Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has shot down one of the first e-petitions to go before Canada's Parliament, saying it has no plans to change the restricted status of the popular Armalite AR-15 rifle.
In a response to the petition, quietly tabled in the House of Commons this summer while it wasn't sitting, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he has "no intention" of invoking a section of Canada's criminal code to reclassify the firearm as unrestricted.
Goodale said police should be the ones to decide how each firearm in Canada is classified.
An "AR-15 style" rifle is displayed at the Firing-Line indoor range and gun shop in Aurora, Colo. in July 2012. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
"The government is committed to putting decision-making authority about weapons classification back into the hands of police, not politicians," wrote Goodale, pointing out that the government believes in striking a balance between public safety and ensuring firearms owners are treated fairly under the law.
"The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is responsible for the technical determination of the classification of firearms in accordance with the criteria stipulated by Parliament in the Criminal Code."
25,000 signatures gathered online
Goodale's comments come in response to an e-petition launched by Marc Bennett of Corner Brook, N.L., and sponsored by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer. The petition, calling on the government to reclassify the AR-15 as unrestricted, garnered 25,249 signatures.
It is legal to own the AR-15, although its restricted status means that gun owners must have a restricted firearms licence and are only supposed to use them for specified purposes, such as target shooting at an approved club or range.
The petition points out that the AR-15 is popular with gun owners, many of whom believe it was classified as a restricted firearm based more on its cosmetic appearance. They say it is no more dangerous than many other, non-restricted rifles.
"This rifle is the most versatile hunting rifle in the world," the petitioners wrote. "The calibre can easily be changed to meet lawful provincial hunting requirements from small game to big game animals, without the need to purchase multiple gaming rifles."
However, the AR-15 has become a lightning rod in the debate over gun control, after it was used in a number of mass shootings in the United States like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.
Variant of military rifle
Goodale said the AR-15 is restricted because it is "a named variant of the restricted M-16 rifle.
"The AR-15 is restricted because of its lineage to the military-issued M-16 assault rifle," he wrote.
Gun advocates were quick to criticize Goodale's decision.
Tony Bernardo of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association said he expected the government to be "intransigent" and refuse to reclassify the AR-15 because he says it is a "no win" issue for the Liberals. He said he is particularly disturbed about the government's decision to leave firearm classification to police.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale speaks to media in Ottawa in 2016. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
"What is very concerning is that we'll let the police decide what our firearms laws are," he said. "The last time I looked, we elected parliamentarians to the House of Commons to decide what our laws are, not police officers."
"Police officers jobs are to enforce the law — not create it."
Gun control advocates, however, applaud Goodale's position.
"I think that's an appropriate decision," said Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control.
"Most countries around the world, at least industrialized countries, prohibit civilian access to the AR-15 because it is a military weapon," she said. "So the fact that it is even available on a restricted basis in Canada, from our perspective, is a problem."
Firearms a hot button issue
As Parliament prepares to resume sitting later this month, the fate of the AR-15 may be the least of the government's problems when it comes to firearms.
The Liberals made a series of promises during the election, many of which would tighten up Canada's gun rules. In their first few months in office, however, they do not appear to have made much headway in fulfilling those promises.
Scott Bardsley, spoksman for Goodale, said the government is working to develop a strategy to reduce gang violence and make it harder for criminals to acquire and use handguns and assault weapons.
"We are also committed to continuing to make major investments in social infrastructure to address social roots of violence."
While the federal government doesn't plan to recreate a gun registry, officials are helping the Quebec government, which plans to create its own registry, he said.
The government's firearms advisory committee is currently in limbo. Previous members, like Bernardo, were told in December that their mandates had expired, but new members have not been named.
UN marking system
Bernardo said the biggest issue in coming months for gun advocates will be the prospect of Canada implementing proposed United Nations regulations on the marking of firearms.
"The United Nations firearms marking system, the deadline for implementation on that is June 1, 2017," Bernardo said. "Its implementation will be absolutely ruinous to the firearms industry, yet there doesn't seem to be any intention of changing that implementation date."
Bernardo said there is also concern over a recent decision to turn a particular type of magazine for .22 rifles into a prohibited device.
"They took a magazine for a .22, just a regular .22 – as a matter of fact, the most popular .22 rifle ever made — and they have made 1.25 million magazines for this rifle that are in Canada now — into prohibited devices. And these prohibited devices, if you're caught with them, can carry a jail term of up to 10 years in jail."
Meanwhile, gun control advocates like Cukier want the Liberal government to start making good on its election promises.
"To give them the benefit of the doubt, they have had a very, very full legislative agenda. They have had a number of issues that they had not anticipated. So I think, on balance, it's understandable that perhaps this wasn't one of the first things that they did during their mandate but we're really looking forward to action this fall."
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