By Trevor Busch
Westwind Weekly News
The federal government’s recent decision to ban 1,500 makes and models of “assault-style” weapons in Canada doesn’t sit well with Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, who attacked the move for targeting law-abiding gun owners rather than organized crime or weapons smugglers.
“It’s not even a plan right now that the federal government has put together,” said Schweitzer. “I think this just demonstrates their lack of understanding when it comes to firearms and where the problems are in the criminal justice system. If you take a look at firearms use and crimes, the vast majority of the firearms used are illegally imported from the United States. Over 80 per cent of the firearms used are coming from the U.S., and the vast majority of these crimes are by people who do not have licenses for firearms.”
Announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 1, it immediately restricted licensed gun owners from selling, transporting, importing or using these kinds of weapons in future. A two-year amnesty period is intended to allow people who legally own these firearms to comply with the ban.
Emphasizing Alberta’s targeted approach to the problem of illegal weapons and gun crime through Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT), Schweitzer believes the federal government needs to make a fact-based assessment of the problem rather than singling out legal gun owners.
“So that’s why we’ve been stressing the fact that we need to be investing in organizations like the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams to go after organized crime, go after these groups that want to bring in illegal guns and sell them on the streets. That’s where the problem is, that’s where these firearms uses are happening that are leading to people being shot. So really what the federal government has done here is completely outside of the scope of the facts, as to how crimes are being committed in our country.”
Schweitzer hasn’t been favourably impressed by federal promises to pass legislation related to compensation for gun owners. The ban was enacted through an order-in-council from cabinet and not legislation, while a lack of consultation is troubling, says the justice minister.
“We warned the federal government earlier this year. We told them when all the justice ministers met in Victoria in January that they needed to tred softly, they needed to come into Alberta, they needed to consult widely — and they completely ignored our advice. And now we have a policy that hasn’t even been thought through. They claim there’s going to be a buy-back, but there’s no clarity on the buy-back. They claim that they’re going to pass legislation, but right now they’re in a minority government and Parliament is not sitting regularly, and we have no idea what the program is going to look like.”
This kind of top-down approach is symptomatic of poor policy at the federal level, asserts Schweitzer. Enacting the ban had been a Liberal Party campaign promise in the most recent election.
“So here you have people that on April 30 were law-abiding citizens with firearms and licenses, and come May 1 they can’t use their firearms any longer. So really this is just an attempt by the federal government to bring in policy that has just not been well thought through.”
Redeploying efforts toward what Schweitzer believes is the real root of the problem — illegal firearms trafficking — would pay far greater dividends than a blanket federal ban.
“That’s exactly what we’ve been saying all along: the licensed firearms owners are law-abiding citizens, the problem comes with illegal firearms being brought into the country, and organized crime. That’s where the focus needs to be. A joint effort to make our streets safer, that’s where the resources should be deployed. Right now what the federal government is doing is completely misguided, so I just think that this is wrong policy, and that’s what we’ve been hearing across Alberta. In our province we see guns and drugs being brought off the streets, a lot of the time through collaboration with Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams in collaboration with local law enforcement. We think that’s where the emphasis should be, and that’s what we’ve been doing at the provincial level.”
Schweitzer described the reaction from gun shops and sellers in the province in one word.
“Frustration. And justified frustration in what the federal government is doing here. They’ve come to us looking for solutions, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re taking a hard look right now at putting in place a chief firearms officer appointed by the Province of Alberta. Based off of that feedback, we want to make sure we have a consistent approach from policing in enforcing firearms policy, as well as at the prosecution level. So we’re working right now with our prosecution service at the provincial level to make sure we have a consistent approach. The last thing I want to see is a whole bunch of folks that are law-abiding citizens in our province victimized by bad policy at the federal level. So I want to make sure we have a compliance-focused, education-focused policy here in the Province of Alberta, and do our best to work with — what I would say is a bad federal policy — at the provincial level.”
Similarly at the grassroots level in rural Alberta, Schweitzer has been hearing negative feedback from constituents and voters.
“What I’ve been hearing from law-abiding gun owners is they feel like they’re being targeted. They feel that this is a policy that’s designed for downtown Toronto, and it just doesn’t apply, particularly in rural Alberta, but also in the cities as well. They just feel like they’re being targeted unfairly, they’re law abiding, they know how to handle and properly take care of their firearms, and they feel like they’re being targeted for the wrong reasons.”
A full listing of the banned firearms is available through the Canada Gazette. All Canadians must be in compliance with the law by April 2022, or could face sanctions under the Criminal Code.