Skip to main content

Gun-control advocates are raising fears the new federal firearms bill will not go far enough to meet the Liberal Party’s 2015 promises, in particular on the controversial matter of restricting or prohibiting assault weapons.

The proposed firearms legislation – scheduled to be tabled on Tuesday – will tackle one of the most contentious issues in federal politics going back to the 1989 massacre at the Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal and the 1995 creation of the federal gun registry.

Ecole Polytechnique shooting survivor Nathalie Provost leaves the Supreme Court of Canada following its decision on Quebec's gun control records in 2015.Adrian Wyld/The Globe and Mail

One of the survivors of the Polytechnique shooting, in which 14 women were killed by a gunman, said the bill will be a test of what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau identifies as progressive and feminist elements of his agenda.

“We are worried. We can’t say the Trudeau government has demonstrated a very progressive bent to date,” Nathalie Provost, spokeswoman of the group called Poly Remembers, said in an interview. “It’s not a good sign that it took more than two years [since the last election] for this bill to be tabled.”

Mr. Trudeau came to power in 2015 with a promise to repeal changes made to Canada’s gun-control regime by the Harper government, and to bring in enhanced background checks and new requirements for vendors to keep track of their sales.

“We will take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets,” the Liberal platform said.

However, the new bill is not expected to bring major changes to the way that firearms are classified in Canada, including the technical criteria under which some weapons are restricted or prohibited.

Ms. Provost said the Liberal commitment to control assault weapons can only be achieved through a new classification system.

“It would take a lot of political courage to go in that direction. We don’t know if Mr. Trudeau and [Public Safety Minister Ralph] Goodale will have that political courage,” she said. “Citizens who want to go hunting don’t need these firearms.”

On the other hand, the firearms lobby is worried the proposed legislation will go too far and prove ineffective.

“Clearly this is some sort of knee-jerk reaction to the various events that happen from time to time,” Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association, said in an interview. “Canadians have realized over time that the promise of gun control is fundamentally flawed. It doesn’t stop bad people from making bad choices.”

Mr. Clare said his group is well aware of the potential backlash that will arise from the legislation among gun owners, adding it will be raising the issue in the next federal election in ridings where it could influence the outcome.

Some Liberal MPs have expressed concerns that the proposed legislation will generate anger toward the government in rural and semi-rural ridings. Liberal MP Mark Holland, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, has been meeting with some of his colleagues to remind them of their party’s actual campaign commitments and to listen to the concerns about the new bill.

Among the measures that are expected to be included will be requiring more thorough background checks to acquire and possess a firearms licence, including going back through more than five years of criminal history. In addition, if Ottawa gets buy-in from provincial governments, the background checks could include an examination of the purchaser’s mental-health history.

“As controversial as measures related to firearms can be, and you have seen the debates provoked in the past around these issues, that particular point with respect to background checks and making sure that it is a system that works to protect public safety, that is an area where there is broad consensus,” Mr. Goodale said earlier this month. “Our goal is to prioritize public safety and … making sure that we are being practical and fair with respect to legitimate firearms owners.”

The proposed legislation is also expected to address the 2015 Liberal commitment to call on vendors to ensure that buyers of firearms have valid possession and acquisition licences, and to keep track of all sales.

However, Ms. Provost said the regime has to be modernized to take into account the growing number of firearms that are sold on the internet.

“There is no traceability of sales at this point in time, which is especially worrying given the evolution of sales on the web,” she said.