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Inquiry into N.S. mass shooting calls for sweeping changes to gun laws

OTTAWA — The federal government should push ahead with gun-control legislation to ban many types of semi-automatic weapons, restrict ownership of ammunition and create a standardized definition of banned firearms, urges the final report of an inquiry
In this June 27, 2017, file photo, a semi-automatic hand gun is displayed with a 10 shot magazine, left, and a 15 shot magazine, right, at a gun store in Elk Grove, Calif. THGE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Rich Pedroncelli

OTTAWA — The federal government should push ahead with gun-control legislation to ban many types of semi-automatic weapons, restrict ownership of ammunition and create a standardized definition of banned firearms, urges the final report of an inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

The Mass Casualty Commission released its report Thursday after holding more than 70 days of public hearings that ended last fall.

The inquiry was called after a gunman dressed as a police officer and driving a mock police cruiser killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, during a 13-hour-long rampage in rural Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, 2020. 

The gunman, Gabriel Wortman, died after being shot by RCMP officers. 

The commission is recommending changes to "prohibit all semi-automatic handguns and all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that discharge centre-fire ammunition and that are designed to accept detachable magazines with capacities of more than five rounds," and to close a loophole by banning the use of magazines with more than five rounds.

It also says the government should take steps to "rapidly reduce the number of prohibited semi-automatic firearms in circulation," and clarify in Canadian law that gun ownership is a conditional privilege, not a right.

Parliament is still debating gun-control legislation introduced last May by the Liberals, which has sparked opposition from gun groups.

Upon introducing Bill C-21 last May, the Liberals announced a plan to implement a freeze on importing, buying, selling or otherwise transferring handguns to help stem firearm-related violence. Federal regulations aimed at capping the number of handguns in Canada are now in effect.

The bill contains measures to reinforce the handgun freeze. It would also allow for removal of gun licences from people committing domestic violence or engaged in criminal harassment, such as stalking, as well as increase maximum penalties for gun smuggling and trafficking to 14 years from 10.

Many of the commission’s recommendations closely mirror that legislation. It calls for changes to the Firearms Act that would automatically revoke gun licenses from people convicted of domestic violence or hate-related offences, and that would suspend licenses when those charges are laid.

"Where such charges are diverted, withdrawn, stayed or otherwise resolved without trial, the suspension should remain in place and the burden of proof should be on licence holders to demonstrate they are not a risk or a threat to others," the report says.

The recommendations also include developing a "standardized schedule and definitions" of 206 prohibited firearms in the Criminal Code. 

The Liberals introduced, and then subsequently withdrew, an amendment to Bill C-21 that would have created a standard definition of assault-style weapons and enshrined it in the Criminal Code. 

Among other technical specifications concerning bore diameter and muzzle energy, the proposed definition included a centrefire semi-automatic rifle or shotgun designed with a detachable magazine that can hold more than five cartridges.

The commission notes that government should consult with Indigenous groups, along with police, firearms officers and groups that deal with gender-based violence about any changes.

Gun-control groups are applauding the recommendations. 

"We hope that these recommendations in particular will lead all parties to expeditiously press for the passage and implementation of Bill C-21 — the delays are putting lives at risk," said Coalition for Gun Control president and co-founder Wendy Cukier in a written statement. 

"Better firearms control at our borders, prevention of unlawful transfers of firearms and overall focus on effective, consistent, and accountable enforcement of firearms regulations are critical and the CGC is encouraged to see them reflected in recommendations."

PolySeSouvient, an advocacy group representing victims and survivors of the 1989 Montreal Polytechnique massacre, called the report "extraordinarily comprehensive."

Nathalie Provost, survivor and spokesperson of PolySeSouvient, said in a statement that she hopes it will convince legislators to reintroduce amendments to Bill C-21 to ban all assault-style weapons. 

"The withdrawal of the initial amendments was mired in disinformation and highly politicized, and this report puts public safety objectives squarely back on the agenda," she said.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Thursday that his government is committed to "review the report and address its recommendations."

The NDP said it supports calls to close loopholes that allow people to get ahold of weapons, parts and ammunition without  a license. 

However the party's public safety critic did not commit to supporting the proposed Liberal definition of assault-style weapons.

"The government came forward with a long list that was poorly considered, and the (public safety) committee as a whole will have to look at all the amendments," Peter Julian said outside the House of Commons Thursday.

"Right now, we have a situation where manufacturers can come reintroduce weapons that get around any existing definitions, and we don't have a process in place that forces manufacturers to be responsible."

All five of the weapons Wortman had during the killings were obtained illegally, and he did not have a license to own firearms. 

The two semi-automatic pistols found in his possession after his death had laser sights, and he had overcapacity magazines for a semi-automatic rifle and a police-style carbine.  

Police learned he had been stockpiling ammunition in the months before the attacks. 

The RCMP charged his longtime partner, Lisa Banfield, her brother and brother-in-law in December 2020 with unlawfully transferring the ammunition.

Police acknowledged at the time that the three had no knowledge of what the gunman would do, and the Crown withdrew the charges after they participated in a restorative justice program.

Banfield is now suing the federal and provincial governments, alleging she was charged because the RCMP wanted to deflect attention from mistakes they made during the response and investigation into the killings. Federal lawyers argued in a statement of defence that it was lawful and reasonable to charge her.

The Mass Casualty Commission also calls for changes to the Firearms Act to require a firearms license to own ammunition or buy a magazine, and to restrict people with a license to purchasing ammunition for the type of weapon they are licensed to have.

It’s also calling for limits on stockpiling ammunition.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax and Jim Bronskill in Ottawa.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press