How Bill C-21 turned from banning handguns to hunting guns

How Bill C-21 turned from banning handguns to hunting guns

Confusion was on the agenda at a parliamentary committee last week after the Liberal government brought in last-minute amendments to its contentious gun control legislation.

The proposed changes to Bill C-21 were tacked on by Liberal MP Paul Chiang after it had passed second reading — drawing complaints from opposition MPs who accused the government of sneaking in changes that would expand the scope of prohibited weapons to include hunting rifles.

The amendment adds long guns to the banned list in four different ways. First, it has a clause that would effectively ban any rifle or shotgun that could potentially accept a magazine with more than five rounds, whether or not it actually has such a magazine. Critics say that includes many rifles designed for hunters, not soldiers.

The list also names guns that fall afoul of two rules nominally intended to ban powerful military weapons such as .50-calibre sniper rifles and mortars. One rule bans long guns that can generate more than 10,000 joules of energy, and the other bans guns with a muzzle wider than 20 millimetres. Critics say those rules would ban everything from antique blunderbusses to the Nine O'clock Gun in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

Lastly, the amendment prohibits, by name, a large number of semi-automatic firearms that do not have detachable magazines and don't meet the definition of an "assault-style firearm," or infringe the other two rules, but which the government wants to ban anyway. They include a number of long guns in wide use by Canadian hunters.

CBC News asked to speak with Paul Chiang about the amendments but was told he was travelling and unavailable.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino insisted that hunters are not being targeted.

"We have a plan to eradicate gun violence once and for all," Mendicino told the House of Commons on Friday. "We are not going to target those guns which are used conventionally for hunting."

Here's what we know and don't know about the changes.

Will the 'Plinkster' be banned?

That's not entirely clear.

"The Mossberg 702 .22 Plinkster long rifle. Will that hunting and target-shooting rifle be prohibited as a result of C-21 legislation?" Conservative MP Bob Zimmer asked at the parliamentary committee.

"No," replied Murray Smith, technical specialist with the government's Canadian Firearms Program. "The model 702 Plinkster is a conventional 22-calibre hunting rifle. It's unaffected by what's in C-21."

But in fact, one version of the Plinkster ("plinking" refers to shooting tin cans) is individually listed for prohibition in the amendments.

The exchange captured some of the confusion caused by the 478-page amendment.

What do the opposition parties have to say?

Conservative MP Raquel Dancho called it "an attack on hunters."

"The arbitrary criteria that the Liberal government has snuck into their legislation at the eleventh hour without democratic debate does not make these firearms any less of a hunting tool," she said.

While Conservatives have long opposed some Liberal gun control measures, this time the NDP also balked.

"The amendment came out of nowhere," said NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding covers a vast swath of northern Ontario that includes many remote First Nations. "This was a handgun bill. We suddenly saw this other legislation that has a lot of people who are legitimate gun owners worried. I think they overreached."

Carey Price/Instagram
Carey Price/Instagram

And after Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price weighed in on the matter, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet lamented on Twitter that the bill had convinced Price "and so many others that gun control's goal or effect is to hurt hunting."

The National Police Federation (NPF) described Bill C-21 overall as a missed opportunity to reduce gun crime.

"Bill C-21 does not address criminal activity, illegal firearms proliferation, gang crime, illegal guns crossing the border or criminal use of firearms," it said in its written submission to Parliament.

And on the prohibition of legally-held firearms, "the NPF would caution that it diverts extremely important personnel, resources, and funding away from addressing the more immediate and growing threat of criminal use of illegal firearms."

What do advocacy groups think?

Heidi Rathjen of pro-gun control group PolySeSouvient told CBC Radio's The House she agrees with the bill and amendments, but said they are "very complicated technically" and "difficult to explain."

"But in terms of communications, I think the Liberals could have done a much better job."

LISTEN | Gun control advocate discusses proposed changes to firearms law:

Rathjen defended the rule that bans rifles that generate over 10,000 joules. "We're talking about .50-calibre military weapons that can pierce military equipment and structures," she said.

But the rule would also ban some very expensive elephant and buffalo rifles that would more likely grace collectors' display cabinets than be used for hunting.

"Many of these old firearms date back to before the 1900s," says Tony Bernardo of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association. "Some of these guns are worth a half-million dollars or more. Many of them are single shots or they're double-barrelled, and the finest examples of the engraver's art."

WATCH | Hunters association head on new firearms bill changes:

Bernardo says crime will not be reduced by using taxpayers' money to buy and destroy those expensive relics, though he's quick to add that there is no mention of compensation in Bill C-21.

The bill has also been challenged by historical and reenactment groups, who say their antique cannons and artillery pieces pose no threat to public safety.

"Many of our veterans actively participate in period outfits as re-enactors to demonstrate the workings of the ordnance at formal salutes, displays, reenactments and the like," the Royal Canadian Artillery Association wrote to the committee studying C-21, saying the bill will make their activities a crime.

WATCH | Government looks to broaden list of prohibited firearms:

A list of extra guns to ban

Perhaps the most controversial part of the amendment is that it proposes banning a number of guns that don't fit the government's new "assault-style firearm" definition.

One is the SKS semi-automatic rifle, which Rathjen says was not in the original "assault rifle ban" in 2020 because "if a weapon was not a modern design, it was exempt." The SKS, designed in 1945, lacks features common to modern military rifles such as the AR-15. But the government has now decided it wants it banned.

WATCH | Calls to ban SKS rifle:

There is a long tradition of Canadian hunters using what were once military rifles to hunt. The .303 Lee-Enfield, used in both the First and Second World Wars, was once the standard Canadian hunting rifle, and remains common, particularly in the North.

And today, says Bernardo, the SKS is "ubiquitous."

"There are, by our best estimates, somewhat over a half a million SKS rifles in circulation in Canada," he told CBC News.

Because the SKS is currently in the non-restricted (and therefore unregistered) class of firearms, the government does not know who owns them. Consequently, it has no way of informing them individually that they will be in violation of a law that carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

Bernardo says the SKS is particularly common among Indigenous and sustenance hunters in remote areas who may only realize they have fallen afoul of new laws when they are arrested.

"The consequences of this are absolutely huge and, quite frankly, totally uncalled for."