Under pressure to clamp down on semi-automatics, Trudeau defers to police

OTTAWA — Police, not politicians, should decide what restrictions to place on specific kinds of guns, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday, his Liberal government under renewed pressure to impose an outright ban on semi-automatic rifles.

Trudeau’s comments come after a group of people impacted by last year’s deadly Quebec City mosque shooting — a number of wounded, as well as family members of the six people killed — urged him to outlaw the military-style weapons outright.

He touted provisions of his government’s firearms bill, which once passed would restore the authority of RCMP experts to classify firearms without political influence, repealing cabinet’s authority to overrule Mountie determinations.

In a letter Monday to the prime minister, more than 75 people express disappointment the bill does not ban semi-automatic rifles like the one carried by mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette.

Bissonnette began his January 2017 assault with a .223-calibre Small Arms VZ58 Sporter rifle, which is legal, along with two illegal 30-cartridge magazines.

The rifle jammed on the first shot, and Bissonnette then used a handgun, but the letter asks how much worse the carnage could have been had Bissonnette’s rifle worked.

“What kind of society allows a single individual to have so much destructive, lethal power at their disposal?” the letter says.

Firearms in Canada are classified as either non-restricted (such as ordinary hunting rifles and shotguns), restricted (handguns, certain rifles and semi-automatics) or prohibited (certain handguns, fully automatic firearms and sawed-off rifles).

Restricted and prohibited firearms must be registered and entail additional safety training. In addition, their use is limited to people such as target shooters and collectors.

The RCMP’s firearms program determines the technical classification of a gun according to criteria in the Criminal Code.

As such, the Mounties are limited to interpreting definitions established by the government, says the group PolySeSouvient, which includes graduates and students of Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, where 14 women were gunned down in 1989.

In a brief to a House of Commons committee studying the bill, the group says the current Criminal Code definitions allow some “assault weapons” to be legal.

“Unfortunately, this system results in classifications that are not consistent with the risks of many weapons,” the brief says.

“Indeed, despite the general objective of banning assault weapons of both 1991 and 1995 legislative reforms, weapons designed for military purposes have become more accessible.”

During a committee meeting Tuesday, NDP public safety critic Matthew Dube asked Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale whether he was open to adding or revising definitions in the current bill or a future one.

“We need clarity that would benefit gun owners and also those people who want to ensure public safety.”

Goodale said he would consider such a proposal. “I’m open to all constructive suggestions and ideas.”

The bill would expand the scope of background checks on those who want to acquire a gun. Instead of just the five years immediately preceding a licence application, personal history questions would cover a person’s entire lifetime.

In addition, gun retailers would be required to keep records of firearms inventory and sales, a measure intended to assist police in investigating gun trafficking and other crimes.

The bill would also require purchasers to present a firearms licence, while the seller would have to ensure its validity.

Conservative MP Glen Motz said the bill is ”embarrassingly lacking” on measures to address gang-related gun violence.

Goodale stresses the bill is complemented by expenditures of more than $327 million over five years, and $100 million a year thereafter, to address criminal gun and gang activities.

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