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Federal government prepares to allow municipalities to ban handguns
The federal government is pressing ahead with plans to allow municipalities to ban handguns, a proposal that has angered some provincial governments even as many cities appear uninterested in putting in place local firearms prohibitions.
The Liberals' election platform last year contained several promises related to gun control, including local handgun bans. The platform also pledged to prohibit what the government considers “military-style” assault rifles. That restriction was put into effect this year.
The recent Throne Speech reiterated the municipal handgun ban promise, though it’s not clear how the government intends to do that or whether it could put in such a measure without the co-operation of provincial governments, which have jurisdiction over municipalities.
Saskatchewan passed legislation this year designed to head off such a policy, barring municipal governments in the province from attempting to place any restrictions on firearms. Ontario and Alberta have also publicly objected to the idea of municipal handgun bans, though they haven’t said what they will do in response.
At the same time, even local governments in cities that have been plagued by gun violence appear reluctant to take on the issue themselves. Toronto Mayor John Tory, for example, was an early supporter of municipal handgun restrictions but has since backed away from the idea, instead calling for a national ban.
Vancouver’s mayor is among the few big-city leaders who has said he intends to pursue a local handgun ban when the option is available, though that could also depend on the outcome of the Oct. 24 provincial election.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair declined an interview request. His press secretary, Mary-Liz Power, said in an e-mailed statement that Ottawa intends to work with municipal, provincial and territorial governments to allow them to “restrict the storage and use of restricted weapons within their jurisdictions.”
“Communities across our country face very different realities regarding gun violence,” the statement said.
The statement did not provide any details about how that would be done or address potential objections from provincial governments. Responding to the Saskatchewan legislation, the statement noted the province has the highest rates of gun violence in Canada.
Christine Tell, a Saskatchewan Party candidate in the Oct. 26 provincial election who is also the province’s Corrections and Policing Minister, said in a statement that the incumbent government backs federal efforts to support crime-prevention programs and target illicit gun sales.
“What our party does not support is a federal gun ban that targets law-abiding firearm owners,” the statement said.
Ms. Tell’s statement said recent provincial legislation is designed “to ensure the rights of legitimate firearm owners are protected and that limitations are placed on a municipality’s ability to ban firearm and handgun ownership through bylaws.”
Gordon Barnhart, president of Municipalities of Saskatchewan, said local governments in the province have not been calling for the power to ban handguns. He said the federal government does not appear to have consulted municipalities about the idea.
“I haven’t heard municipalities saying they want to bring in a ban,” he said. “This legislation, I don’t think will change that at all.”
At the same time, he also criticized the Saskatchewan government for the provincial legislation, saying that move, too, was done without input from local governments.
Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu wasn’t available for an interview. His press secretary, Blaise Boehmer, said in a statement that the province objects to the federal government’s proposal for municipal handgun bans and would examine how to respond to what he described as “overreach and harassment from Ottawa.”
“The Constitution is clear that municipalities are the exclusive jurisdiction of the province and there has been little support for this kind of ban from municipalities across Alberta,” the statement said.
“Policies designed for and by those from downtown Toronto have little relevance for Alberta.”
The mayors of Calgary and Edmonton, both of whom were not available for an interview, have been non-committal about the idea in the past, only saying they’d need to study it further.
Barry Morishita, the mayor of Brooks, Alta., and president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, said his city wouldn’t entertain a local handgun ban, and he doesn’t think other communities in the province are interested, either.
“You can’t have kind of a checkerboard of jurisdictions that have different handgun rules,” he said.
“Whatever the core problem is, they should get to it and come up with a plan. … This [the local handgun ban proposal] is political statement-making. I question whether they’re really very interested in actually having a solution.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has previously denounced the idea of handgun bans in any form, including at the city level. His Attorney-General, Doug Downey, wasn’t available for an interview, but spokesman Jesse Robichaud said the province does not believe banning firearms would have a meaningful effect on gun violence.
“We invite the Prime Minister to explain how targeting legal firearms owners will help take illegal firearms off our streets and protect our communities from criminals," he said.
Toronto’s mayor once advocated for a handgun ban in the city but he has since focused instead on calling for a national handgun ban.
Mr. Tory was not available for an interview, but his press secretary, Lawvin Hadisi, said in a statement that a national handgun ban should be put in place alongside tougher penalties for people caught with illegal guns and measures to prevent guns from being smuggled across the border.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart was an early supporter of local handgun bans when it was proposed by the federal Liberals. He conceded municipal bans are not perfect, particularly if cities right next to each other don’t have uniform rules, but he said that doesn’t mean there’s no value.
“National legislation is better, but if that’s not possible, then give it to the cities to try,” Mr. Stewart said in an interview. “Handguns have such a limited use and they have no place in a city except for law enforcement officers.”
British Columbia NDP Leader John Horgan, the incumbent Premier who is campaigning ahead of a provincial election on Oct. 24, said he supports increased measures to curb gun violence. His party later said in a statement that it “welcomes” the Throne Speech commitment to municipal handgun bans.
“I think the best way forward is for all three jurisdictions – federal, provincial and municipal – to work together,” Mr. Horgan said at a recent campaign stop. “Work with those that have handguns and find out why they have them, why they’re using them, and making sure that’s done in a safe manner.”
BC Liberal candidate Mike Morris, a former RCMP officer who was solicitor-general when his party was last in power, said current gun laws are adequate.
“I think the laws in Canada are already very clear and very adequate for police to do their investigations and prosecute the right people," he said in an interview.
“This would be feel-good legislation that would have absolutely no effect on criminals.”
Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of PolySeSouvient, a gun-control group, dismissed the value of local handgun bans and said the only effective approach would be to ban the weapons across the country.
She said polls indicate a clear majority of Canadians support a national ban on handguns, and the number of those weapons has more than doubled in the past decade. Municipal handgun bans, she said, would be ineffective.
“No municipality, no police force, no gun-control organization asked for municipal bans," she said. “To us, this is a way for the Liberals to look like they’re doing something on handguns when you know the outcome is a big question mark.”
Solomon Friedman, an Ottawa-based criminal lawyer who specializes in gun laws, said it appears unlikely that the federal government would be able to pass along any element of firearm regulation to municipalities without provincial governments on board.
He predicted that some provinces would respond with legal challenges.
“I question how the federal government could do a constitutional end-run around the provinces and directly grant authority to municipalities,” he said.
“Absent some constitutional workaround, I think what this does is it sets up what will be a constitutional showdown between the provinces and the federal government, with very little at stake and very little to gain.”
Mr. Friedman said a handgun ban – whether national or at the local level – would not do anything to target guns used in crime that are smuggled into the country from the United States.
There is conflicting information about what proportion of guns used in crime originate through legal purchases in Canada and very little reliable national data.
Reports from the RCMP and other police forces have indicated a large proportion of guns used in crime are domestically sourced, but opponents of handgun bans, including Mr. Friedman, dispute those numbers, in part because many guns can’t be traced.
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