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A couple pays their respects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S., on April 22, 2020. The tiny community in rural Nova Scotia was torn apart by the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history, in which the gunman used two semi-automatic rifles, including a Ruger Mini-14.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The federal Liberals are breaking an election promise to buy all assault rifles owned in Canada, opting instead for a voluntary buyback program that would allow rifle owners to keep their guns under a grandfathering process.

The reversal brought a swift denunciation from gun-control groups such as PolyRemembers, formed by survivors of the 1989 École Polytechnique shooting that left 14 women dead.

“Without a mandatory buyback program, tens of thousands of fully functional assault weapons will remain in circulation for decades to come,” said Nathalie Provost, who survived four gunshots from a Ruger Mini-14, one of the prohibited rifles. “It doesn’t matter that gun owners won’t be ‘allowed’ to use them. The point is they can. And it only takes one to cause a massacre.”

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The buyback is part of a gun bill tabled on Tuesday that would increase penalties for gun smuggling and create a criminal offence for altering magazine capacities beyond lawful limits. It would also provide federal legislative support for municipalities banning handguns.

The legislation, Bill C-21, follows last year’s sweeping ban of around 2,000 types of magazine-fed semi-automatic rifles that the government had deemed a danger to public safety.

That ban was brought in on the heels of the Nova Scotia massacre, where a gunman used two semiautomatic rifles, including a Ruger Mini-14, in a rampage that killed 22 people. Both firearms had been acquired illegally.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government decided on the voluntary system after studying and rejecting measures introduced in New Zealand, where the government initiated a ban and mandatory buyback of tactical-style rifles in the wake of a 2019 mosque shooting that took 51 lives.

“We went forward with the model we think would be most effective in keeping Canadians safe from gun violence,” Mr. Trudeau said at a morning news conference.

Like Canada, New Zealand had no rifle registry when it launched its prohibition efforts and could only estimate the number of affected firearms at between 55,000 and 240,000. As of last year, the compulsory confiscation program has netted about 61,000 guns.

Ottawa pegs the number of tactical-style rifles in circulation in this country at between 150,000 and 200,000. On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said law-enforcement officials had expressed concern to him about legal and logistical issues with seizing so many firearms under a possible compulsory ban.

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The legislation would end new rifle sales, but current owners could keep their banned guns at home under strict storage conditions.

“They can’t be [fired], they can’t be traded, they can’t be transported, they can’t be sold and they can’t be bequeathed,” said Mr. Blair, who anticipates “a vast majority” of gun owners will surrender their rifles for compensation.

Nicolas Johnson, owner of a now-banned AR-15 rifle and editor of TheGunBlog.ca, says he’s relieved that the government will let him keep his property,

“Many of us will be glad to keep our guns locked in our gun safes, where they have been for years,” he said. “We’ll be ready when a future government repeals Trudeau’s crackdown against honest Canadians.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Tuesday that the Liberal government’s approach is dividing Canadians and he pointed to concerns about illegal smuggling of firearms from the U.S.

“I think Mr. Trudeau misleads people when he tries to suggest that buying things back from hunters and other Canadians who are law abiding is somehow going to solve the problem of shooting and criminal gang activity in the big cities,” Mr. O’Toole said. “It is ignoring the real problem.”

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party will closely examine the legislation to find ways to strengthen it. He said the NDP has been calling on the government to take a long-term approach to underlying causes of gun violence in cities while moving ahead with immediate measures including enabling municipalities to ban handguns.

“The Liberals must also take action to stop the flow of guns through our borders,” Mr. Singh said in a statement.

The bill does include a proposal to increase maximum penalties for gun smuggling from 10 to 14 years.

Bill C-21 also introduces a red-flag law that would allow anyone to make a court application for the removal of guns from someone believed to be a danger to themselves or others.

Another measure in the bill would pave the way for cities to implement handgun bans by bringing in new federal penalties for gun owners who don’t adhere to municipal gun bylaws.

City mayors had mixed reactions. Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he’d press for a city handgun ban as soon as the legislation passed. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said a city-specific ban would be inadequate to address the broader, networked problem of gun trafficking. And Toronto Mayor John Tory said city council prefers a national handgun ban.

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Another portion of the bill would create a new offence for anyone caught altering a firearm’s magazine to make it overcapacity. Canadian law limits most magazine-fed rifles to five rounds and handguns to 10. A number of mass shooters have modified their magazines to exceed those thresholds.

Gun shops across Canada have been hard hit by last year’s ban and proprietors see little reprieve in the latest bill.

“Last May, the Prime Minister came out and said these guns were so dangerous they had to be removed from society,” said Wes Winkel, owner of Ellwood Epps Sporting Goods in Orillia, Ont., and president of the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association. “Now we’re here a year later saying people can keep them. How does that make sense?”

With reports from James Keller and Oliver Moore

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