Assault-style firearm definition draws applause from gun-control group

The Liberal government prompted applause and anger on Tuesday by proposing an evergreen definition of a prohibited assault-style firearm for inclusion in gun control legislation being studied by a House of Commons committee.

Definition was not part of the Bill 21 tabled by the Liberals last spring

A restricted gun licence holder holds a AR-15 at his home in Langley, B.C. on May 1, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The Liberal government prompted both applause and anger on Tuesday by proposing an evergreen definition of a prohibited assault-style firearm for inclusion in gun-control legislation being studied by a House of Commons committee.

The measure, introduced during clause-by-clause review of the bill, responds to pleas from advocates of tougher gun laws who want a definition enshrined in law. It would build on a federal regulatory ban of many types of firearms established two years ago.

Nathalie Provost, spokesperson for the gun control group PolySeSouvient, called the planned amendment "another critical step towards a comprehensive and permanent ban on assault-style weapons in Canada."

She said that while the group needs to analyze the definition and its real-world effect, its preliminary assessment is that it "would cover most if not all conventional assault weapons."

Conservative MPs on the public safety committee swiftly denounced the proposed definition, saying it would expand the existing regulatory ban by outlawing a broad range of semi-automatic firearms.

Conservative public safety critic Raquel Dancho called the measure an act of "all-out war on hunters" in Canada.

"The Liberal government, with this amendment, is moving to ban almost all semi-automatic shotguns and rifles. So we're talking bird hunters — bird hunters use semi-automatic shotguns," she said.

"I am quite shocked."

A woman speaks in front of a Canadian flag.
Conservative public safety critic Raquel Dancho speaks with reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct. 21, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Conservative MP Glen Motz accused the Liberals of paying scant attention to gun smuggling across the U.S. border and questioned how much the new measure was going to cost the government.

"This government says, 'We believe in making evidence-based decisions.' Well, show us the evidence where licensed firearm owners are the problem," Motz said.

The amendment also drew criticism from provincial politicians. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe tweeted that the change came "without warning" and would affect farmers and hunters.

The amendment shows "the disconnect between the federal Liberal government and legal firearm owners in Saskatchewan," Moe said in his tweet.

During a press conference Wednesday, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro also criticized the bill, saying implementing its measures would be a "bureaucratic quagmire."

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino defended the bill Wednesday, saying the government would take a number of factors "into careful consideration" when deciding what will constitute a prohibited firearm.

Mendicino mid-word close up of face
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino speaks with reporters after a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 21, 2022. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

"We're working very closely with the RCMP, we're working very closely with provincial police services, local police services, to understand how best to make this work," Mendicino said.

In May 2020, the government announced a ban through an order-in-council on more than 1,500 models and variants of what it considers assault-style firearms, such as the AR-15 and the Ruger Mini-14.

It said these guns were designed to kill people and had no place in hunting or sport shooting.

The Liberals plan a mandatory buyback program to offer compensation to affected owners and businesses.

Advocates warn of manufacturers evading regulations

Supporters of the ban have repeatedly expressed concerns about manufacturers evading the regulations by introducing new models.

Gun control advocates said an evergreen definition of an assault-style firearm should therefore be included in legislation.

The definition was not in the bill tabled by the Liberals last spring, but the government indicated it would be added before the legislation came to a final vote.

Liberal MP Paul Chiang, who served as a police officer for many years, told the committee Tuesday he had witnessed first-hand "the harms that assault weapons can do to our communities."

"I hope everyone will support these amendments to create a more comprehensive definition of a prohibited firearm and to improve the public safety of all Canadians," he said.

The proposed amendment is to be debated further when the committee resumes review of the bill Thursday.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff, the parliamentary secretary for Mendicino, said the definition will ensure that Canada has a fair and consistent standard on what constitutes an assault-style weapon, and that there will be no loopholes for gun manufacturers.

"While Conservative politicians want to make assault weapons legal again, we remain resolute in our work to make our communities safer," she said in a statement.

Upon introducing the bill earlier this year, the Liberals announced a plan to implement a freeze on importing, buying, selling or otherwise transferring handguns to help stem firearm-related violence.

Federal regulations aimed at capping the number of handguns in Canada are now in effect.

The bill contains measures that would reinforce the handgun freeze. It would also allow for removal of firearm licences from people committing domestic violence or engaged in acts of criminal harassment — such as stalking — and would increase maximum penalties for gun smuggling and trafficking to 14 years from 10.