The Liberal government is expected to table a bill in the coming days that will set up a program to buy back assault-style weapons that were blacklisted last spring, Radio-Canada has learned.
The voluntary program will provide financial compensation to gun owners who give up their banned weapons, with the aim of taking them out of circulation.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair made a series of presentations to various members of the Liberal caucus this week to brief them on the details of the draft bill, according to senior sources with knowledge of the program who spoke confidentially because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a ban on the use, sale and importation of more than 1,500 makes and models of assault-style weapons in May 2020, arguing they were designed for the battlefield — not for hunting or sport shooting.
A two-year amnesty period is in place to give people who already own targeted firearms time to comply with the ban. The amnesty period will last until April 30, 2022.
Owners may choose not to surrender their weapons to the government under the buyback program, but will have to comply with strict requirements if they wish to keep them. One of those requirements is that the weapons be stored securely and never used.
The Bloc Québécois argues the program should be compulsory.
"It completely misses the point if we don't make the buyback program mandatory," said Bloc MP Kristina Michaud.
"Not only will these weapons stay in houses and people will be able to use them even if it is forbidden to do so, we know that there are people who do."
The New Zealand example
Behind the scenes, however, some express doubts about the effectiveness of a mandatory program.
"Is this the best way to spend public money?" said a senior government source, citing the example of a similar initiative in New Zealand.
In 2019, after a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand left 51 dead and dozens injured, the government banned semi-automatic weapons and instituted a buyback and amnesty program.
More than 56,000 weapons have been withdrawn from circulation in New Zealand and the government has paid $87 million dollars in compensation. The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners, however, estimated the number of semi-automatic weapons in circulation at 170,000 at the program's inception, and called the program a failure.
The Liberal government says it wants to adopt a balanced solution that will allow it to keep its promise to ban military-style assault weapons while avoiding the kind of controversy associated with the long-gun registry, which Stephen Harper's Conservative government abolished in 2012.
Voluntary program opposed by gun control groups
An elected Liberal official said the proposed program is "not perfect, but that doesn't mean it won't work."
Because the Liberals control a minority of seats in the House of Commons, they'll need support from at least one opposition party to pass the bill. But groups calling for stronger gun control measures are dismissing the legislation as inadequate.
Pro gun-control group PolySeSouvient says a voluntary program would leave too many banned weapons in private hands, threatening public safety and making it easier for subsequent governments to reverse the ban.
"The families of victims of mass shootings that have been fighting for years for a total ban on semi-automatic military-style guns would be devastated and very angry if the Liberals were to renege on their election promise to buy back all newly prohibited assault weapons," said spokesperson Heidi Rathjen.
"We will not support half measures that compromise public safety and can be easily reversed by a future Conservative government."
Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, the party's public safety critic, said the program will do little to curb gun crime.
"Instead of targeting law-abiding Canadians and firearm retailers, the government should be investing in police anti-gang and gun units and the CBSA, so that they have the resources they need to stop illegal smuggling operations and get dangerous criminals and gangs off our streets," she said in an email.
The Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, a group that represents gun owners, said it would oppose any measures that lead to the "confiscation of legal guns from RCMP-vetted gun owners." The group is engaged in a court challenge of the Liberal gun legislation.
"Canadian gun owners have owned these firearms safely and without issue for decades," said coalition spokesperson Tracey Wilson.
"Along with most Canadians, we were hoping the Liberals would address the actual crime and violence we see committed in our streets by criminals."
The Liberals are also expected to take this opportunity to announce new measures to fight the proliferation of illegal weapons in Canada. Several measures could be introduced by regulation and would not have to be included in the bill.
Liberal MP Joël Lightbound, parliamentary secretary to Blair, said in a media statement that the government's plan will include additional resources for police and border officials to help stop the flow of illegal arms across the border and tougher penalties for illegal firearms trafficking.
He also indicated that stricter laws on secure storage will be introduced to prevent the theft of firearms.
Ottawa hopes to calm any opposition from gun control advocates by adding measures that would allow police to respond quickly to cases of violence or imminent threats where the presence of an assault-style weapon is suspected.
Lightbound said the bill will give communities, police, health care professionals, survivors of domestic violence and families the power to sound the alarm when someone is posing a threat.