Here's where federal parties stand on firearms control as cities like Montreal suffer a summer of gun violence

During a violent summer in major Canadian cities, some gun control advocates have called for more stringent federal firearms legislation while gun rights' activists and community workers have looked for other solutions.

Liberals' proposed reforms criticized on both sides of gun control debate

According to a 2020 Statistics Canada report, the rate of gun violence in Canada has continued to increase. (Erik White/CBC)

A recent spike in gun violence in Quebec — which saw a triple homicide in Montreal on Aug. 2 and two more fatal shootings in the same week — has reinvigorated criticism of the federal government's proposed legislation on gun control and prompted calls for new measures ahead of the federal election.

The Quebec government, the city of Montreal and gun control advocates have slammed a controversial bill to tighten gun laws tabled by the Trudeau government in February, saying its provisions would do little to curb gun violence or bolster public safety.

"Bill C-21 is unsatisfactory," Guillaume Cloutier, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante's associate chief of staff, tweeted last week in response to a shooting that killed three people in Rivière-des-Prairies in Montreal's east end.

"How many years do we have to wait — and how many deaths — before we have a strong law on gun control?"

If passed into law, Bill C-21 would introduce a voluntary buyback program for blacklisted firearms — including assault-style firearms — increase criminal penalties for gun smuggling and trafficking and allow municipalities to ban handguns. The bill has been debated only twice in the House of Commons.

Critics have attacked the voluntary basis of the buyback program and the decision to delegate responsibility for banning handguns to municipalities. Many have said municipal bans would be difficult to enforce and some provinces, such as Ontario, have cast aside the idea already.

The Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, a group that represents gun owners, has taken issue with the bill, arguing it's aimed at the wrong target and stating that the group would oppose any measures that lead to the "confiscation of legal guns from RCMP-vetted gun owners."

"Along with most Canadians, we were hoping the Liberals would address the actual crime and violence we see committed in our streets by criminals," said coalition spokesperson Tracey Wilson in February. 

A Leger poll in March suggests two-thirds of Canadians favour stricter gun-control laws — and more than half believe they should include a mandatory buyback program for prohibited firearms, in line with the position taken by gun-control advocacy groups.

With gun violence on the rise in major Canadian cities like Vancouver — or growing both more prevalent and more violent, as is the case in Toronto — it appears firearm legislation could be top-of-mind for voters heading to the polls. 

Polytechnique survivor Heidi Rathjen, right, says the federal government's proposed gun control measures sound good but are actually toothless. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Access to guns 'never been easier' in Canada

Heidi Rathjen, a member of the gun-control group PolySeSouvient and survivor of the 1989 Polytechnique massacre, said the Liberals' gun laws "sound good but hide incredibly weak, hollow, toothless measures."

PolySeSouvient said a voluntary buyback program would leave too many banned weapons in private hands, threatening public safety and making it easier for subsequent governments to reverse the ban. The organization is also pushing for a national handgun ban; it argues that local ones are generally ineffective, as the "disastrous patchwork of local and state laws" in the U.S. demonstrates.

Marc Alain, a professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and a researcher with the International Centre for Comparative Criminology, has said that one of the biggest drivers of gun violence is how readily available handguns have become in Quebec and throughout Canada.

"There's more guns than citizens in the U.S. Our border is literally full of holes … getting access [to guns] has never been easier in Canada than it has in the last four years," he said. 

Since the start of the year, Montreal police have seized nearly 500 illegal firearms. 

Montreal's mayor recently called on the federal government to step up its security at provincial and international borders, echoing similar calls from mayors of cities throughout the Greater Toronto Area last year. 

A Leger poll in March suggested two-thirds of Canadians favour stricter gun control. (PBS)

So where do the parties stand? 

The Bloc Québécois' 2019 election platform did not cite a specific policy on firearms or gun control. It has argued the buyback program should be compulsory, saying it "completely misses the point" if it's not. The Bloc supports universal registration of firearms and psychological testing for firearm owners.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, strongly oppose a handgun ban and have promised to repeal Bill C-71, the Liberals' 2019 gun law that banned the use, sale and importation of more than 1,500 makes and models of guns — those the government referred to as military-grade, assault-style weapons.

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A Conservative government would, they say, instead be committed to keeping guns out of the hands of criminals while respecting the rights of law-abiding Canadians to own and use firearms responsibly. This would include mandatory minimum sentences for the criminal use of firearms, strict monitoring of high-risk individuals, safe storage provisions and putting more law enforcement officers on the streets.

The NDP says it would tackle gun violence by ensuring communities have access to funding for anti-gang programming, and the Greens say they would run a confidential buyback program while restricting handguns to secure shooting ranges.

The People's Party of Canada is vehemently opposed to Bill C-21 as a whole. A spokesperson said it "targets sport shooters and hunters instead of the real criminals, who by definition don't bother respecting gun regulations."

The University of Toronto's Jooyoung Lee says the federal government should support community-based programs if it really wants to reduce gun violence. (CBC)

Community-based solutions, prevention

Jooyoung Lee, a University of Toronto sociology associate professor and authority on gun ownership and gun violence, said it's time for the federal government to take an active hand in supporting community-based programs and investing in the most vulnerable communities.

"This is the kind of stuff that has a better track record in terms of reducing gun violence," he said, arguing the "symbolic" and "performative" measures outlined in the Liberals' plans won't do much to counter gun and gang violence. 

Last week, Quebec announced that provincial police will join a special Montreal police squad to combat gun violence. Earlier this year, the province allotted $5 million to Montreal's police force to crack down on illegal firearms. But community groups say more cops isn't the answer. 

Quebec community workers are asking for more funding for youth programs and support from local politicians and all levels of government to prevent at-risk kids from getting caught up in criminal activity. 

The Liberal government has said it would spend $250 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to support anti-gang programming and preventative programs, but details on the plans are scarce.

In the meantime, Rathjen said, gun control advocates are losing hope that a Liberal government will follow through on past campaign promises if it remains in power.

"How long are we expected to keep fighting?" she said. "We're losing the war, despite the fact that Liberals get re-elected on gun control promises ... It's pointless.

"Even when we win, we lose."

With files from the Canadian Press

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