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COMMENTARY: Liberal gun proposals offer little more than symbolism and platitudes

Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, participates in a discussion with healthcare professionals about the need to end gun violence in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019.
Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, participates in a discussion with healthcare professionals about the need to end gun violence in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

It’s not unreasonable that federal leaders in a federal election would talk about federal gun laws — a matter which is clear federal jurisdiction.

It is curious, however, that the incumbent government, having spent the last four years doing very little on this issue, has suddenly decided that urgent action is required in order to address a crisis. There has indeed been an uptick in recent years in gun crime and gang violence, but it’s not an uptick that began in 2019.

READ MORE: Trudeau vows to ban military-style assault rifles, including AR-15

Moreover, even if one accepts the premise that addressing that uptick ought to involve changes in our guns laws, that doesn’t mean that the Liberals have identified the correct approach. Quite the opposite, most likely.

The Liberals say that, if re-elected, they will allow individual municipalities to implement a ban on handguns and they will ban “all military-style assault rifles, including the AR-15.”

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The inherent flaw in the handgun plan should be obvious. Handguns are indeed the most commonly used firearm when it comes to firearm-related homicides (although these represent less than half of total homicides). Ultimately, though, on this the Liberals are offering little more than a symbolic gesture.

Allowing municipalities to implement their own ban is completely pointless in a country where one can come and go freely from cities and where many municipalities are clustered close together. It’s no wonder that many advocates of a handgun ban are criticizing the Liberals’ proposal.

Federal Election 2019: Scheer calls Liberal gun proposal ‘lazy’, says Conservatives will go after criminals
Federal Election 2019: Scheer calls Liberal gun proposal ‘lazy’, says Conservatives will go after criminals

When it comes to so-called “military-style assault rifles,” the Liberals are at least proposing a concrete and significant policy change. However, there are several problems with this proposal, as well.

First of all, in talking about this plan, the Liberals are confusing two different terms here: “assault rifles” and “assault weapons.” The term “assault rifle” is typically used to describe the sort of weapon that is capable of fully automatic fire and is used almost exclusively by the military. Those sorts of weapons are, for all intents and purposes, banned in Canada.

The term “assault weapon” is used to describe certain — but not all — semi-automatic rifles, typically those with certain features or those that resemble “assault rifles.” These distinctions, however, are largely cosmetic. The term is rather vague, as even the Department of Public Safety acknowledges: “assault weapon is not a legally-defined term,” and therefore “providing a count of how many are held in Canada is not possible.”

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The Liberals have singled out the AR-15 as a weapon they intend to ban, and yes, the AR-15 is often referred to as an “assault weapon” largely because its appearance resembles that of the M-16 (an actual “assault rifle”). The weapon is also rather notorious for having been utilized by gunmen in a number of mass shootings in the U.S. However, one would be hard-pressed to cite an example of anyone having been murdered in Canada with an AR-15.

Federal Election 2019: Singh says NDP would put in place laws to allow municipalities to ban guns, target root causes of violence
Federal Election 2019: Singh says NDP would put in place laws to allow municipalities to ban guns, target root causes of violence

A big difference between Canada and the U.S. is that an AR-15 is much harder to get here. It’s a restricted weapon – unlike some other non-restricted semi-automatic rifles that may or may not be considered “assault weapons.”

Also, rules around magazine capacity are very different here. Unlike the high-capacity magazines that are legal in certain U.S. states, Canadian law mandates that magazine capacity for semi-automatic centrefire rifles be limited to just five (by comparison, the limit is 10 for handguns). Additions like “bump stocks” (which speed up the rate of firing) are illegal here.

So when Liberal leader Justin Trudeau declares that “you don’t need a military-grade assault weapon — one designed to take down the most amount of people in the shortest time — to take down a deer,” he’s being rather disingenuous.

First of all, the point about “tak[ing] down the most amount of people in the shortest time” makes no sense in this context. All semi-automatic rifles fire the same way, but again, they all have severely restricted magazine capacity. The AR-15 is not a machine gun.
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Federal Election 2019: Bill Blair says gun ownership not a right in Canada
Federal Election 2019: Bill Blair says gun ownership not a right in Canada

And the reason why AR-15s aren’t used for hunting deer is the opposite of what Trudeau implies. It’s not a question of overkill. Rather, the issue with the AR-15 as a hunting rifle is that its ammunition is considered by many to be too weak to take down deer. There are numerous hunting rifles that are more powerful than the AR-15, but most are unlikely to fall under this ban.

The Conservatives pledge they would add mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said it makes more sense to punish criminals than to ban certain weapons.

The Green Party platform promises to launch a confidential buyback program for handguns and assault weapons. And NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said his government would support a municipality’s decision to ban semi-automatic weapons and handguns.

If the Liberals — or anyone else — wish to argue that all semi-automatic weapons should be banned, and that Canadians simply cannot be trusted with them, then let’s have that conversation. The Liberals, however, are not promising to ban all semi-automatic weapons, but rather a small subset of them, based on some yet-undisclosed criteria.

ANALYSIS: Liberal gun control may miss mark on Saskatchewan firearm crime

The Liberals have not linked the AR-15 or any one semi-automatic rifle to any sort of gang or crime problem in Canada, yet they have the audacity to use Toronto’s Danforth neighborhood as a backdrop while claiming this will all lead to “safer communities.”

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None of this is to say that Canada’s gun laws should be off the table or that keeping certain guns out of certain hands isn’t worth exploring.

But that doesn’t justify poorly thought out policies, which is what the Liberals are offering Canadians.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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