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Three legally-owned handguns are on a gun owner's table in New Westminster, B.C., on May 30.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

Canadians own 1.1 million legal handguns. That’s three times as many as just a decade and a half ago. New sales in recent years have been running at an average of 55,000 annually.

As this page has repeatedly pointed out, none of the above makes any sense. Hunting is a legal activity practised by millions of Canadians, but handguns aren’t legal as hunting tools, in part because they’re highly ineffective hunting tools. They’re too inaccurate to be useful for much besides shooting other human beings at close range. Their main value is as concealed weapons, and carrying a concealed weapon is, of course, illegal in Canada.

So while many Canadians have good reasons for owning a hunting rifle, almost nobody has a good reason for owning a handgun.

That’s why the Trudeau government was absolutely right when, on Monday, it introduced a bill whose most important provision is a ban on the buying and selling of all handguns. The government had spent a couple years toying with a plan to give individual cities the power to make handguns illegal within municipal boundaries; a plan appropriately criticized as performative rather than actual gun control. Credit to the government for changing course, and coming up with a much better policy.

Explainer: Trudeau is proposing a national freeze on handguns in Canada. Here’s everything to know about Bill C-21 so far

While current handgun owners will be able to keep existing weapons – where under current laws they must be safely stored and not used for much of anything besides target practice at a range – no new handguns will be available for sale in Canada. Current owners also will not be able to sell or gift existing handguns.

The government’s previous focus on ending the sale of so-called assault rifles, while a reasonable idea – what hunter needs a semi-automatic, military-grade weapon? – missed the point that a large and growing share of gun crime, particularly in cities, is handgun crime. While tragedies like that of Uvalde, Tex., get the attention, the vast majority of Canada’s homicides and non-fatal shootings are not mass shootings. They’re the stuff of monthly murder statistics, where the handgun is increasingly the gun of choice.

Will banning the sale of legal handguns put an end to all gun crime? Obviously not. It’s possible to commit a crime without a gun. In Canada, almost as many homicides involve a knife as a firearm. That is a testament to our history of gun control. Yet Canadian gun control is not stringent by global standards. According to the organization Small Arms Survey, Canada has more guns per person than any developed country except the United States. But the U.S., where gun ownership is nearly four times the Canadian level, has a much higher murder rate. And the vast majority of U.S. murders are committed with a gun – usually a handgun.

Our stricter gun rules are not the only thing that makes our society less dangerous than that of our neighbour to the south. But it is part of the story.

And no, making certain guns illegal doesn’t mean that some criminals won’t find other ways to get their hands on them. That’s a frequently heard criticism – why bother banning or restricting some guns if criminals can just smuggle them in from the U.S.?

The thing is, many of Canada’s crime guns started life as legal sales, and were then stolen or otherwise diverted to the illegal market. The vast majority of guns recovered after a crime in Canada are not traced, but what limited evidence there is suggests that they are a mix of legal domestic sales and smuggled U.S. firearms.

Earlier this year, the House of Commons standing committee on public safety heard evidence that in Ontario, 79 per cent of the (few) crime handguns that were traced were “foreign” – meaning smuggled from the U.S. But Regina’s chief of police told the committee that he believes two-thirds of crime guns in Saskatchewan are stolen domestic guns. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told the committee that nationally, of crime guns traced, 73 per cent were imported legally or manufactured in Canada.

As such, the Trudeau government is right: Banning the legal sale of handguns in Canada will have an impact. Possibly a big impact. However, it’s only part of the story.

We share a border with the most heavily armed nation on Earth, where firearms are plentiful and cheap. Canada is going to have to devote considerable resources – more money and more police – to stemming gun smuggling.

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