In May, the Liberal government announced the tabling of Bill C-21, firearms-control legislation that would freeze the importing, buying, selling or otherwise transfer of handguns in an effort to quell gun violence.
While that freeze went into effect on Oct. 21, the accompanying legislation, Bill C-21, is currently being debated in parliament. “We have frozen the market for handguns in this country,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in October. “This is one of the strongest actions we’ve taken on gun violence in a generation.”
In late November, the Liberal government introduced amendments to Bill C-21, tabled after the second reading, which would create a permanent definition for all assault-style weapons that would be automatically prohibited.
The amendment has drawn criticism from the federal Conservatives and NDP, who say a proposed list of the weapons will be captured by that definition includes guns that are mainly used for hunting. First Nations leaders have also opposed the legislation, stressing that the bill would criminalize guns that First Nations people commonly use for hunting.
Bill C-21 arrived at a time of heightened attention to gun violence, after mass shootings in the U.S. in Uvalde, Tex., and Buffalo. However, Canada’s charged debate over gun control has spanned years, with gun-related crimes on the rise. Statistics Canada reported that violent crime involving firearms had increased from 2013 to 2019, following several years of decline. In 2020, there were 29 victims of firearm-related violent crimes for every 100,000 people in Canada, up from 19 victims in 2013, based on police reports.
Here’s everything that is known about Bill C-21 so far.
What’s new in the firearms-control legislation, Bill C-21?
The new legislation would amend the Firearms Act to freeze the buying, selling, importing and trading of handguns nationwide. The measures stop short of banning handguns outright, allowing existing owners to keep their handguns.
Bill C-21 would also allow for the automatic removal of gun licences from people who have committed domestic violence or engaged in criminal harassment, such as stalking. And it would create a new “red flag” law that would allow courts to require that people considered a danger to themselves or others surrender their firearms to police.
On Nov. 22, the Liberal government introduced amendments to Bill C-21, which critics say vastly broaden the legislation’s scope. Through the amendments, the government introduced a permanent definition for all assault-style weapons that would be automatically prohibited, as well a 307-page list of guns that stipulates which firearms would be banned and where there would be exceptions.
Under the new legislation, chief firearms officers – the provincial authority responsible for firearms licenses and authorizations – would be prevented from approving the transfer of a handgun to individuals. Businesses could continue to sell to other businesses, such as movie companies and museums, as well as to exempted people. Exempted individuals would include those who transport valuable goods and elite sport shooters who compete or coach in handgun events recognized by the International Olympic or Paralympic committees.
In addition to the legislation, the Liberals also say they will require long-gun magazines to be permanently altered so they can never hold more than five rounds, as well as ban the sale and transfer of large-capacity magazines under the Criminal Code.
The new bill expands on the previous Bill C-21, which failed to pass before the last federal election, and addresses some of the concerns raised by gun-control advocates.
What are the current gun laws in Canada?
Firearms are federally regulated in Canada, as outlined in the 1977 Criminal Law Amendment Act. Meanwhile, gun control in Canada is governed by the Criminal Code, as well as the 1995 Firearms Act.
A firearms licence – called a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) – is required to possess and use firearms in Canada. The licence indicates which class of firearms and ammunition a person can own and transport. The licence must be renewed every five years.
Handguns are either restricted or prohibited, with specifics for these firearms listed by the RCMP. The number of registered handguns in Canada increased by 71 per cent between 2010 and 2020, reaching approximately 1.1 million, according to federal statistics.
Automatic weapons have been banned for civilians in Canada since 1991 and for the most part, it is only legal for the police and military to possess them. In the wake of the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the federal government announced a ban on over 1,500 models of “military-grade assault-style weapons.”
Which guns are included and which guns are excluded in Bill C-21?
Handguns included in Bill C-21 are any handguns that meet the definition as outlined in the Firearms Act.
In November, the Liberals introduced new amendments to Bill C-21. Through the amendments, the government introduced a permanent definition for all assault-style weapons that would be automatically prohibited, as well as a list of guns that stipulates which firearms would be banned and where there would be exceptions.
Critics say the amendments vastly broaden the bill’s scope, and the prohibitions ended up targeting common hunting rifles that are used in rural and northern communities, in addition to assault-style weapons.
Some experts have pointed out that the government’s list of prohibited guns includes some that don’t meet the proposed definition of an assault-style weapon. For example, the Simonov SKS, a Second World War-era gun, is now commonly used for hunting.
Bill C-21 fulfills the Liberals’ 2021 election pledge to require owners of banned military-style rifles to either sell the firearms back to the government for destruction or have them rendered inoperable at federal expense.
The new law would also ban some toys that look like real guns, such as airsoft rifles. In May, Toronto police shot and killed a man carrying a pellet gun.
Canada banned the sale and use of some 1,500 models of assault weapons, like the AR-15 rifle, two years ago in the wake of the mass shooting in Portapique, N.S., – a move some firearms owners say they are contesting in court.
The government promised to make sure such firearms are automatically prohibited when they enter the market in future.
There is, however, no legal definition of a “military-style assault weapon.” Trudeau said the government would seek to come up with one that could not be easily circumvented by gun-makers.
What are the critics of Bill C-21 saying?
The federal Conservatives, NDP, First Nation leaders and territorial premiers have all expressed concerns about the legislation and the amendments.
Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has said the amendment unfairly targets guns that are mainly used for hunting while failing to address the country’s issues with gun violence.
The NDP have also voiced concerns, saying the amendment could impact Indigenous hunters. NDP MP Charlie Angus told The Globe the amendments are a “massive overreach” and are “pitting rural and Indigenous people unnecessarily against urban public safety.”
Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane offered a forceful rebuke of the late changes to the bill, emphasizing that many Indigenous people in the territory rely on rifles for hunting to buffer against extremely high costs of food.
On Dec. 8, First Nations leaders at the Assembly of First Nations’ annual winter meeting voted to oppose the legislation and are demanding a series of changes, including that the government remove the long guns commonly used by First Nations hunters from its list of prohibited weapons. “We have treaty clauses that ensure we have hunting and fishing rights protected,” Cat Lake First Nation Chief Russell Wesley told the assembly.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Dec. 8 his government will not change the definition of assault-style weapons that it introduced through the late amendments, but is open to changing the list of prohibited weapons that it will legislate.
In May, when Bill C-21 was first introduced, Raquel Dancho, the Conservative’s public safety critic, said in a statement that gun crime increases every year, despite existing restrictions. In a Twitter post, she also mentioned that the legislation doesn’t focus on the “root cause” of gun violence in Canadian cities, which she attributed to illegal guns smuggled into Canada by criminal gangs.
Some mayors said they were hoping for more action on handguns, including Toronto Mayor John Tory and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.
A.J. Somerset, a hunter and former soldier from Windsor, Ont., who is also the author of a book about North America’s gun culture, said gun control is valuable and does work, but that the government’s proposed measures won’t necessarily stop the violence plaguing several cities.
Ottawa could better solve the problem of gang violence by providing more funding and services aimed at alleviating poverty in cities, Mr. Somerset said, adding that the federal government could also legalize some drugs to reduce violence associated with the illicit market.
Several women’s groups also recently implored the government to do away with the “red flag” provision, included in the bill that didn’t pass last year. According to the Canadian Press, the groups say it downloads responsibility for gun-law enforcement from authorities onto others, including possible targets of violence.
What will the assault-rifle buyback program look like?
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told a news conference in May that the government is also committed to introducing a mandatory buyback program for assault-style weapons. He said the details would be announced after consultations with the industry.
The Liberal Party pledged during the 2019 election campaign to introduce a buyback program for “all military-style assault rifles legally purchased in Canada,” only to design a voluntary – not mandatory – buyback program, revealed when C-21 was tabled in early 2021. The legislation died on the order paper when the federal election was called last August.
The original buyback plan won praise from gun-control advocates, but Conservative MPs and others opposed to the idea have suggested it targets legitimate gun owners rather than preventing illegal firearms from falling into the wrong hands.
When will the new legislation come into effect?
Regulatory measures to freeze the import, transfer and sale of handguns went into effect Oct. 21.
However, the accompanying Bill C-21 has yet to be approved and is currently being studied by the House of Commons. The government had initially hoped to get the bill back to the floor for third reading before the winter break. But following the backlash, the Liberals have agreed to extend the committee study of the new law, adding on two additional meetings to hear from witnesses about the amendments.
Why is this bill being tabled now?
Mr. Mendicino said in early March the government planned to bring in “very pro-active” gun legislation soon after the previous bill expired with last summer’s general election call. In their 2021 election platform, the Liberals also stated that “American-style gun violence is rising” in Canada.
However, the new bill arrives amid intense debate about gun safety on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border following two mass shootings: an elementary school shooting that killed 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Tex., and the killing of 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket.
Mr. Trudeau has said that people need to feel free to go to a store, birthday party or picnic without worrying about gun violence, but unfortunately the problem has deepened in Canada over the years. He also referenced the problems in the U.S., saying, “We need only look south of the border to know that if we do not take action firmly and rapidly, it gets worse and worse and more difficult to counter,” Mr. Trudeau said in May, when the legislation was introduced.
With reports from Marsha McLeod, Marieke Walsh and Ian Bailey