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Ottawa withdraws controversial amendments to firearms law

The Liberal government has withdrawn a series of controversial amendments to pending firearms legislation, Bill C-21, that some firearms owners say would have unfairly targeted hunters and farmers.

Faced with fierce opposition from Conservative, NDP and Bloc MPs and firearms rights groups, Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed said Friday the government is withdrawing a long list of guns that would have been classified as “prohibited” as part of a push to ban “assault-style” weapons.

The amendments, which were quietly tabled by a Liberal backbench MP in November, would have banned these weapons under the Criminal Code, rather than through regulation. That change would have made the prohibition much more difficult for future governments to reverse.

The government is scrapping clauses that effectively would have banned any rifle or shotgun that could accept a magazine with more than five rounds — whether it actually has such a magazine or not.

The government also intended to ban long guns that generate more than 10,000 joules of energy, or any gun with a muzzle wider than 20 millimetres — two rules that would have rendered many firearms illegal.

These amendments would have had the effect of banning a number of long guns in wide use by hunters.

C-21, as originally drafted, was designed to ban handguns. The amendments expanded its scope.

Because the amendments strayed so dramatically from how the bill was initially written, opposition parties questioned whether the changes were even admissible under parliamentary rules. Those concerns are moot now that the government has backed down.

The government will still push ahead with C-21, which enacts a handgun sales ban, cracks down on gun smuggling and automatically revokes firearms licences held by domestic abusers.

While backtracking on some of the more contentious elements, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Friday the government would try to revive some parts of the now-defunct amendments package.

Among other changes, the withdrawn amendments would have defined “assault-style firearm” — a term often used by the government that has no definition in law.

In an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics, Mendicino said the government will pursue some sort of ban on firearms “designed for the battlefield that have no place in our communities.”

What’s needed in this minority Parliament, Mendicino said, is support from either the NDP or Bloc — parties that withheld support in the face of backlash from rural dwellers and some Indigenous peoples.

Mendicino conceded the government bungled the process.

“We’ve got to accept responsibility from where we’re at. The step we’ve taken today is about resetting the narrative,” he said, promising the Liberal government still intends to ban firearms used in mass casualty events, like the semi-automatic weapon used in the Quebec City mosque massacre.

Mendicino had defended the amendments before Friday, saying the changes were necessary to reduce gun violence in Canada.

Critics said a ban on popular hunting rifles would do little to make Canadians safer when many crime guns are handguns illegally smuggled over the U.S. border.

Mendicino said the proposed amendments prompted “considerable discussion about the best way to move forward” and “legitimate concerns” were raised by critics “about the need for more consultation and debate.”

“We hear those concerns loud and clear, regret the confusion that this process has caused and are committed to a thoughtful and respectful conversation that is based on facts, not fear,” he said.

Mendicino said the government didn’t draft the amendments to punish rural Canadians, hunters or Indigenous people who rely on these firearms.

“As we’ve said time and again, the government’s intent is to focus on AR-15s and other assault-style weapons. Hunting isn’t just a proud Canadian tradition, it’s a way of life for communities across this country. Bill C-21 isn’t about targeting hunters. It’s about certain guns that are too dangerous in other contexts,” he said.

PolySeSouvient, a gun control group, said it was “shocked” by the government’s decision.

“It is clear that the misinformation propagated by Conservative MPs and the gun lobby has won,” said Nathalie Provost, a spokesperson for the group.

Provost said she wants the Liberal government to work with the NDP and Bloc Québécois to table legislation to deliver on its promise to ban assault weapons.

The Liberal government has already banned what it calls “assault-style” firearms through an order-in-council — a directive from cabinet enacted in May 2020 after the Portapique massacre in Nova Scotia.

The intent of the now-withdrawn Bill C-21 amendments was to codify that assault ban in law (an order-in-council can easily be revoked by another government) and add many more makes and models to the list of illegal firearms.

Government House Leader Mark Holland said the government “needs more time” to consult with the firearms community before reviving some of the amendments that were scrapped — including a section that would have banned “ghost guns,” which can be bought online and assembled at home.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, a firearms lobby group, called the Liberal reversal “a small win in a bigger battle.”

“It’s imperative we crush #C21 in its entirety. The Liberals are retreating, now is the perfect time to push forward and #ScrapC21 altogether,” Tracey Wilson said. “Good work. Now, let’s refocus and scrap it all.”

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Friday he “forced Trudeau into a temporary and humiliating climb down.”

“He desperately wanted to ban hunting rifles — it was a sucker punch to our lawful and licensed firearms owners,” Poilievre said of the amendments. “He’s doing this because he got caught. We will not let up. Conservatives will never allow Justin Trudeau to ban hunting rifles.”

Poilievre said he described the Liberal backtracking as “temporary,” adding he expects Trudeau will be back with another plan to target rural Canadians, Indigenous peoples and sport shooters who used these firearms.

“God forbid if he ever got a majority — he’d ram it through,” Poilievre said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he supports both a national handgun ban and a move to restrict “assault-style” weapons, but he described the government’s management of the file as a “failure.”

“It is clear that the Liberal government did not do the necessary work and they mismanaged the entire issue. That is clear,” Singh told reporters, adding the government bungled Indigenous consultation on the issue.

“They endangered the work we need to do to protect our communities.”

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