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What is Bill C-21? A look at the proposed firearm legislation and its implications

Advocates both for and against the federal government's latest firearms bill are sharing mixed reactions to the proposed law, which if passed would further restrict legal access to handguns in Canada and create systems to flag individuals who may pose a risk to themselves or others.

The federal government announced Bill C-21 on May 30, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling it "some of the strongest measures in Canadian history to keep guns out of our communities and build a safer future for everyone."

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino also said the legislation "will help to reduce gun violence and keep Canadians safe."

Since its introduction, Bill C-21 has received praise from gun control advocates, who see it as a positive step forward in combatting gun violence, while firearm rights groups argue the bill unfairly targets lawful gun owners and will do little to address crime.

Some in law enforcement also have split views on certain pieces of the bill.

But what does Bill C-21 propose and will it meaningfully address the issue of gun violence in Canada? looked into these and other questions raised by readers.

In this story:


A key measure in Bill C-21 is a "freeze" on the sale, purchase or transfer of handguns in Canada, except for a limited set of individuals and businesses, without completely banning their use.

The legislation would also create "red flag" and "yellow flag" laws, allowing an individual to apply for an emergency weapons prohibition order in court to immediately remove a person's firearms for up to 30 days, as well as suspend their firearms licence, if they pose a risk to themselves or others.

The bill would also increase the maximum penalties to 14 years from 10 for firearm-related offences such as smuggling, make it an offence to alter a cartridge magazine beyond its lawful capacity and prohibit certain replica firearms that closely resemble real guns.

On top of the bill, the federal government plans to move forward on its firearm buy-back program, announced in 2020 after more than 1,500 models and variants of so-called "assault-style" firearms were banned in the wake of the Nova Scotia mass shooting. However, the federal government has extended the amnesty period to Oct. 30, 2023.

The term "assault-style" or "assault weapon" is generally considered a political term, which usually refers to a semi-automatic weapon. This is compared to an "assault rifle," which can be fully automatic, meaning it can be fired continuously as long as the trigger is held. Fully automatic firearms are prohibited in Canada.


The Royal Canadian Mounted Police wrote in its 2020 Commissioner of Firearms Report that there are more than 2.2 million firearms licence holders in Canada.

About half are in Ontario and Quebec, with another almost one-third in Alberta and British Columbia. There are approximately 1.1 million to 1.2 million registered handguns in Canada.

Rates of firearm-related violent crime have been on the rise in Canada in recent years after falling for a period of time, a recent report from Statistics Canada shows. Handguns remain the most serious weapon used in the majority of firearm-related violent crimes.

But in that same report, StatCan says there is little information to determine the source of a firearm used in crime, including if it was stolen, illegally purchased or smuggled. Provinces also don't require that investigators send firearms used in crimes for tracing.

Police services, however, have said generally speaking, the majority of firearms used in crimes are obtained illegally, including being smuggled from the United States.

Addressing Parliament's public safety committee in February, National Police Federation president Brian Sauvé said while nationwide data is still needed, "it is the experience of law enforcement that most of these guns are illegally obtained."

Already in the 2021-22 fiscal year, Canada Border Services Agency has seized 955 firearms, the most for any fiscal year since 2017-18.

A restricted gun licence holder holds a AR-15 at his home in Langley, B.C., May 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward


The Coalition for Gun Control, founded in the wake of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in which a gunman murdered 14 women, applauded the federal government for its "game-changing" bill, specifically the national ban on the sale and importing of handguns.

"This proposed law represents a significant step forward, putting in place important measures to reduce gun violence and reinforcing Canadian values because there is no 'right to own' guns in this country," Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control and a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, said in a statement.


While some polls show as many as two-thirds of Canadians support a national ban on handguns, which Bill C-21 does not propose, police associations have been less eager to back such a measure.

But even with a handgun "freeze," Chris Lewis, a public safety analyst and former commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, told CTV's Your Morning on Friday that adding more laws on lawful owners will not impact the criminals who don't care about those laws.

With the Nova Scotia mass shooting, which killed 22 people including a pregnant mother, he notes that the gunman acquired those firearms illegally from the United States.

"I don't own any guns any more at all, but if we're going to focus, let's focus on the right things: criminals, smuggling, the people who shouldn't have guns," he said.

Evan Bray, chief of the Regina Police Service and co-chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's firearms committee, told on Thursday that the association supports a national approach to any firearm, as opposed to one that leaves it up to provinces or municipalities to figure out.

But while he sees positive aspects to Bill C-21 — such as new firearm offences, stronger border controls and penalties for smuggling, and prohibiting the sale of certain replica firearms — others, while well intentioned, may be missing the mark.

"The majority of the problems we're having with firearms are people who are using them for a criminal purpose and most times are not lawful and law-abiding handgun owners or firearm owners," he said.

In response to the announcement of Bill C-21, the CACP released a statement stressing this point.

"We believe that a handgun freeze is one method of reducing access to these types of firearms, while allowing existing law-abiding handgun owners to practise their sport," the statement said.

"However, we continue to maintain that restricting lawful handgun ownership will not meaningfully address the real issue: illegal handguns obtained from the United States that have led to the disturbing current trend in gun violence that is largely related to gangs, street gangs, and more sophisticated organized crime groups."

Even if governments wanted to make tracing of guns used in crimes mandatory, Bray says this will require more resources. The Canadian National Firearms Tracing Centre, he says, traces an estimated six to 10 per cent of all guns that were seized after being used in crimes in Canada.

"I think we have to be aware if we want to do it, it will take a national commitment to this and something that we're all agreeing to and focusing on," he said.


"It sucks," Tony Bernardo, executive director of the 37,000-member Canadian Shooting Sports Association, told in a phone interview on Thursday.

He called the bill a "knee-jerk reaction" to the problems in the United States, calling proposed legislation "spin and talking points."

"Laws affect the lawful, it's that simple," he said.

Tracey Wilson, vice-president of public relations and club outreach for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights and a registered lobbyist, told in a phone interview on Friday that while the bill contains measures that could be valuable, it also has provisions she argues would be ineffective.

The coalition has approximately 40,000 paid members and a roughly equal number of financial supporters who are non-members, she says.

When it comes to the handgun "freeze" specifically, gun rights advocates say the measure solely affects licensed firearm owners rather than criminals.

Beyond some concerns about the system being abused, they also say they aren't opposed to red and yellow flag laws, but that a process already exists.

A person, they say, can call police or the Canadian Firearms Program to report someone who appears to be a risk to themselves or others and have that person's firearms seized.

Bray also told that police officers have the ability now to apply to revoke someone's licence and seize their firearms if that person is involved in a volatile situation such as a domestic assault or may be a risk to themselves.

But the legislation, he says, would make that response more proactive, as opposed to waiting for something bad to happen before making a decision.

For sport shooting, under Bill C-21, individuals could sell or transfer their registered handguns to "authorized high-performance sport shooting athletes and coaches."

But part of the concern for sport shooters, gun advocates say, is that gun retailers likely won't keep or import stock to satisfy a couple dozen or even a couple hundred people.

"We have up and coming athletes now who may not be on Team Canada yet, but that's it. Their future is now over," Wilson said.

Both organizations say they plan to testify to the House and Senate committees reviewing the bill as it makes its way through Parliament.

The Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights is also fighting the "assault-style" weapons ban in federal court.

Weapons seized during several gang-related arrests are displayed during a police news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on March 6, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck


The gun advocates spoke to highlight other measures they say would help address gun violence, including tackling socioeconomic and drug issues, greater investments in the RCMP and CBSA to address the flow of guns at the border, including by rail, and stricter rules on repeat firearm offenders.

Although the bill would raise the maximum sentence on offences such as gun smuggling to 14 years, critics say those who are convicted rarely get the maximum sentence anyway.

They also pointed to Bill C-5, which the federal government introduced in December that would remove mandatory minimum sentences for a number of firearm offences.

The federal government says the purpose is to address the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples, as well as Black and marginalized Canadians.

The Supreme Court of Canada also has struck down certain drug and firearm mandatory minimums as unconstitutional.

In 2015, the court struck down the three-year mandatory minimum for a first offence of possessing a loaded prohibited gun, as well as the five-year minimum for a second offence.


Gun stores from across the country have reported a rapid increase in handgun sales following the federal government's announcement, before those purchases are made illegal.

Many licensed firearm owners are also going through the process of transferring their handguns down to their licensed adult children before that too is banned, so they may last at least one more generation.

Wilson says this is something she has done herself and is counselling others to do.


Unlike the federal government's planned buy-back of "assault-style" firearms, no announcement has been made on whether gun owners will be compensated for their handguns, which they would be unable to sell under the current bill.

Wilson says there are somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 "assault-style" rifles in Canada, but approximately 1.2 million registered handguns.

Even if a buy-back were announced for handguns, "the logistics are just impossible," she says.

"So once again, retailers would be absolutely decimated by this," Wilson said.

"Mostly, these are small businesses, family-owned businesses, so yes, I've been encouraging licensed gun owners, if you can go out and get whatever you can now in an effort to relieve the retailers and small businesses of the burden of having the impact of that freeze."

On the federal buy-back program for "assault-style" weapons, Bray says the CACP will always applaud efforts federally or provincially to try to enhance safety.

But what he will be watching for is what role police services will play in the program, which he suspects will fall under enforcement.

A handgun manufacturer product is displayed at the CANSEC trade show in Ottawa on May 28, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick


On top of the proposed legislation, the federal government says it will also require long-gun magazines be permanently altered so they can never hold more than five rounds.

This adds another complication that Bernardo argues the federal government hasn't considered fully.

This would affect firearms with tubular magazines that, unlike a box that snaps in at the bottom of a firearm, runs underneath the barrel.

Altering this would be either incredibly costly or impossible, Bernardo says.

Maximum magazine capacity is generally five cartridges for most semi-automatic, centre-fire long guns — centre-fire refers to a cartridge, or single round of ammunition, where the primer or ignition component is in the centre.

Many models are imported from other countries that have larger capacity magazines. In this case, Wilson says a gun owner would have a metal device, similar to a rivet or pin, professional installed to ensure it can't hold more than five rounds.

An exception to the rule is for certain rifles that use smaller cartridges, such as a .22-calibre, which would be used for shooting small game or target shooting.

The issue, Wilson says, is whether those types of rifles will be exempt or be made illegal. Hunters, ranchers and farmers also use a lot of tube-fed rifles, she says.

"That would be absolutely devastating, that would be a hunting gun ban," Wilson said.



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