New legislation promises to let cities ban handguns, yet it remains unclear if it will work

While the Liberal government’s proposed gun control legislation would let cities ban handguns — with bylaws that restrict their possession, storage and transportation — it remains unclear whether the new measures would succeed in reducing gun crime. 

Patchwork of restrictions from city to city could be hard to enforce and understand, experts say

An assortment of guns and magazine clips.
Toronto police display guns seized during a series of raids in July 2018. The Liberal government has unveiled legislation that would allow municipalities to pass bylaws to that would restrict handguns in their cities. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While proposed gun control legislation put forward by the Liberal government on Tuesday would permit cities to ban handguns — with bylaws that restrict their possession, storage and transportation — it remains unclear whether the new measures would succeed in reducing gun crime. 

Under the proposed legislation, cities would have a range of options. 

Some include an outright ban on having a handgun anywhere within a city's limits. Or a city could ban the storage of handguns in a house, requiring owners to pay for storage at a gun club or other facility. 

Any bylaw passed by a city would be supported with penalties that could include prison time. 

But it's "questionable what a handgun ban can achieve," according to A.J. Somerset, author of Arms: the Culture and Credo of the Gun, "because the argument would be that the criminal market can adapt and switch to alternative sources of supply — chiefly smuggling.

"Criminals are going to move things in and out of cities. Cities do not have borders is the big problem, and we can't really control those borders," Somerset told CBC News.

"If you're going to have a ban on handguns it needs to be a federal ban on handguns. It needs to be national."

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he welcomes the federal government's efforts to address gun crime, and reaffirmed his desire to see a federal handgun ban without specifically mentioning support for the patchwork of municipal bans proposed by the federal Liberals. 

"The city looks forward to receiving details … on how such a ban would work and what its impact would be on gun violence," Tory said in a statement.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says it has not taken a position on letting cities ban handguns.

Targeting smugglers 

A spokesperson for Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones says the provincial government is reviewing the proposed legislation but that it would prefer to focus "on action that makes a real impact in reducing illegal gun and gang violence."

"As law enforcement experts routinely highlight, it has not been demonstrated that banning legal firearms and targeting law-abiding citizens would meaningfully address the problem of gun violence," the spokesperson told CBC News. 

It's legitimate for some Canadians to feel that their Canada does not include handguns.-  Author A.J. Somerset

In the meantime, the Ontario government said it would be happy to work with the federal government on tightening border restrictions to prevent guns being smuggled from the U.S. into Canada; where it says 80 per cent of illegal guns come from.

Somerset says if reducing gang violence is the aim of the legislation, then the federal government's approach to the black market in drugs — which he says fuels the economies of gangs — should be rethought as should the social policies currently being used to target the reasons why people join gangs.

He's not the only one calling attention to social policy. 

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters also advocates for a "look at the more societal issues that are leading to some of the gun violence that we are seeing," said Matt DeMille, the group's manager of fish and wildlife services.

DeMille says that while he awaits the final version of the legislation, he has concerns about regions such as the Golden Horseshoe, where many municipalities border one another. He says it is not impossible to imagine a situation where each city has restrictions that are only slightly different from their neighbours, making it difficult for owners to understand, let alone comply, with the laws. 

"Adopting measures across the province in a patchwork is going to be very difficult for people to understand," he said. 

Somerset and DeMille both say the current laws restricting handguns in Canada have reduced the motivations for ownership of handguns to people that use them for target practice at gun clubs. They both say that further restrictions will likely only punish people already following strict regulations. 

"This part of the bill doesn't address the major problem, which is the illicit use of illegal guns in crime," said Conservative public safety critic Shannon Stubbs.

"It seems that it may cause people to move from and between municipalities while creating yet another layer of confusing and overlapping regulations and rules for law abiding firearms owners while doing nothing to actually crack down on illegal gun smuggling, trading, and gang crimes with guns," she said.   

Somerset said, irrespective of the hope that new restrictions will bring down gun-related crime in Canada, it is entirely reasonable to impose a national handgun ban if that is what Canadians want. 

"It's legitimate for some Canadians to feel that their Canada does not include handguns, it's a legitimate position to have when asking what kind of a society do we want to live in. At that point there really isn't a right answer any more, it's what people want or don't want," he said.