COQUITLAM, B.C. — Hunters and sports shooters have been unfairly caught up in the Liberal government's bans on "assault-style" weapons, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Saturday as he was dogged by questions about his party's gun policy for the second day in a row.
The issue has been a source of confusion ever since Thursday when O'Toole first said he would maintain a ban on “assault weapons” during a French language debate. He also denied he would legalize the gun used in the 1989 massacre at Montreal's Ecole polytechnique.
His statements were widely seen as a promise to maintain a ban on some 1,500 firearms the Liberals dubbed "assault-style weapons" when they made them illegal last May.
O'Toole repeated his pledge to maintain the ban on Friday, but a party spokeswoman later issued a statement saying the ban in question was actually one on full-fledged "assault weapons" which has been in place since 1977.
The party's platform promises to scrap the May 2020 order-in-council that banned a wide variety of guns and review the Firearms Act with input from police, gun owners, manufacturers and the public. O'Toole, for his part, has remained vague on what exactly he is referring to, even when repeatedly pressed on the matter during recent campaign appearances.
During a stop in Coquitlam, B.C., O'Toole said Canadians could look at his party's platform to "fill in the blanks" on its gun policy.
According to the platform, the party would repeal Bill C-71, which expanded background checks on people applying for gun licenses, created new record-keeping requirements for gun retailers and restricted transportation of firearms.
The platform also says a Conservative government would repeal a May 2020 order-in-council, which banned more than 1,500 firearm models, including the popular AR-15 rifle and the Ruger Mini-14 used to kill 14 women at Ecole polytechnique.
Asked about the effect of that repeal, O'Toole said Canada needs a "fair," "targeted" approach to public safety.
"There's some people — sport shooters, hunters, target shooters — who have been caught up in an approach that Mr. Trudeau has brought that doesn't actually keep Canadians safe," O'Toole said.
A Conservative government would also review Canada's gun classification system, he added.
"We're going to ... show Canadians that we can focus on keeping Canadians safe without dividing Canadians," he said.
"Assault'' or "assault-style'' firearms are colloquial descriptions, and what falls into either category is debated among gun users.
Facing questions about why a Conservative government would legalize the gun used in the Polytechnique shooting, which was also in the possession of the man who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia in 2020, O'Toole said the real problem is illegal guns smuggled into Canada and accused Trudeau of importing divisive rhetoric on firearms from the United States.
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Liberal candidate Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief who was public safety minister when the law was enacted, accused O'Toole of "pretending that he had not made a commitment'' to maintain the Liberal ban, as well as of being beholden to the gun lobby.
"I think overwhelmingly Canadians recognize that there is no place for these guns in our country,'' he said at a news conference in Toronto. "Mr. O'Toole is having difficulty admitting to Canadians that he's made that unholy pact with the gun lobby. He needs to be held to account.''
O'Toole said he would target gun violence by organized criminal groups, including street gangs, and take steps to make it easier to seize legally-acquired guns "if there's a mental health or other security risk."
Also on Saturday, O'Toole promised to work with the provinces to create a national system for proving residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
"The provinces have a series of systems of proof of vaccination QR codes, of vaccine passports, we will respect what the provinces are doing, partner with them to make sure that we have that for foreign travelling by Canadians," he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called for a national system and criticized Trudeau for not implementing one sooner.
Trudeau has said Ottawa would certify provincial vaccine passports but noted it could take a year to create a full federal program.
O'Toole said he wants to see at least 90 per cent of eligible residents vaccinated against COVID-19, and is pledging to cover the cost of time off for employees to get a shot as well as transportation to vaccine clinics for those needing support.
O'Toole also committed to rolling out a national booster shot strategy that would initially target seniors and the immunocompromised.
O'Toole, who is advocating for federal workers as well as air and rail travellers to be vaccinated or required to submit to COVID-19 testing, said vaccination should be promoted, not imposed.
"You don't win people over by threatening them, you win them over by reaching out, talking to them, understanding their fears, answering their questions," he said.
Shortly before calling the election, set for Sept. 20, the Liberals announced plans to make vaccines mandatory for federal employees as well as air or rail passengers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press