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Ottawa plans to launch controversial firearms buyback program during election year

Ottawa is planning to roll out a mandatory buyback program for military-style firearms during the 2025 election year, after the program was delayed by Canada Post’s refusal to participate, sources say.

With only months to go before its launch, details of the vast logistical operation remain in flux, federal officials have told Radio-Canada.

The government likely will need to adapt the program on a province-by-province basis, due to its struggle to find partners willing to collect and transport AR-15s and other weapons that were banned in 2020.

Under the terms of that ban, an estimated 140,000 weapons in Canada cannot be used or sold until the government buys them back.

“No one is rushing to participate in the program,” said a federal government source who was not authorized to comment on the matter publicly.

The Liberals are planning to launch the program next year, even though their minority government will face confidence votes on its spring budget and the election must be called by September.

The Conservative Party and its leader Pierre Poilievre are firmly opposed to the buyback program, as are the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

One expert said the government is leaving itself little room to manoeuvre, given the risk of logistical problems, high costs and tensions with gun owners.

“The government will be facing problems that could slow down the implementation of the buyback program. It’s a risky move for the Liberals,” said Frédéric Boily, professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

An Alberta flag and a pro-firearms flag are displayed outside a rural residence near Crossfield, Alta., Tuesday, June 13, 2023.
An Alberta flag and a pro-firearms flag are displayed outside a rural residence near Crossfield, Alta., Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa has been promising to launch this program ever since it banned the sale and use of 1,500 models of firearms on May 1, 2020. The buyback plan has the support of the gun control movement but faces stiff opposition from hunters and shooters.

“This seems to be a situation in which the Liberals promised a lot, and maybe they promised too much,” said Boily.

The government had to go back to the drawing board after Canada Post refused to collect banned weapons at its post offices, citing security concerns.

Canada Post is refusing to comment on the matter but sources within the organization said many post offices have little security, with no alarm systems or surveillance cameras.

“Zero,” said a Canada Post employee when asked to describe security at his post office in a small municipality. “The government is crazy if it thinks we can do this safely.”

A small rural post office in Quebec's Laurentians region.
A small rural post office in Quebec’s Laurentians region. (Philippe-Antoine Saulnier/Radio-Canada)

Ottawa was hoping gun owners would pack their unloaded weapons in boxes provided to them before bringing them back to Canada Post to be transported and destroyed.

But many warned that thieves would exploit lax security at post offices to steal high-powered weapons that fetch high prices on the black market.

Canada Post also worried about employees being exposed to angry confrontations with people who do not want to give up their guns.

In a media statement, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers said “our members’ health and safety must be a priority.”

Several government sources say Ottawa is still considering options to collect the banned weapons.

Ottawa might ask police for help with buyback program

Sources said Ottawa could vary how it runs the program regionally, depending on the willingness of provincial governments and local police to participate.

The government is looking at the possibility of working with law enforcement to collect weapons, despite the stated opposition to the program of some police groups and police chiefs. The provincial police services in Quebec and Ontario could be called upon to take part, said a federal source.

Sources also said the government is aware that using police officers to operate the buyback program is not the most effective use of policing resources; the federal government is considering the idea of ​​hiring private security firms.

The government is also considering creating “drop-off points” where owners could return their weapons.

A gun is displayed after being destroyed using a hydraulic press during a firearm buy-back collection event on July 04, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand.
A gun is displayed after being destroyed using a hydraulic press during a firearm buy-back collection event on July 04, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In New Zealand, where a semi-automatic buyback program was implemented in 2019, police organized hundreds of temporary collection points across the country where citizens could return their banned rifles.

Even though the government is reluctant to force Canada Post’s hand, sources said Ottawa still hopes the Crown corporation can be convinced to participate.

There are approximately 50,000 banned firearms in Alberta that will be hard to recover.

“No one wants to be involved in this program because it is so unpopular,” said Teri Bryant, Alberta’s chief firearms officer. “I don’t see any way it can be done.”

The Liberals promised in both the 2019 and 2021 elections to buy back assault or military-style weapons. Its credibility on gun control could be damaged if it does not launch its buyback program by the next election.

A candle, rose and white ribbon at a vigil on the 30th anniversary of the 1989 École Polytechnique tragedy Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 in Ottawa.
A candle, rose and white ribbon at a vigil on the 30th anniversary of the 1989 École Polytechnique tragedy on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 in Ottawa. (CBC)

A survivor of the 1989 gun massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal said she wants the program to be in place in time for the next anniversary commemoration.

“You know, in December, it will be the 35th anniversary of the events at Polytechnique. For us, it is necessary for the buyback program to be in place and active,” said Nathalie Provost of the PolyRemembers group, which lobbies for tougher gun control in Canada.

Federal Liberals in Quebec, in particular, want the government to do everything in its power to fulfil its promise before the next election, sources said.

“There are progressive votes that we need,” said a Liberal source. “It’s going to happen.”

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