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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised on Wednesday that his government would “fine-tune” proposed gun control legislation that has legal gun owners across the country upset and confused.

Also confused are people who don’t own guns, which means the Trudeau government has managed to confound the entire population.

It’s easy to see why. Last May, the government tabled Bill C-21, a law that, if adopted, will freeze the import, sale and transfer of handguns in Canada, take substantial first steps on stopping gun smuggling, and make it easier to red-flag gun owners suspected of intimate partner violence.

All was well and fine – until last month. Without warning, and after the bill had been through second reading, the government suddenly proposed an amendment that appears to outlaw some of the more popular hunting rifles and shotguns in Canada.

The wording of the amendment seems clear: the law would ban any “firearm that is a rifle or shotgun, that is capable of discharging centre-fire ammunition in a semi-automatic manner and that is designed to accept a detachable cartridge magazine with a capacity greater than five cartridges of the type for which the firearm was originally designed.”

Semi-automatic guns fire one round with every pull of the trigger, without the shooter having to manually chamber a new round. A detachable magazine can feed a new round into the chamber as fast as someone can pull the trigger. And centre-fire ammunition (as opposed to rim fire) is the most commonly used ammo in handguns, rifles and shotguns.

In other words, the bill targets the defining characteristics of “assault-style” weapons that the Trudeau government vowed to ban after the Nova Scotia mass murder of 2020. Designed to look like military weapons, and often a direct descendant of them, they have no purpose other than to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

Few argue against banning such needless weapons. The confusion over the issue arises from the fact that some popular hunting rifles and shotguns in Canada are also semi-automatics that use centre-fire ammo and have detachable magazines.

Hunters who are legally licensed to own and use such weapons are understandably upset. At least one Liberal MP, Brendan Hanley, who represents the vast Yukon riding, says he won’t support the bill. And the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, normally reliable supporters of expanded gun control, have both accused the government of overreach.

The Liberals have added to the confusion by insisting that they are not targeting hunting rifles and shotguns. But that claim is contradicted by the black-and-white language of the amendment, and the fact that Mr. Trudeau reiterated this week that his government is “moving forward on a ban on assault-style weapons.”

It could well be that the government is prepared to ban all such guns and take the heat for it from hunters. Or it could be that it will create an exemption for existing hunting guns, a move that would expose the Liberals to criticism from gun-control activists, such as Polysesouvient, that have long called for a “comprehensive and permanent ban on assault-style weapons.” Polysesouvient says it would support the exemption of firearms that could be “reasonably used” for hunting, while rejecting the notion that weapons should escape the reach of the ban just because they are commonly used.

So which is it? Are the Liberals prepared to ban hunting rifles and shotguns that share critical characteristics with what they call “assault-style” weapons? Or will they ban some semi-automatic weapons that use centre-fire ammo and have detachable magazines, and not others?

This confusion is all too typical of the divisive political debate over guns in Canada. On one side are the Liberals, who see gun violence and call for more gun control. On the other side are the Conservatives, who look at gun violence and see a crime problem that can be fixed by tougher sentencing and more policing alone.

The argument is endless. The only thing the two sides agree on is that Canada needs to do more to prevent the inflow of illegally smuggled handguns from the gigantic armoury that is the United States of America, and which is feeding urban gun violence.

Bill C-21 was headed in that direction, with its longer sentences for smuggling and its plan to give police and border guards more powers to combat the problem. And then the Liberals suddenly drove a wedge into their bill. They need to clear the air and get this important legislation back on track.

Editor’s note: (Dec. 15, 2022): The editorial has been updated to explain Polysesouvient’s position.

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