Canadians 'polarized' on prospect of a handgun ban, says government-commissioned report

A report commissioned by the federal Liberal government has found there is mixed support for a handgun ban in Canada, but Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair says Ottawa is still considering such a move — even though its consultations show no critical mass of Canadians calling for it.

Bill Blair says the idea is still on the table

A Liberal government-commissioned report finds Canadians are divided on the idea of a handgun ban. (GunPost.ca)

A report commissioned by the federal Liberal government has found there is mixed support for a handgun ban in Canada.

Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair says Ottawa is still considering such a move — even though its consultations show no critical mass of Canadians calling for it.

The report, conducted by a private consulting firm, collected the opinions of tens of thousands of Canadians through in-person meetings and written and online questionnaires. Its key conclusion is one that should come as no surprise to the federal government: the gun control debate in Canada is deeply polarized and there are people dug in on both sides of the issue.

"Overall, participants were strongly polarized on the issue of banning handguns and assault-style firearms. The stakeholder views expressed in two of the engagement channels — the in-person dialogues and written submissions — provided a variety of perspectives both opposed to and in support of a ban," said the report, prepared by Hill and Knowlton.

"In contrast, most questionnaire respondents (representing a self-selected group of Canadians) were opposed to a ban."

Of the 134,917 questionnaires completed online, the vast majority did not support further limits on access to firearms and/or assault-style firearms: 81 per cent of the questionnaire responses said nothing more should be done to limit access to handguns.

Rather, the web-based respondents said Ottawa should instead "focus on the illicit market, not legally-owned firearms" and on better policing at the border. In-person respondents, who participated in a series of roundtables in four cities, were more evenly split on a handgun ban.

Most respondents told the firm that a handgun ban likely would have its greatest impact on lawful, licensed gun owners instead of criminals, who rely principally on guns smuggled from the U.S.

The respondents said criminals likely would continue to flout national firearms laws rather than comply with any new federal prohibitions.

The 36 written submissions received by Hill and Knowlton also covered a broad range of opinion. Opposition to a ban came from shooting sports clubs/associations and retailers, most of the academic and researchers surveyed and wildlife associations, as well as an unnamed territorial government, an association representing rural municipalities and a group representing LGBTQ firearms owners.

"You are reacting to a crime wave, no question, but not a firearms problem," said one submission.

Support for a ban came from some health associations, victims' organizations, women-focused groups and an organization that deals with municipal affairs.

"As these firearms have no legitimate use in hunting, current owners may only legally use them for target shooting or collecting. This is not a compelling enough reason to justify the risk they pose to public safety," said one ban supporter.

One point of consensus for both supporters and opponents of a handgun ban was the need for government to better address the underlying socioeconomic conditions that perpetuate gun violence by gang members — poverty, a lack of education and employment opportunities and a lack of mental health supports.

The report offers few concrete conclusions or policy prescriptions for the governing Liberals, saying only that, based on the feedback it collected, a "a multifaceted approach is needed to address this issue [of gun violence] — rather than implementing a ban in isolation."

New Zealand's action puts pressure on Liberals

Last month, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won praise from gun control advocates around the world for her fast work in tabling new firearms restrictions following the Christchurch mosque massacre.

Now, Ottawa is under heavy pressure to follow her lead. New Zealand's sweeping ban on so-called "military-style" semiautomatic firearms has prompted Canadian activists to redouble their efforts to pressure the federal government to further tighten the law here.

They're calling on the Trudeau Liberals to first pass what they see as the relatively timid reforms included in Bill C-71 — which would expand the scope of background checks on those who want to acquire guns, and which is still before the Senate — before moving on to more controversial ideas like a handgun ban. So far, the federal Liberal government has been coy.

"There is not one single, simple solution," Blair said in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics Thursday.

"I think the report makes very clear that we're ready to consider every and any option which will keep Canadians safe. And what we've recognized, and I've heard across the country, is that you have to deal with ... interdicting the supply of guns to get into the hands of people that would commit crimes."

Regardless of how the Liberal government approaches the handgun file, the odds of Ottawa introducing and passing new gun legislation at this late stage of the parliamentary process — with only seven weeks left on the calendar before Parliament rises for its summer break — are remote.

Legislation typically takes months to move through both the House of Commons and Senate.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.