Trudeau pledges tougher gun control as he tries to get campaign back on track

TORONTO — Politicians sending "thoughts and prayers" to victims of gun crimes just won't cut it anymore, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Friday as he pledged a ban on military-style assault rifles as part of a broader gun-control plan.

The highly anticipated pledge included a promise to work with provinces to give cities more powers to restrict and ban handguns, as well as reviewing rules on how guns are marketed, advertised and sold.

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The pledge to ban assault rifles includes outlawing the semi-automatic AR-15, the weapon used in many recent U.S. mass shootings, a buy-back program for legally purchased assault rifles and a two-year amnesty while the program is set up.

"We know you do not need a military-grade assault weapon — one designed to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time — to take down a deer," Trudeau said in front of a riser with candidates from across the city.

Trudeau also promised not to revive the long-gun registry set up by the Chretien Liberals, which was the previous Conservative government scrapped, sounding a note to law-abiding hunters.

Although firearm-related incidents made up only three per cent of violent crime in 2017, based on Statistics Canada data, the preceding four years saw a significant increase in gun-related violent crime in Canada's major cities. In response, municipalities have asked for more tools.

The announcement in Toronto's Greektown neighbourhood, where a gunman killed two people and wounded 13 others last year, touched on an issue of high interest for the city's voters who hold the key to the region critical for the Liberals' re-election bid.

Ken Price, whose daughter Samantha was shot in the rampage, suggested the pledge was helpful, but not sweeping enough: "As a group of families, we think he didn't go far enough. If you don't ban handguns now, you'll pay for it later. Handguns don't really belong in the hands of private citizens."

Likewise, the group PolySeSouvient, which pushes for stricter gun control, welcome the pledge to outlaw assault-style rifles, but warned that banning handguns in some, but not all, municipalities would not work.

"Indeed, all one has to do is look at the glaring disaster south of the border resulting from a patchwork of state and local gun laws, where handguns easily transit from one jurisdiction to another, to see how misguided this approach is," said Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of the group that includes students and graduates of the Polytechnique engineering school, where a gunman targeted women in a 1989 spree.

Danielle Kane, who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the Danforth shooting at point-blank range, said Trudeau's proposal has her vote. Anything less than what the Liberals are promising is unacceptable, she said, "because no one should have to live through what I'm living through right now: the pain, the misery, the burden."

The Liberals tried Friday to paint the Conservatives and their leader Andrew Scheer of, in Trudeau's words, wanting to "gut Canada's gun control laws."

Liberal social media accounts spread a 2017 video of Scheer telling a Canadian Shooting Sports Association fundraiser that said he hoped to win the party leadership so he could "go shoot something" with Faith Goldy — a far-right political activist who has been banned from Facebook for spreading hate.

Speaking in Saint John, N.B., Scheer said Conservatives support "robust regimes around the ownership, sale and screening process" for legal guns to maximize public safety, but questioned the effectiveness of a blanket ban on certain types of firearms.

"What we've heard is, from police experts, that it's more effective, it will lead to safer communities if we use police resources to go after criminals and illegal firearms," he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh stressed the need to get at the deeper reasons why more Canadians are getting mixed up in violence.

"It's not enough to just provide the laws that allow municipalities that choose to do so to ban handguns," he said in the border town of Essex, Ont. "We need to move beyond that to looking at the root causes and how we can solve those as well."

Toronto Mayor John Tory welcomed the handgun proposal as a step forward, but called for tougher border controls on firearms, stricter criminal bail provisions, and investments in children and families to address the roots of urban violence.

The Canadian Shooting Sports Association said Trudeau's announcement raised more questions, including how the Liberals define "military-style assault weapon," or their role within crime. Executive director Tony Bernardo derided what he saw as the Liberals "disappointing, but typical" attack on lawful firearm owners.

"Canada's firearms community is the go-to 'whipping boy' of the Liberal party — guaranteed to deflect attention away from the latest Liberal scandal of Justin Trudeau's racist past," he said.

Liberal officials say the announcement was planned before this week's revelations about Trudeau's use of blackface as a student and late 20s, adding the hope is the event gets the campaign back on its original track.

Still, Trudeau couldn't escape the issue while walking along the Danforth. Greeting voters Friday morning, several people mentioned the blackface photos — some sympathetic, others not so much.

"Hey, where's your blackface, man?" one man shouted to the Liberal leader as he waited at a traffic light. Trudeau only smiled with a reserved expression in return.

— With files from Liam Casey, Allison Jones, Jim Bronskill, and Mia Rabson

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2019.

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