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Canada vows to ‘freeze’ handgun sales, buy back assault-style weapons

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new gun-control legislation May 30 that would put a “national freeze” on importing, buying or selling handguns. (Video: Reuters)

TORONTO — Canada on Monday introduced new gun-control legislation that, if passed, would implement a “national freeze” on buying, importing, transferring and selling handguns, effectively capping the number of such weapons already in the country.

The bill, which officials here cast as “the most significant action on gun violence in a generation,” also includes “red flag” laws that would allow judges to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others and stiffer penalties for gun smuggling and trafficking.

“We recognize that the vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible and follow all necessary laws,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “We are, however, facing a level of gun violence in our communities that is unacceptable.”

The proposed legislation came after mass shootings in Texas and across the U.S.-Canada border in Buffalo in recent weeks have revived a long-simmering debate in the United States about whether Congress might act to curb gun violence.

“Unfortunately, the reality is in our country [gun violence] is getting worse and has been getting worse over the past years,” Trudeau said. “We need only look south of the border to know that if we do not take action, firmly and rapidly, it gets worse and worse and more difficult to counter.”

How countries around the world have responded to mass shootings

Many provisions of the proposed legislation were featured in a gun-control bill that was introduced last year but that did not pass before a federal election was called in August. Gun-control advocates criticized its buyback program for banned guns, which was voluntary. The Liberals pledged stricter gun-control measures if reelected.

Such measures enjoy broad public support here, particularly in urban centers. The Liberal Party typically employs guns as a wedge issue during federal election campaigns, painting their Conservative counterparts as supportive of easing gun-control measures to gain an edge.

Gun-control advocates have long called for a national ban on handguns. But some provincial and municipal officials have opposed one.

The “freeze” envisioned by the proposed legislation is not a ban because people who already own them could continue to possess and use them. But they could only transfer them to businesses, and chief firearms officers would be barred from approving the transfer of handguns to individuals.

The bill is likely to pass with the support of the New Democratic Party. The Conservatives on Monday criticized Liberal gun-control efforts, charging that they unfairly target law-abiding gun owners and fail to adequately stamp out the smuggling of illegal weapons across borders.

“Today’s announcement fails to focus on the root cause of gun violence in our cities: illegal guns smuggled into Canada by criminal gangs,” Raquel Dancho, the Conservative public safety critic, said in a tweet. “The PM has had 7 years to fix this serious issue yet he continues to chase headlines and bury his head in the sand.”

The measures unveiled Monday come after the government banned 1,500 makes and models of “military-style assault weapons” in 2020, after a gunman posing as a police officer charged across rural Nova Scotia, killing 22 people, including a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, in the country’s deadliest mass shooting.

The government said Monday that it plans to introduce a mandatory buyback program that would offer compensation to owners of the banned firearms. Details on the program are expected this summer, and the government hopes to begin buying back the guns, including AR-15s, the kind used in the school attack in Texas, by the end of the year.

“It’s going to be hard,” said Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister. “But we’re going to get it done.”

Trudeau promises gun-control legislation after deadliest shooting in Canadian history

Some measures announced Monday would not require parliamentary approval, but a change to regulations.

While mass shootings are relatively rare here compared to the United States, the rate of firearm-related homicides has increased since 2013, according to data from Statistics Canada. It said that the percentage of homicides involving a firearm jumped from 26 percent in 2013 to 37 percent in 2020.

Nearly 60 percent of firearm-related violent crimes involve handguns, according to the national statistics agency. But it said that there are “many gaps” in the data, including on the “source of firearms used in crime” and “whether a gun used in a crime was stolen, illegally purchased or smuggled into the country.”

During hearings in a public inquiry this year on the “causes, context and circumstances” of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, evidence was presented on the provenance of the large cache of weapons that the attacker, Gabriel Wortman, had on hand during the hours-long assault.

Wortman, a denturist, did not possess a firearms license and obtained his weapons illegally. The commission heard that there were “two, and potentially three,” instances when police received information about his access to firearms. Little, if anything, was done, according to testimony.

Several of the guns were traced and sourced to gun stores in nearby Maine. A friend there told police that Wortman took one or more of the guns without his knowledge or permission, while he gave the shooter a Ruger P89 “as a sign of gratitude” for his help with “tree removals and other odd jobs at his residence.”

An AR-15 came from a gun shop in California, but Wortman first saw it at a gun show in Maine and someone else bought it for him. Witnesses told the RCMP after the shooting that Wortman would disassemble the firearms and roll them up in his truck’s tonneau cover to smuggle them across the border.

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