A prominent voice for stricter gun control is telling MPs the federal government’s efforts to outlaw assault-style firearms have become mired in disinformation.
Representatives of the group PolySeSouvient appeared at a House of Commons committee Tuesday to support the federal government’s plan to legislatively enshrine a definition of guns considered unsafe for civilian use.
PolySeSouvient includes students and graduates of Montreal’s École Polytechnique, where a gunman killed 14 women with a Ruger Mini-14 in 1989.
The federal Liberals banned the gun, along with some 1,500 other firearm models and variants, through an order-in-council in May 2020, saying they have no place in sport shooting or hunting.
Ottawa moved last November to build on the ban by including an evergreen definition of such firearms in a gun-control bill that also contains measures on handguns, licence revocations and smuggling operations.
But the Liberals withdrew amendments outlining the definition earlier this month, after criticism from Conservative MPs and firearm advocates who said the wording would prohibit commonly used hunting rifles and shotguns.
Raquel Dancho, the Conservative public safety critic, said in November that the proposed definition cast a very wide net — the “most significant hunting rifle ban in the history of Canada.”
The Commons public safety committee is now hearing from groups and individuals about the shelved amendments, with the aim of crafting new wording.
PolySeSouvient maintains that the initial approach was fundamentally sound, but ended up being clouded by confusing language and erroneous or misleading claims.
“While we agree with critics that say the process surrounding their introduction was problematic, we believe that in substance, they were generally solid and would not have prohibited most if not all the hunting models showcased by opponents of stronger gun control,” the group said in a Feb. 9 letter to Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, who chairs the committee.
PolySeSouvient, which made its letter public this week, says the echoing of gun lobby claims has contributed to unfounded fear among hunters, even though their firearms would very likely not have been prohibited by the proposed measures.
The group says a key challenge is “the lack of clarity surrounding these amendments.”
“The legislative proposals were particularly difficult to understand, as gun classification is in and of itself a complex subject,” PolySeSouvient’s letter says. “This has allowed a lot of disinformation to flourish.”
What opponents have failed to recognize is that only versions with a 20-millimetre bore or greater, akin to a grenade launcher, or with a muzzle energy of 10,000 joules, which can pierce military equipment and structures, would be prohibited, the group says.
According to the government, such firearms are primarily designed to produce mass human casualties or cause significant property damage at long ranges, and their potential power exceeds safe or legitimate civilian use.
Some have expressed concern that, should a model be mentioned in the amendments’ latest lengthy list, all versions would be prohibited.
“However, most if not all the models named by those opposing the amendment are not actually affected by the amendment,” PolySeSouvient’s letter says. “We fully support reviewing the language of the original proposals to make it simpler and less confusing.”
Among these firearms is the Ruger No. 1.
Murray Smith, a technical specialist with the RCMP’s Canadian Firearms Program, told the committee in early December that the Ruger No. 1 rifles “are prohibited if, and only if, they are chambered for a calibre that produces muzzle energies in excess of 10,000 joules.”
“Other Ruger No. 1 rifles, which are chambered for different calibres that do not produce that level of energy, will remain in the existing category, which, broadly speaking, is non-restricted,” he said.
The Canadian Firearms Program reviewed PolySeSouvient’s analysis of the amendments at the request of The Canadian Press and did not dispute the substance of the group’s findings.
Tracey Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said neither PolySeSouvient nor RCMP technicians are judges.
“When speaking about the law, always refer to the law,” she said in an email. “If they meant the ban to only affect certain calibres of those models, they’d have listed those calibres.”
Hunter Jim Shockey testified Tuesday at committee that he fears the gun bill would prompt a boycott by visitors from the United States who come to Canada on hunting trips, with a “catastrophic effect” on remote communities that rely on American dollars.
“Hunters are not the enemy in this case, and our firearms are not a threat to the security of Canada and safety of Canadians,” he said.
PolySeSouvient remains convinced that the intent of the amendments was not to prohibit firearms reasonably used for hunting, group coordinator Heidi Rathjen told the committee Tuesday.
“We have publicly supported the idea of exempting specific models if some fell on the wrong side of that line.”
Upon introducing the bill last spring, the Liberals announced a plan to implement a freeze on importing, buying, selling or otherwise transferring handguns to help reduce firearm-related violence.
Federal regulations aimed at capping the number of handguns in Canada are now in effect.
The bill contains measures that would reinforce the handgun freeze. The legislation would also allow for the removal of gun licences from people committing domestic violence or engaged in criminal harassment, such as stalking, as well as increase maximum penalties for gun smuggling and trafficking to 14 years from 10.
However, committee scrutiny of these elements of the bill has largely been derailed by the uproar over the assault-style firearm definition.
—Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press