Toronto might not be able to take advantage of federal bill that would let cities ban handguns

Experts say the benefits of handgun ban are likely mixed — especially if it's left to individual municipalities to put it in place.

City analyzing proposed federal legislation, Mayor John Tory says

Toronto police officers stand on Ontario Street after a shooting there last May that injured a man. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

This week, the Canadian government introduced legislation that would, if passed, give cities like Toronto the power to ban handguns. But if the Ontario government moves to block it, Canada's largest city might not be able to take advantage of Bill C-21.

Last summer, Saskatchewan passed legislation barring municipalities from making their own gun laws, and in December, Alberta moved to follow suit.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Ontario's solicitor general said the province is reviewing the federal legislation.

The spokesperson also said the province would rather focus its efforts "on action that makes a real impact in reducing illegal gun and gang violence," noting that law enforcement experts have repeatedly indicated that banning legal firearms doesn't meaningfully address gun violence.

During a Wednesday news conference, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he would like to see a federal ban, but what the federal government has proposed "amounts to less than a national handgun ban." 

He wouldn't say whether or not the city would look to ban handguns, telling reporters, "we haven't had a chance to complete that analysis as of yet."

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair was upbeat but vague as to the utility of the proposed legislation, given that some provinces have already moved to block it.

"If governments choose not to … that's their choice, quite frankly," he said during a Wednesday news conference. 

"Where [municipalities] have the support of provincial governments, we'll support them."

WATCH | Public Safety Minister Bill Blair rejects the criticism that the federal government is downloading a politically sensitive issue onto municipalities and provinces

'We're not putting a patchwork in place': Bill Blair

2 years ago
Duration 2:12
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair rejects the criticism that the federal government is downloading a politically sensitive issue onto municipalities and provinces in its move to allow municipalities to ban handguns.

Blair said the bill was "very much" based on input from cities. Indeed, B.C. mayors in Surrey and Vancouver have already said they would ban handguns if the legislation passed.

In Toronto last year, there were 462 shootings, according to data collected by the Toronto Police Service. That's slightly below 2019 numbers but slightly higher than the figures from 2018. 

But as to whether a city-wide ban would put a dent in the numbers, Julius Haag, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto, says the evidence is mixed.

"A handgun ban could certainly be advantageous," he said, but "if there isn't a standardized handgun ban across the country that's going to raise issues of people travelling to other jurisdictions and bringing guns into the city."

Haag said he'd like the city to look at ways to address the problem more systematically, tackling poverty and other social issues tied to gun violence. 

In Toronto in particular, he noted that handgun violence is "typically concentrated in neighbourhoods that suffer from high rates of concentrated poverty and other types of social and structural problems."

If governments want to ban anything, ban poverty, said Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement.

March said he doesn't think a handgun ban will be effective, especially one that's left to the discretion of individual municipalities.

"It's going to be fragmented, piecemeal and there's not going to be any consistency," he said, adding it's telling that the federal government is not on the same page as its provincial counterparts.

"Are we addressing the problem or are we just fulfilling an election promise and kicking the can down the street?"

With files from Peter Zimonjic