Federal law on municipal gun bans could take precedence over Alberta bill, expert says

New gun control legislation proposed by the federal government would likely take precedence over a private member's bill that aims to prevent Alberta municipalities from passing municipal gun bans, according to a constitutional law expert. 

Provincial bill aims to block municipalities from enacting gun bans

A restricted gun licence holder carries an AR-15 at his home in Langley, B.C., on May 1, 2020. The federal government introduced new gun control legislation Tuesday that would allow municipalities to ban handguns. It may take precedence over an Alberta private member's bill that aims to prevent municipalities in the province from passing municipal gun bans. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

New gun control legislation proposed by the federal government would likely take precedence over a private member's bill that aims to prevent Alberta municipalities from passing municipal gun bans, according to a constitutional law expert. 

The federal government introduced Bill C-21 on Tuesday. The proposed legislation would give municipalities the power to ban handguns by passing bylaws on their storage and transportation. 

Michaela Glasgo, the UCP MLA for Brooks-Medicine Hat, introduced Bill 211 the Municipal Government (Firearms) Amendment Act on Dec. 8.

The existence of the two bills dealing with a similar issue raises a question about which would take precedence. 

"Our system of constitutional law says that in those cases of conflict, the federal law will prevail," Eric Adams, a professor at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Law, said in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday. 

Adams said the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments is set in the constitution. Usually the province has power over municipalities. But on the issue of firearms, he said the question is complicated. Firearms regulation is the responsibility of the federal government. 

"Is that valid for a province to deny the ability of the municipality to do that thing that the federal government or the Parliament of Canada specifically authorizes?" he asked. 

"I can't think of a scenario that I'd seen that play out in terms of cases in the Supreme Court or other levels. So I do think we've got ourselves a reasonably novel federalism Rubik's Cube."

Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu thinks the law is on Alberta's side.

In a written statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, he challenged the constitutionality of the federal bill, which also introduced a buy-back program for prohibited weapons and increased penaities for gun smuggling and trafficking.

"The constitution is clear that municipalities fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces," Madu said. 

"In fact, municipalities in Alberta are a creation of the provincial government. The federal bill has just been introduced, but should it pass, Alberta would vigilantly defend its jurisdiction."

Madu said passage of Glasgo's bill would be expedited by the Alberta legislature. 

City-by-city approach panned by mayors 

The federal legislation is aimed at larger cities that grapple with gun violence, but the mayors of Alberta's two largest cities were opposed to the measure. 

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said their preference was for a consistent regional or national approach on firearms as opposed to city-by-city prohibitions. 

"It's not the direction we would go in to pursue a city-specific ban when the issue of the flow of these weapons and their ties to particularly drugs and organized crime is much more than a municipality-by-municipality issue," Iveson said in a news conference Tuesday. 

"I prefer one law for the country," Nenshi told reporters on Tuesday. "Even though I generally like municipalities to have more powers, I've never been in favour of this approach."

Nenshi said the recommendations of the city's public safety task force could determine whether Calgary city council was interested in municipal firearm restrictions. 

In his statement, Madu said municipal gun bylaws would be be "futile" and easily ignored by criminals. 

"A patchwork approach of policy varying by invisible municipal boundaries would create obvious confusion in enforcement, and the federal government clearly knows that," he said. 

Alberta bill could be signal to UCP base

Adams, from the University of Alberta, said Glasgo's bill may just be a signal to the UCP base. 

"Is this just another piece of a narrative that allows the UCP and their members to say we fight Ottawa at every turn? Maybe it's simply that," he said. 

"And so whether or not it is ultimately effective or is upheld as constitutional or not is maybe not the most important part of that political side of why they may be interested in the existence of this prohibition."

Glasgo's bill was introduced for first reading on Dec. 8, the last day of the fall sitting. Private member's bills are reviewed by the Standing Committee on Private Bills and Private Members' Public Bills before they return to the legislature for additional debate. 

The UCP majority on both the committee and in the Alberta legislature means the bill will likely become law. 

The legislature resumes on Feb. 25.

With files from Scott Dippel and Natasha Riebe