While Ipsos polling done exclusively for Global News suggests a clear majority of Canadians support the idea behind Canada’s new gun ban, questions remain over which specific firearms the gun ban targets and whether the government overstepped by using a cabinet order to implement the ban during a time of crisis.
Gun groups argue the rules are inconsistent, effectively targeting firearms based on how they look rather than because of what they can do, while leaving some nearly-identical weapons legal.
Gun control advocates, meanwhile, say the cabinet order doesn’t go far enough.
Here’s what the rules say and the elements of the ban that continue to spark questions.
Gun ban aimed at ‘assault-style firearms’
On May 1, the government announced it was banning 1,500 of what it calls “assault-style firearms” through an order in council, which is effectively an executive order issued by the cabinet.
Doing so is legal, although the approach was quickly criticized as an attempt by a minority government to avoid having to table legislation to amend the Firearms Act.
Effective immediately, that order banned the use, sale, import or transport of the weapons and granted a two-year amnesty period for owners while the government works out details of a buyback program.
But “assault” or “assault-style” is not a legal weapons classification in Canada.
Instead, the term is a colloquial phrase generally used to describe high-power, rapid-fire guns, similar to the kinds frequently used by militaries (although automatic weapons, which most militaries use, are already banned in Canada).
There are three categories of guns in Canada: non-restricted, restricted and prohibited.
The government order is effectively moving 1,500 guns that fall under two new criteria into the prohibited category.
That criteria stated that firearms “with a bore 20mm or greater” and/or those “capable of discharging a projectile with a muzzle energy greater than 10,000 Joules” are now banned.
Firearms advocates fear shotguns caught up in gun ban
Here’s where gun groups say they are concerned, though.
The term bore refers to the inside of the barrel of a gun.
Gun groups argue that the wording of the ban’s bore diametre criteria catches up the 10- and 12-gauge shotguns used by hunters. These guns use a detachable, screw-on choke that goes at the end of their muzzle, which is slightly wider than the rest of the barrel.
Those groups say the wording of the ban applies to the widest point on the shotgun barrel, even when the bore of the rest of the barrel falls under the 20-mm criteria — but more on that in a minute.
“That wording swept up things like everyday shotguns based on their dimensions,” said Mike Anderson, vice president of operations at Chimera Firearms Training.
“It took my old duck gun and it basically made it the same as a rocket launcher.”
Alison de Groot, managing director of the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, said her group’s lawyers have said they think the ban will extend to shotguns.
“It is the opinion of our legal advisers that 10- and 12-gauge shotguns with a bore diameter of more than 20 millimeters are banned,” she said.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, however, has insisted the wording of the order in council does not prohibit hunting rifles like 10- or 12-gauge shotguns.
Here’s where the confusion seems to lie.
A shotgun is made up of several parts: a chamber, a forcing cone, a barrel and a detachable choke.
Effectively, each part gets progressively narrower with the choke being the narrowest point, except for one part where the choke screws onto the barrel at what’s known as the muzzle.
Because the choke needs room to be screwed on, that end section of the barrel is slightly larger than the rest and in the case of some 10- and 12-gauge shotguns, exceeds 20 mm.
Here’s the catch, though: bore diameter on shotguns isn’t measured at the tip of the muzzle, specifically because it is wider than the rest of the barrel in order to accommodate the screw for the choke.
Instead, the bore is measured further back along the barrel, where industry standards set out that the diametre does not exceed 20 mm.
The RCMP’s firearms unit posted a disclaimer on their website clarifying that its own rules adhere to that standard practice, and that bore diameter is and will continue to be measured “ at a point after the chamber, but before the choke.”
AJ Somerset, a former gunnery instructor with the Canadian Forces and gun policy expert, said he doesn’t think that clarification will be enough to undo what he called “misinformation” designed to frighten shotgun owners into thinking their guns will be banned.
“Bore is measured behind the choke constriction and that’s always been the standard way of measuring bore,” Somerset said.
“The idea that it would be measured with the choke removed at the muzzle was, in my view, concocted quite deliberately of being able to find a measurement greater than 20 mm, ideally a measurement that a whole bunch of people would be able to repeat at home with their calibres and yell, ‘Oh look, my shotgun has been prohibited,’ and then post that on Twitter with pictures.”
Somerset said he suspects the intent was to try to mobilize gun owners who have not until now been actively engaged with the gun lobby.
“The gun lobby has a need to try to energize these people and bring them onside,” he said.
“The reason to come up with this rather specious argument that 12-gauge shotguns have been banned is every hunter in Canada probably owns a 12-gauge shotgun, so suddenly you engage everyone, in theory, by scaring them with the prospect that their shotgun has just been banned.”
Next steps in the gun ban plans?
Somerset said he doesn’t expect to see the concerns die down even with the clarification from the RCMP and Blair: in part, because many gun owners may be inclined to be skeptical of the government, and also because the damage may already have been done.
“Once people believed that’s what had happened, the RCMP making a statement that no, that’s not going to be how it’s done, doesn’t really make the original misinformation go away,” he said.
“Misinformation, once it’s out there, takes on a life of its own.”
More broadly though, the government continues to face questions about exactly how it plans to buy back the more than 1,500 so-called assault-style firearms named in its ban.
For the moment, there’s no clear answer on what that program will look like: while gun control advocates want a mandatory buyback, the government has not ruled out the possibility of making the program voluntary.
Nathalie Provost, a survivor of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre, has warned that a voluntary buyback would be tantamount to no buyback program at all given so many people would likely choose not to sell their firearms back to the government.
“We have to empty the pool and to be sure that the faucet is tightly shut,” she told Global News.
“We don’t want it to be reopened again.”
Blair and Trudeau have said the government plans to introduce legislation to implement the proposed buyback program at some point in the future once the immediate threat of the pandemic passes.
It’s not yet clear whether they will offer any further clarification to the order in council prohibition at that time — for example, by amending the Firearms Act classification system with clearer language.
In the meantime, another gun lobby group is attempting to launch a constitutional challenge to the ban, arguing it violates property rights.
But unlike in the U.S., there is no constitutional right to bear arms in Canada.