooting, Toronto’s city council called on the federal government to ban handguns in the city. Soon after, Montreal’s city council followed suit. In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke publicly about the possibility of a handgun ban, and just last week the government said it would launch nation-wide consultations on the idea.

Mr. Blair was joined onstage Sunday by Scot Wortley, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto; Louis March, founder of the group Zero Gun Violence; and emergency physician Atul Kapur.

Throughout the two-hour discussion, the presenters agreed on many issues, including the need to approach gun crime not simply as a criminal matter. The presenters spoke repeatedly of the need to address root causes of violence, including poverty, education, mental health, public housing and economic opportunity.

But much of the disagreement came instead from the crowd. While some audience members appeared supportive of a ban, the most vocal were those who opposed it.

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A member of the Canadian Firearms Network stands and screams at the panel during the town hall.Chris Donovan

Even before the meeting began, there were signs of a divide. Ahead of the meeting, a pro-firearm group posted on social media urging supporters to “flood” the event."

"We need our voice to be heard!” a group called On Target Canada wrote on Twitter.

Standing in the lobby before the meeting, Don Lindsay, speaking on behalf of the Canadian Firearms Network, told The Globe and Mail that he considered Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Blair "cowards” for targeting gun owners. He said that the majority of gun owners are law-abiding, and that those who use them to commit crimes aren’t likely to be swayed by a ban. Mr. Lindsay said he’d driven nearly two hours down from Wasaga Beach for the Toronto session.

Throughout the meeting, like-minded audience members made their views known. In one pointed exchange, Prof. Wortley remarked onstage that many of the young men he’s spoken with in his research have said they’d acquired their guns through legal owners.

The comment drew jeers from the crowd.

“I don’t know why they would have a reason to lie about it,” the professor responded, visibly frustrated.

And as Mr. Erskine-Smith wrapped up the town hall, another outburst.

“Stop using gun owners as a scapegoat!” shouted a man from the audience. The comment elicited a burst of applause.

Afterward, Mr. Blair said he welcomed all perspectives. "There are some who feel very very strongly about their personal ownership of firearms. There are some who feel equally strong about the safety of their communities,” he said.

“We’ll listen to both.”

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