Quebec mosque attack survivors demand ban on assault weapons

Muslim community, still coping with last year's deadly shooting, calls for outright ban on assault rifles in Canada.

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    Quebec mosque attack survivors demand ban on assault weapons
    A bullet hole is pictured at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City [File: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters]

    Montreal, Canada - Boufeldja Benabdallah knows the shooting at his mosque could have been much worse.

    When a gunman entered the largest mosque in Quebec City on January 29, 2017, with an assault weapon and a handgun, he intended to kill as many people as possible, said Benabdallah, president of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre.

    But Alexandre Bissonnette's assault weapon jammed.

    "It's a weapon of war; it wasn't a toy or a hunting rifle," said Benabdallah. "If it hadn't jammed, he would have created a carnage 10 times worse because he would have killed everyone inside [the mosque]."

    Bissonnette began his attack with a .223-calibre VZ58, a semi-automatic, Czech rifle that is legal in Canada and can be equipped with large-capacity magazines.

    He also had two 30-cartridge magazines in his possession, which are illegal.

    Canadian laws currently limit magazines to five or 10 bullets, depending on the firearm.

    When the weapon jammed on the first shot, Bissonnette switched to a nine-millimetre handgun, which he reloaded four times with 10-bullet magazines.

    Bissonnette ultimately killed six men, seriously injured five others, and left the Muslim community in Quebec and Canada in shock.

    Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six first-degree murder charges and six attempted murder charges in March.

    The shooting lasted less than two minutes. 

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    "He fired 48 [bullets]," said Benabdallah, who, along with the Muslim community in Quebec City, is now calling on the Canadian government to pass a law banning assault weapons outright across the country.

    In a letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month, the community also demanded a prohibition on the sale of large-capacity magazines, which can be easily modified to allow a shooter to discharge them in their entirety.

    "As a community, we experienced this tragedy. We don't want our society - Canadian and Quebec society - to experience the same thing with these weapons of war," Benabdallah told Al Jazeera.

    New gun law proposed

    Last week, Canada's public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, told reporters the federal government would look into the mosque attack survivors' proposal.

    However, Goodale said including an outright ban on assault rifles in the federal government's new gun-control legislation, proposed in March, would mean "a complete change" to the firearms classification system in Canada's Criminal Code.

    All guns are currently classified as either non-restricted, restricted or prohibited in Canada.

    "What they would be proposing is a fourth category, which would be ... not just a prohibition or a restriction, but an outright ban. That would take a complete revision of that whole approach in the Criminal Code," Goodale said.

    "I'm prepared to hear out their argument, and obviously, we're interested in improving public safety in every way we can, but that would restructure the whole system."

    Currently, Canadian residents must obtain a licence to buy any type of gun or ammunition.

    Most long guns are categorised as non-restricted, while handguns and semi-automatic firearms that have a barrel less than 470mm long are restricted. Automatic weapons, as well as rifles and shotguns that have had their barrels sawed off, or are otherwise modified, are prohibited.

    Restricted and prohibited firearms must be registered separately, under what is called a firearm possession and acquisition license (PAL), which is valid for five years.

    These licenses are only issued for specific purposes, including target practice, shooting competitions, or as part of a collection. Applicants must be over 18 and have passed additional firearms safety courses and background checks carried out by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

    A man attends a tribute to victims killed at a Quebec City mosque [File: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters] 

    Earlier this year, Trudeau's Liberal government introduced new legislation that would mandate stricter background checks for people seeking to purchase guns in Canada and force vendors to keep proper records of gun inventory and sales.

    The government said Bill C-71 would help stem an increase in gun crimes, which it said jumped by 30 percent between 2013 and 2016.

    "With this legislation and our other measures, we are taking concrete steps to make our country less vulnerable to the scourge of gun violence, while being fair to responsible, law-abiding firearms owners and businesses," Goodale said at the time.

    Criticised for going too far - and not far enough

    Heidi Rathjen, a survivor of a 1989 shooting at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique that left 14 women dead, said Bill C-71 is "a step in the right direction".

    Now a member of gun control advocacy group Poly Se Souvient [Poly Remembers], she welcomed many provisions of the bill, but said it does not include a requirement to register private firearms sales, which gives people "the opportunity to divert guns to criminals".

    She added that the biggest disappointment is that it does not ban assault weapons outright.

    "We find ourselves today in a situation where virtually all the assault weapons used in recent mass killings in the US are all legally available in Canada for private possession for recreational purposes," Rathjen told Al Jazeera.

    Since non-restricted firearms are not registered in and of themselves - the gun owners need a permit, but permits are not linked to a specific weapon - Rathjen said the firearms currently "circulate and nobody knows about it".

    "There's no information about how many there are, what kind, who owns them, where they're circulating, who's selling them to whom. There's, for all intents and purposes, no control on these weapons," she said.

    Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control, which was also established after the Polytechnique killings, also welcomed the stronger licensing provisions and checks on firearms sales included in Bill C-71.

    However, Cukier said "stronger measures are desperately needed," in a statement after the bill was introduced.

    According to an online survey conducted by H+K Strategies in February, 47 percent of Canadians believed licensing regulations and rules over access to guns were not strict enough.

    Eighty-three percent of people said they supported a ban on the personal possession of military assault weapons and sniper rifles, while 62 percent said they supported banning civilians from owning handguns.

    Still, while Rathjen and Cukier say Bill C-71 doesn't go far enough, the legislation has also been criticised by pro-gun lobbyists.

    "This bill is an all-out attack on firearms owners and users," said Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association, in a statement.

    The NFA, which says it counts more than 70,000 members across Canada, has vowed to defeat parliament members who vote in favour of Bill C-71.

    "We will be putting pressure on them to do the right thing and vote against Trudeau's new firearms bill," Clare said.

    Erosion of Canada's gun laws

    While Canada is often lauded on its gun control laws when compared with its southern neighbour, the United States, Rathjen said the country remains behind where it was only a decade ago.

    Under Stephen Harper, who was prime minister for nearly 10 years until his Conservative government was defeated in the 2015 elections, Canada eliminated several gun control measures that had been in place since the late 1970s.

    The Conservatives ended registration requirements for rifles and shotguns (unrestricted firearms) under a 2012 law, and they also destroyed data on millions of long guns that were previously registered under a federal Long Gun Registry.

    The registry, which linked licensed owners to their firearms, was established after years of public pressure following the Polytechnique shooting. In 2011, just before it was scrapped, 7.8 million guns were registered in Canada, the vast majority of which were non-restricted, CBC reported at the time.

    "The result is that today a licensed gun owner can purchase dozens of unrestricted firearms and no record is kept of purchased guns," Canadian public policy experts David Rodier and Elliott Gauthier recently explained.

    The Harper government also transferred the decision-making power over the classification of firearms from the RCMP to the public safety minister, raising concerns over possible political interference in Canada's gun laws.

    "It was a huge loss to see the dismantling of what was built," Rathjen said about the Harper government.

    Ultimately, she said Ottawa should make sure its gun laws do not allow people to have access to deadly weapons, as was the case in the mosque attack.

    "It's up to the government to find a solution and fix this. All we know is these weapons shouldn't be in the hands of ordinary civilians," she said.

    That's a sentiment that was echoed by Benabdallah in Quebec City, who called on the government to take gun control more seriously - and enact an assault weapon ban immediately.

    "These are extremely dangerous weapons, and we don't need them in Canada," Benabdallah said. "Never, never, never."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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