The ruling Liberals, who announced nine months ago they were banning assault rifles, seem to have decided on second thought these weapons aren’t so bad after all. Owners can keep their assault rifles, as long as they keep them locked up.
The government will buy assault rifles from owners who want to get rid of them, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced this week. He believes that severe restrictions imposed by Bill C-21, the firearms bill presented to Parliament this week, will encourage owners to sell their guns to the government.
Gun control advocates are not pleased. They argue that the kinds of people who go out and commit mass murder with assault rifles in Montreal, in Portapique, N.S., or anywhere else in Canada are not likely to be dissuaded by a federal law saying they were supposed to keep their assault rifles under lock and key.
When someone has already decided to murder their neighbours and take or lose their own life, who imagines they are going to worry about violating the gun-storage regulations?
The optional buy-back program comes as part of a package of measures aimed at curbing gun trafficking. Criminal penalties for gun smuggling and trafficking will be increased. A court process will be created allowing anyone to ask for confiscation of weapons from persons who pose a danger to themselves or others. Municipalities, with the permission of their provincial governments, will be empowered to ban handguns.
The practical effects of these measures in curbing gun violence in Canada are open to debate. In a highly mobile society, banning a class of weapon within the city limits of one municipality is unlikely to discourage criminal gangs and gun traffickers. Increased criminal penalties may drive up the price for smuggled weapons.
The political effect, however, may be pronounced. While the Liberals are at least gesturing in the direction of gun control, the Conservatives want to defend the interest of law-abiding gun owners and the New Democrats want to deal with the profound underlying causes of gun violence.
This leaves the Liberals with the upper hand among urban voters in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec who are anxious about gun crime: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his colleagues at least seem to care; the others prefer to change the subject.
Opinion polling last May, when the government announced the list of assault weapons it intended to ban, showed massive support among city-dwellers in Ontario and Quebec, where the Liberal party needs to keep support and the Conservatives and New Democrats need to find some. Voters in Prairie provinces, where the Liberals are already weak, were not much interested in seeing the government ban firearms.
Assault weapons — high-capacity rifles designed for use by infantry in combat — are an object of fascination for some gun owners because of their engineering and their awesome power. They are also an object of horror for people who see themselves as more likely the victim than the operator of such a weapon. They are rarely used in crimes in Canada, but the few occasions are notorious because of their high body counts.
Gun-owner groups are constantly on the lookout for authorities who, they are convinced, plan to take their guns away. The Liberals were, indeed, planning to take their guns away, but apparently that now seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. They’ve opted for the gradual method instead.