Federal Gun Bill Raises Constitutional Questions on Jurisdiction

February 24, 2021 Updated: February 24, 2021

New federal legislation to further restrict long guns would allow municipalities to have their own gun bylaws, while legislative attempts in Alberta and Saskatchewan to keep municipalities from enacting such laws have raised constitutional questions.

Bill C-21, tabled on Feb. 16, amends federal firearms laws. Although the sweeping legislation doesn’t cover handguns, it empowers municipalities to pass bylaws on handguns, such as prohibiting storage at home or anywhere within their municipal boundaries and limiting their transport to or from the municipality.

Dwight Newman, a law professor and Canada research chair at the University of Saskatchewan, told The Epoch Times that this is an unusual aspect of the bill.

“There’s something very strange about the federal government engaging directly with municipalities on this kind of issue when municipalities are themselves constitutionally creatures of the provincial governments,” he said.

Saskatchewan passed legislation last June to prevent municipalities from making their own gun laws. A private member’s bill introduced in Alberta on Dec. 8, 2020, seeks to do the same. Alberta intends to follow Saskatchewan’s lead by appointing its own chief firearms officer to interpret and enforce federal gun laws.

“The government of Alberta is committed to protecting public safety and ensuring law-abiding firearms owners are respected,” Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said in a Nov. 9 press release.

“Recent legislation announced by the federal government would punish hard-working farmers, hunters, and other lawful gun owners, while failing to address the true problem: the flow of illegal firearms throughout Canada from south of the border.”

Newman believes provincial jurisdiction will prevail.

“I would tend to the view that the provincial legislation that governs municipalities would win out, but there’s going to be an argument about it,” he said.

Newman said he has already seen conflicting legal opinions on whether such federal laws could override the provinces. If the law passes, he expects that question will wind up in the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Part of why there’s so much difference of viewpoint is people are struggling to find any case just like this,” he said.

“The Canada Temperance Act allowed for municipalities to choose prohibition policies by local decision, and it did get upheld as valid federal legislation in 1896 and 1946. So that will be a precedent the federal government will try to invoke that might support its policy having priority over the provincial.”

The government says that the legislation, which includes a buyback program, aims to “combat intimate partner and gender-based violence and self-harm involving firearms, fight gun smuggling and trafficking, help municipalities create safer communities, give young people the opportunities and resources they need to resist resist lives of crime, [and] protect Canadians from gun violence.”

Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, believes Bill C-21 is not a regional issue but an extension of the past 30 years of gun laws.

“A lot of people forget that policy history for the long gun registry coming out of the Montreal massacre, where women were killed because they were women. Rural women know that when they face gun violence, it’s at the end of a long gun,” Thomas said.

“The Liberals put in the long gun registry after the long gun massacre and the Conservatives thought this was a bad idea. And so this is very much that particular partisan policy debate playing out through federalism.”

Thomas said it’s possible the Trudeau government could last long enough to pass the bill, and if not, it could campaign on it.

“That issue looks it would be more of an election winner for the Liberals … in places like Toronto, where the city has actually said that they want to be able to ban handguns inside the city.”

Rod Giltaca, CEO and executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, says the bill won’t help public safety.

“If they were to crack down on the border and crack down on the illegal proliferation of firearms, then they’re going to reduce those numbers far farther and more quickly than by constantly attacking licensed gun owners,” Giltaca said.

“A main issue is who is going to enforce these municipal bylaws while they are a federal criminal offence. Is it going to be bylaw officers or is it going to be the RCMP?”

Under current laws, anyone concerned about violence from a gun owner can ask police to seek orders from a judge to have that individual’s firearms removed. Bill C-21 would allow anyone to seek such orders.

“We’re not sure what effect this law would have, but it could be susceptible to abuse by the public or it could also have an undue burden on the courts,” Giltaca said.

The Liberals implemented a ban on assault rifles on May 1 following the Nova Scotia massacre. C-21 allows gun owners to keep such guns but bans any use or transfer of the weapon. However, the bill authorizes firearm use by security personnel at the Bank of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mint, as well as by any other Crown employee designated by the Governor-in-Council.