The federal government staunchly defended its gun-control legislation that would make a host of firearms commonly used by hunters illegal, but said Wednesday that it is open to “fine-tuning” the bill.
The law has had the rare effect of uniting the left and right of the political spectrum against a government policy and triggered friendly fire from territorial premiers and a backbench Liberal MP. The Assembly of First Nations also opposes it. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Wednesday that the government has heard the concerns and is consulting with hunters, Indigenous people, experts and industry leaders on the proposed law, known as Bill C-21.
“We’re showing our resolve to make sure we get this right and we’re acknowledging that there have been concerns expressed by hunters and Indigenous persons around the language of this amendment,” Mr. Mendicino told reporters, as he was surrounded by Liberal MPs from rural ridings, whose constituents are most affected by the proposed changes.
The amendments were introduced by the Liberals late in the legislative process, and without the usual scrutiny. They include two key parts. The first introduces a legal definition of assault-style weapons that would be automatically banned. Critics say the proposed definition catches many guns used for hunting.
The second part is a 307-page list of firearms that would be banned and outlines where there are exceptions. It is based on past lists of firearms that were prohibited through regulations or by the RCMP, but also includes new ones that experts say don’t meet the criteria of the government’s proposed definition of an assault-style weapon.
Opposition parties say they are skeptical of the extent of the government’s willingness to change its proposed law and said the government is doing policy-making in reverse: first introducing amendments and then consulting on them.
Mr. Mendicino said he wants to make sure the government gets the legal definition of assault rifles right and acknowledged there are some firearms that the government needs to revisit, given the feedback from hunters.
“They’re certainly trying to do damage control,” said A.J. Somerset, a hunter and former soldier who wrote a book on gun culture called Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.
“It’s inevitable that you’re going to catch some hunting rifles, when you try to come up with an evergreen definition,” Mr. Somerset said. “They need to have the courage of their convictions, if they’re going to do that, they need to recognize that you can’t please all of the people all the time.”
Mr. Somerset is a proponent of a clear definition on what counts as a prohibited assault-style weapon to remove the need for the government to ban long lists of firearms through regulations or legislation. But he said the definition needs to be more precise because it appears to ban virtually all centre-fire, semi-automatic rifles, which the government has said is not its intent.
Still he said the law would have no impact on the majority of hunting rifles which use either a bolt-action or lever-action.
Rural Economic Development Minister Gudie Hutchings told reporters 19,000 firearms used for hunting remain unaffected by the government’s proposed bans.
Mr. Somerset said the most contentious parts of the government’s amendments are coming from its list of hundreds of banned weapons – which it for the first time will prohibit through legislation. Mr. Mendicino told reporters the government is embedding the list in the law to make it “more difficult” for a future government to change. Mr. Somerset said the minister’s assertion shows the legislated list is “primarily about politics” because it aims to constrain future Parliaments and makes current court challenges against government regulations banning guns moot.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet also questioned the need for the list and said the government must remove the ambiguity from its proposed definition for assault-style firearms.
Another key reason for the criticism of the amendments is that people in rural and northern communities often rely on hunting for food. Asked what a hunter whose rifle will be banned is supposed to do if they can’t afford to buy a different gun, Ms. Hutchings argued that if there’s a market for cheaper firearms, manufacturers will meet that need.
That response is unrealistic and “high handed,” said Mr. Somerset. He noted that among the proposed list of banned guns is the Simonov SKS, which was sold through military surplus, and became popular among hunters in part because it was cheap.
“Nobody is going to manufacture new firearms at the kind of prices that you can buy surplus kinds for,” he said.
NDP public safety critic Alistair MacGregor called Ms. Hutchings’s comments “a little insulting.” He said the Liberals’ amendments substantially increase the original scope of Bill C-21 and the late-stage amendments were an “abuse of process” with MPs unable to properly review them.
The House of Commons public safety committee is launching a full review of the amendments but MPs are debating how much time that should take. The Liberals want only two meetings to hear from witnesses, the Conservatives want 20 and the NDP has suggested eight.
Conservative public safety critic Raquel Dancho said Wednesday that the amendments should be pulled out of the bill entirely and said the government’s proposed definition of assault-style firearms is too broad. And given that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week appeared to rule out changes to the definition, she said the outcome of more consultations appeared to be predetermined.
“If we are forced to do meetings, then we better do them right,” she said. “We better go to Northern Canada and remote communities and rural Canada and ensure that everyone who is impacted by this is consulted.”