Madam Speaker, happy new year to you and to all my colleagues joining us virtually from around the country. It is a pleasure to see everyone and to reconnect in this format.
I am pleased to speak today on Bill C-238, which was introduced by the member for Markham—Unionville in February of last year and would propose to amend the Criminal Code, as we have heard throughout the discussions this morning.
First of all, I applaud the laudable objective of curbing illegal gun activity and I appreciate that the sponsor sees these measures as important for targeting organized criminal activity. Violence through firearms poses a real and significant public safety risk to many communities, including those that have experienced mass shootings. Nevertheless, I am of the view that this bill should not be supported, and I will explain why.
The government has repeatedly acknowledged that gun violence and gun crime is an increasing problem in Canadian society that needs to be addressed with a comprehensive strategy. This was recently reiterated in the Speech from the Throne in September of 2020. That is why the mandate letters of the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Public Safety have committed to the implementation of a robust set of firearms amendments, including the imposition of stronger penalties for gun smuggling. It is also why the government has already taken concrete steps to curb firearms violence, including the May 1, 2020, prohibition on military-style assault rifles with a two-year Criminal Code amnesty and a buyback program.
On May 1, 2020, the government delivered on its commitment regarding military-style assault weapons by implementing a regulation banning 1,500 models of assault-style firearms that pose a significant threat to public safety and are not necessary for hunting or sport shooting.
The government also issued an order to give law-abiding firearms owners a two-year amnesty period to protect them from criminal liability while they take steps to comply with the act. By so doing, the government was clear: It took measures to enhance public safety while reducing unnecessary risk for the public. As part of these measures, the government also sought to guarantee that law-abiding firearms owners would not be punished.
I strongly believe that this balanced and comprehensive approach is preferable to the narrower approach proposed by the bill. The illegal firearms market in Canada is primarily supplied by smuggled firearms or firearms stolen from private residents or commercial establishments. Given its proximity to Canada, the United States is the primary source of firearms for Canada, particularly handguns smuggled into Canada. The majority of illegal firearms in the U.S. originate in the U.S., but may occasionally come from other countries, such as Canada.
Reducing firearms smuggling into Canada is a key part in the fight to reduce access to illegal firearms in this country. Smuggled firearms that make their way into communities are a serious public safety issue and can be used to commit serious offences tied to organized crime. Bill C-238 proposes to increase the maximum penalty and the mandatory minimum penalty of imprisonment for the possession of a smuggled firearm, prohibited weapon or other object. Bill C-238 would also impose a reverse onus on an accused in an application for judicial interim release, more commonly known as bail, when the accused is charged with the possession of a smuggled weapon. This means that unless the accused can demonstrate why their pretrial detention was not justified, they would remain in custody pending trial.
While the objectives of the private member's bill are well intentioned in that they propose to address firearms crime among other things, the government does not support the bill, as it raises serious legal and policy concerns, some of which have been addressed by earlier speakers. Given the scope of the offence, I am very concerned that the increased mandatory minimum penalties would lead to significant charter scrutiny, but just as important, mandatory minimum penalties generally produce system inefficiencies and delays in the criminal justice system. They are also known to have disproportionately negative impacts on indigenous peoples, Black and other visible minority Canadians, something that should be of key concern to all parliamentarians as we confront and seek to address the systemic racism that is pernicious in the criminal justice system.
In addition, the reverse onus would be novel in the current bail regime and would treat accused persons charged with the same offence differently, depending on how the possessed firearm was illegally obtained.
The government has been in the process of considering these important issues for quite some time. In October of 2018, the Minister of Public Safety began a series of consultations with Canadians on the issue of handguns and assault-style firearms. The consultations included eight in-person round tables with 77 stakeholders' written submissions, and almost 135,000 Canadians responded to an online questionnaire. The summary report published on April 11, 2019, indicated that Canadians believe that a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach is needed to combat firearms violence in Canada. Of note, firearms smuggling and border security were identified as among the most prominent concerns of Canadians.
The government has comprehensively set out a path forward to address gun violence, including banning assault-style firearms, providing an amnesty period and a firearms buy-back program, and working with provinces and territories to give municipalities the ability to further restrict or ban handguns. The government has taken other measures, such as the establishment of reporting legislation or a type of red alert to make it easier to remove firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others, and measures to combat gun smuggling and trafficking.
Recently, in the Speech from the Throne of September 23, 2020, the government reiterated its commitment to combat firearms smuggling.
When the Minister of Public Safety announced the ban, he also announced that the government would be introducing other measures to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, including increasing safe storage requirements and strengthening the law around firearms smuggling and trafficking. The government has made funding of up to $327 million available over five years through the initiative to take action against gun and gang violence, combat gun-related violence and gang activities, including by supporting law enforcement in community-led projects focused on prevention.
It is my understanding that more than $200 million is now flowing directly to the provinces and territories to target initiatives that best meet the unique needs of individual communities to advance efforts in the areas of prevention, gang exit, outreach and awareness training, as well as enhanced intelligence sharing and law enforcement capacity. With the funding allocations, jurisdictions have made investments to support new law enforcement activities, including specialized training and education initiatives and improving data collection and information sharing.
As far as reducing gun violence is concerned, the government knows that a comprehensive approach must also include measures to remove from the market guns that present the biggest danger to public safety, as well as a combination of measures on the criminal use of firearms, including preventive measures and law enforcement, as well as harsher sentences.
Although the laudable objectives of this bill may be well-intentioned, I remain of the view that a more comprehensive approach, with the benefit of parliamentary review and debate in both Houses, would be the more appropriate course of action. I urge all members, therefore, to oppose this bill.