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Ottawa is launching nationwide consultations on a handgun ban, a move that will fuel a national debate on the need for tighter gun control and the proper response to growing gun crimes across the country.

There is an existing bill before Parliament to enact restrictions on firearms in Canada, but that bill is close to passing the House and does not include specific measures on handguns. The government is starting the handgun consultation process with a little more than a year before the 2019 federal election.

The Liberal government and the Opposition Conservatives are already engaged in a tough battle over the current legislation. The political debate over handguns stands to become even more divisive as parties argue over the right balance between the legitimate and illegal use of the firearms.

The consultations will be led by Bill Blair, the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, who is a former chief of police in Toronto. The format is still being finalized, but the government is looking at the possibility of holding public hearings, conducting expert panels and inviting Canadians to send in written submissions.

“We will consult people, we want their opinion,” said Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux, a spokeswoman for Mr. Blair.

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Bill Blair, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 17, 2018.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Mr. Blair is scheduled to appear at a town hall in Toronto on Sunday that will be hosted by Liberal MPs Julie Dabrusin and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith on the issue of gun violence. Similar events are expected to be held across the country in the coming months.

“Having spoken to [Mr. Blair], I know he is very determined to not only consult urban Canadians, but also rural Canadians,” Mr. Erskine-Smith said in an interview.

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The Conservative Party has rejected calls for a handgun ban, with Leader Andrew Scheer saying on Wednesday the move would be “completely ineffective.”

“It will be all optics, no results,” Mr. Scheer told reporters. “Do you think someone who uses a handgun in the commission of other crimes, to sell drugs or to get revenge on a rival gang, do you think they will be worried by the fact they don’t have the proper paperwork?”

Still, the pressure has been growing on the federal government to enact tougher gun laws after a mass shooting along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue on July 22 killed an 18-year-old and a 10-year-old girl. This summer, city councils in both Montreal and Toronto called on Ottawa to implement bans on handguns and assault weapons.

In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly raised the possibility of using the gun-control bill that is currently in the House of Commons (C-71) to enact new restrictions on the ownership of handguns. The legislation would lead to enhanced background checks to acquire a firearm and force retailers to keep records on each sale, among other measures.

“We were pleased to put forward gun legislation that is going to make our communities safer,” Mr. Trudeau said last month. “Do we need to take further steps? Do we need to go a little further? These are things we are talking to Canadians about, we’re talking with experts about and that we are reflecting on.”

Federal officials now say the decision to launch consultations on handguns will make it harder to use C-71 as a legislative vehicle to introduce further restrictions. The legislation is nearing final approval in the House, with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale scheduled to speak on the matter on Thursday ahead of a final vote by MPs. In that context, the federal government would have to move relatively quickly to bring in amendments to C-71 at the Senate stage if it wanted to add new dispositions on handguns.

“My sense is that it makes more sense to have a stand-alone piece of legislation debated on its merits rather than trying to put something fairly significant into the back end of C-71,” Mr. Erskine-Smith said.

Mr. Erskine-Smith released a statement this week calling for a ban on the "private possession” of handguns, while allowing target shooters to continue using “tightly regulated commercial facilities” that would include constant video surveillance. Mr. Erskine-Smith is also raising the possibility of a gun buyback and increased budgets for policing and border security as part of a range of options to deal with gun violence.

Other options being explored by the government include giving provinces or municipalities the right to ban handguns on their respective territories, or overhauling the system under which guns are classified as prohibited, restricted or non-restricted by the RCMP.

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