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Wes Winkel, owner of Ellwood Epps Sporting Goods in Orillia, Ont. said the proposed list of prohibited firearms is inconsistent and that the firearms lawyers he consults with are also struggling to decipher it.TANNIS TOOHEY/The Globe and Mail

The federal government’s marquee gun-control legislation simultaneously relies on three different definitions of what counts as an assault-style weapon, resulting in a tangle of banned firearms that experts are struggling to understand, and that the government has not fully explained.

The government’s approach, which was described to The Globe and Mail in a technical briefing with a federal official, explains why shotguns and rifles that aren’t banned under one section of amendments to the legislation, called Bill C-21, are banned in another.

The bill has been widely criticized because the ban on assault-style firearms it proposes would prohibit people from owning some popular hunting and sport shooting guns. As a result, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have lost the support they need from opposition parties to pass the bill in the minority Parliament, forcing the government to accept more committee review and opening the door to changes.

Ottawa’s struggle to define assault-style guns began more than two years ago.

In May, 2020, shortly after a deadly shooting rampage in and around Portapique, N.S., the government used a regulatory change to ban about 1,500 assault-style weapons. To do this, it developed the first of its three definitions. This initial definition included three planks: to be considered assault-style, a gun first had to be semi-automatic, with a tactical or military design and a large magazine capacity; second, it had to have a modern design; and third, it had to be present in large volumes in the Canadian market.

Bill C-21 was introduced two years later, in May, 2022, just days after another mass shooting, at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. The legislation was designed to freeze the sale of handguns, crack down on gun smuggling and automatically revoke firearms licenses from domestic abusers. Advocates who had criticized Mr. Trudeau for not delivering on promises to enact stronger gun control welcomed the bill as the first substantive move in a generation.

Ottawa open to ‘fine-tuning’ gun bill

On Nov. 22, after witness testimony on Bill C-21 before the House of Commons public safety committee had wrapped, the government tacked on amendments that expanded the bill to cover assault-style firearms. The bill would ban those weapons under the Criminal Code, rather than with regulation, which would make the prohibition more difficult for future governments to reverse.

The amendments were introduced in two sections. The first section is a list of thousands of banned firearms. It also lists exceptions to the bans. The second includes language that would automatically ban future weapons before they come on the market, if they are assault style-firearms as defined by the government.

Each of the two sections relies on a unique definition of the firearms to be banned. And both new definitions differ from the original May, 2020, definition.

During the technical briefing, the official defended the changing definitions, noting that the 2020 version was a first attempt. They added that all three definitions target semi-automatic weapons.

They said the definition used in the first section of amendments was created after gun-control advocates raised concerns that the 2020 definition was not broad enough. And the official said the definition in the second section is more narrow, and is intended to do away with the need for the government to keep updating its lists of banned weapons.

The Globe was granted the briefing on the condition the official not be identified.

The definition used in the first section dropped the last two requirements from the 2020 definition, the official said, broadening it to capture 482 more guns. The section’s updated list of prohibited firearms also includes many guns that were banned in earlier waves of regulations dating back as far as the 1990s. It totals more than 3,400 weapons.

The definition in the second section, the most narrow of the three, is based solely on how a gun functions. It would ban semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that discharge centrefire ammunition – the kind of ammunition used in most guns – and that are designed to accept detachable magazines with capacities of more than five rounds.

One example of a gun caught up in the confusion is the Simonov SKS, a rifle that is popular for hunting, but that has also become notorious for its use in crimes, including the killings of two Ontario police officers in October. The gun is not banned under the 2020 definition, or under the definition in the second section of amendments to C-21. But it does appear on the list of banned firearms in the first section.

The approach outlined by the government raises concerns for A.J. Somerset, a hunter, former soldier and author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun. He said he believes there is a sound public-safety rationale for controlling or banning assault weapons and controlling the size of magazines. But, he added, “I don’t think they’re being well implemented in this bill.”

The changing definitions suggest the government first chose the guns it wanted to ban and then found wording to fit the expanded list of prohibited firearms, Mr. Somerset said.

The result of the government’s approach is a patchwork of policies that are unwieldy and difficult to understand, he said. He added that the most controversial part of the amendments is the proposed list of prohibited firearms, which he said is confusing because it mixes exceptions to the ban in with guns that would be banned, and puts some guns on the ban list even though the government has said it intends to ban only high-powered versions of those guns.

For example, the list says the Ruger No. 1 rifle and the Weatherby Mark V rifle would be prohibited, but the government official said low-power versions of those firearms will remain unrestricted.

Wes Winkel, owner of Ellwood Epps Sporting Goods in Orillia, Ont. and president of the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, said the list is so inconsistent and “at times contradictory” that the firearms lawyers he consults with are also struggling to decipher it. For instance, he said, two similar guns made by different manufacturers may be excepted under one brand but not under the other.

Because the changes could mean prison time for gun owners, some of whose legal firearms would become illegal, Mr. Winkel said, “it’s not helpful that this is so confusing.” He said he is opposed to any ban on assault-style firearms.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has argued that the amendments should not have caught people by surprise, because he said in May that the government would add a “comprehensive ban on assault firearms” to the bill. But, unlike other major gun policy changes the government has announced, the changes came with no public advisory or explanation. A Liberal MP tabled the amendments while Mr. Mendicino was testifying at the Emergencies Act inquiry.

Alex Cohen, a spokesperson for Mr. Mendicino, said in a statement that the government’s amendments respond to “requests from the gun community” dating back to the first ban in 2020. “There remain some 19,000 models of legal, non-restricted firearms that are available” for hunters and sport shooters, he said.

Alistair MacGregor, an NDP MP and the party’s public safety critic, said the government’s reasons for relying on the three definitions have not yet been shared with the public safety committee, which is now tasked with reviewing the controversial amendments. He said he has many questions about how the government came up with the definitions, and about why major changes were made to the proposed law at the last minute.

“I think it will be a textbook example for future governments of what not to do,” Mr. MacGregor said.

The changes have created so much anger and confusion that gun-control group PolySeSouvient fears the entire effort has been put at risk.

Heidi Rathjen, a witness to the 1989 mass murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique and a co-ordinator with PolySeSouvient, said the group supports the proposed ban and believes it strikes the right balance. But she said the bill has been jeopardized because of the government’s failure to communicate.

“It will be devastating to lose our only chance of having an actual ban on assault weapons because of disinformation that could and should be corrected,” Ms. Rathjen said.

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