The introduction of Bill C-21, An Act to amend certain Acts and to make certain consequential amendments (firearms), in the House of Commons on February 16 included a provision that would allow municipalities to establish handgun bylaws.
The creation of a mechanism for municipal handgun ban doesn’t come as a surprise, as the federal government has been signaling the desire to do this since the last election.
What we didn’t know, however, was how they would actually bypass provinces to make it happen.
The reality is that they didn’t – and it’s because they couldn’t. The Canadian Constitution gives the provinces control over municipalities, so the powers of a municipality are completely dependent on what the province allows them to do. This includes bylaw-making authority.
HOW COULD MUNICIPAL HANDGUN BYLAWS ACTUALLY WORK?
The federal government has proposed to enable the municipal bylaws prescribed in Bill C-21 to be recognized as a condition on a federal firearms licence.
Those bylaws are: Prohibit storage at home (i.e. owners must store handguns at a licensed business); or, prohibit storage anywhere in a municipality, and transport to or from certain places in it.
After a municipality establishes one of these handgun bylaws, all impacted licence owners in the municipality would have 180 days to comply (from the time the federal Minister sends notice to confirm the bylaw as being consistent with the provisions of the Firearms Act). That’s assuming, of course, that the municipality is able to make AND enforce the bylaw under provincial law in the first place.
In Saskatchewan, the provincial government pre-empted this move at the federal level by passing legislation in 2020 that limited municipal bylaw-making authority to what the province allows through regulation. In Alberta, there is a Private Member’s Bill that would require provincial approval for any firearm-related bylaws.
SO, WHAT DOES THE HANDGUN BYLAW PROVISION OF BILL C-21 MEAN FOR ONTARIO?
To our knowledge, Ontario doesn’t have the legislative guidance that Saskatchewan has enacted or the oversight that Alberta is considering in order to prevent handgun bylaws. As of right now, The Municipal Act, 2001 in Ontario gives bylaw-making authority to municipalities, and public safety is one of the reasons that can be used. It is our understanding that the current legislation would allow for these handgun bans to be established and take effect in Ontario. We are working to confirm this with the Government of Ontario, and at the same time we are also making recommendations for how they can address our broader concerns with municipal firearms bylaws. More on that later.
WHAT IS OFAH DOING ABOUT IT?
We’ve taken a preliminary look at the municipal bylaw section of Bill C-21 and developed a backgrounder that is intended to help firearm owners understand what is being proposed and also guide our advocacy on Bill C-21. This will include advocacy during the parliamentary process for Bill C-21, as well as continuing discussions with the province about municipal firearms issues. And, that dialogue with the province didn’t start with Bill C-21 last week.
For decades, the OFAH has been the lead, and often only firearms stakeholder, when issues arise at the municipal level. Whether it is discharge of firearms bylaws, noise bylaws, or Sunday Gun Hunting discussions, the OFAH has been there for hundreds of firearms-related discussions with municipalities to debunk myths and clarify misconceptions that are all too common. The challenges we’ve faced with a lack of guidance or oversight over the years are now raising their ugly head again with the potential for Bill C-21’s handgun bylaws to contribute to an already inconsistent patchwork of overreaching municipal firearms rules. As the OFAH staff person responsible for most municipal policy issues, I have seen this time and again.
WHY IS THE OFAH TALKING ABOUT HANDGUNS?
We are often asked why the OFAH is involved in discussions about handguns and restricted firearms that can’t be used for hunting in Ontario. In short, handgun issues are often more than just handgun issues. It is difficult to disentangle restricted and non-restricted firearm interests in policy discussions. Even if the policy discussions are distinct, the public’s lack of knowledge about firearms (and associated policy) often brings the discussions back together. The most common example I have experienced is when public sentiments (including at municipal councils) call for semi-automatic bans without any concept of the connection to common hunting shotguns and rifles. The current proposal may be limited to handgun bylaws, but you can be sure that municipal discussions won’t stop there. Many councils will discuss other ways to restrict firearms at the municipal level and this will affect more than just handgun owners.
With these newly proposed bylaws, handgun interests fully intersect with the broader firearms bylaw-making concerns that continue to be a core issue for the Federation. Every year, the decisions at municipal councils affect all firearms owners and club firearm ranges, and we have long sought more consistency through provincial oversight. This is just one more example of a bigger issue we are facing as a firearms community.
The federal government has landed municipal firearms issues on the province’s doorstep, so we fully intend to use the heightened provincial awareness to expand the conversation beyond handguns. We are asking the Government of Ontario to fully examine municipal bylaw making authority under The Municipal Act, with an intent to provide more structured guidance and/or provincial oversight of decision-making for all firearms bylaws (not just handguns).
For more details, check out the OFAH Backgrounder: What the ‘municipal’ section of Bill C-21 could mean for Ontario.