The owner of a paintball and airsoft business in St. John's says his industry is in trouble if a federal firearms ban is approved the way it's currently written, and he hopes to see more consultation and more specific language before it becomes law.
Tom Davis, who has run Frontline Action since 1994, says Bill C-21, currently being debated in the House of Commons, would effectively mean the end of his business.
Davis said the phrasing in the bill leaves room for interpretation about what would be included in the ban on firearms, which came as a surprise for him and others in the industry.
It has to be very, very clear what their objective is. - Tom Davis
"The bill targets airsoft very specifically, but it can then be interpreted to impact anything, paintball included, and it's a very vague bill the way it's written," Davis said.
"It's going to force the Canada Border Services Agency and law enforcement to interpret it, and then next thing you're in a court of law trying to define exactly what these clauses mean.… Technically, the way you could interpret this bill, it could make laser tag or anything like that prohibited."
Airsoft guns are often designed to look similar to genuine firearms, including magazine-style pellet ammunition for simulated combat recreation. The bill, as it's written, includes banning replicas of firearms, Davis said, adding that it would essentially put a stop to a vital part of his business.
"I'm not being dramatic when I say we would not have survived last year without airsoft, and probably would not survive this year without airsoft," he told CBC's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.
Davis said those details of the bill were unexpected.
"The crazy thing with Bill C-21 is that the industry only realized they were being targeted when it had its first reading in the House of Commons just a few weeks ago.… What was the response? It was just incredulous that out of the blue a bill that we didn't even see coming would have that effect, so it was very dramatic," Davis said.
"It was very shocking."
More consultation needed
Davis started calling the Newfoundland and Labrador MPs to express his concern for the future of his business.
"It seems very obvious that that wasn't even factored into the bill, as far as the reaction, because I don't think they really realized or did their due diligence," Davis said.
Bill C-21 went to a second reading a couple of weeks ago, and is now going through a committee process for amendments, Davis said, and he's "hopeful that's gonna happen."
If not, there will be hundreds of businesses affected, he said; while Davis doesn't know the exact number of airsoft businesses in Canada, he guesses it's more than 300 individual small businesses, as well as "a few hundred thousand Canadians" who participate in airsoft and paintball as a hobby.
Bill C-21 was introduced nine months after the federal government announced a ban on the sale, use and importation of more than 1,500 makes and models of what it refers to as military-grade "assault-style weapons." The bill would also introduce a buy-back program for banned firearms.
Only airsoft guns that exactly replicate a regulated firearm would be included in the bill, reads a statement from the federal Department of Justice.
Canadian law enforcement officials have said it's a challenge to tell the difference between real and replica firearms, and guns that look real can be used to intimidate and commit crime.
Davis said he doesn't discredit that position, but he thinks there are a lot of options for weapons available for someone committing a crime — not just expensive airsoft equipment.
"One of the things with an airsoft gun or a paintball gun is even though the victim of the crime is not aware of it, they're in much less danger, technically, with one of these types of devices than they would be if a criminal chose something else," Davis said. A knife would be more of a threat than an airsoft gun, he said.
"Not to take anything away from that [experience]. It's one of these things where you're darned if you do, darned if you don't. If the bill's intention is to remove anything that could possibly harm someone, then that's a very difficult objective."
Davis said the legislation needs to explicitly outline what is, and what is not, covered in the ban, or risk leaving room for interpretation.
Those specifics would also help the industry come up with a way to ensure their equipment falls outside the ban; an example, Davis said, would be putting orange tips on airsoft guns, similar to rules in the United States.
"It has to be very, very clear what their objective is. They've made a group of real guns prohibited, and they need to be specific, because right now this is a very vague law. Specifically, I guess, don't target people who are not a problem, and maybe education could be a piece," Davis said.
"The industry is willing to do whatever's reasonable to make Canada safer. And part of that is consultation, which I know they are now doing."