Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taking aim at gun bylaws

City restrictions that prohibit the sale, display and promotion of firearms -- but allow musketry at Fort York -- called 'absurd'


The Battle of York, fought in what is now Toronto 196 years ago tomorrow, is sometimes billed as the most dramatic day in the history of Toronto.

But for legal, law-abiding gun owners here, the drama has returned with a vengeance.

Granted, 2,500 American troops aren't looting and burning their homes as they did on April 27, 1813, but legal gun owners in the city are under increasing fire just the same, and it's costing the city millions of dollars.

In the Battle of York, defended only by a small force of 800 British soldiers, militiamen and Natives, the town of York was ultimately surrendered to the Americans, who looted, burned and plundered the town for the next three days.

Today, at Fort York between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., to commemorate the battle, history buffs can walk the battlefield complete with English country dancing, costumed military re-enactors marching, playing music, and firing muskets.

For the City of Toronto, firing muzzle-loading reproduction black powder guns on city property is okay, but Olympic target shooters are a threat to public safety.

The hypocrisy isn't lost on some gun lobby groups, who agree musket demonstrations are completely appropriate to commemorate the Battle of York, but wonder how the city can reconcile the double standard.

Last year, city council passed a series of bylaws that prohibit the sale, display and promotion of firearms on city property, and Fort York is owned by the City of Toronto.

"Nobody is suggesting ... that demonstrations like this at Fort York shouldn't happen. They are part of our heritage, we recognize that, we celebrate that," said Greg Farrant, manager of government relations for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, which has more than 100,000 members across the province.

"But so too is hunting part of our heritage. Why there's a celebration of one aspect of our firearms heritage but a demonization of another part by the City of Toronto is mystifying."

In late March, the Toronto Sportsmen's Show announced they wouldn't hold the show at the city-owned Exhibition Place next year, but would move instead to the provincially owned Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Front St.

One of the key reasons, according to Ray Sriubiskis, vice-president of the Canadian National Sportsmen's Shows, was because the city's new policies would restrict the sale and promotion of guns at the show, which drew a crowd of 122,000 people this year.


Sriubiskis, too, thinks it's hypocritical of the city to promote the use of guns in a military context, but not for hunting or target shooting.

"Canada was built on the great outdoors. It's a very important part of our history, too, and we're denying that," he said. "We're trying to hide it, and that's a shame."

(In 2002, the province passed the Heritage Hunting and Fishing Act, which recognizes the importance hunting has played in shaping Ontario's social, cultural, and economic heritage. It also established hunting and fishing as a right.)

While the Sportsmen's Show gave the city $750,000 to use the Direct Energy Centre, Sriubiskis said the city's actual loss from the show's move could be "three times" that amount, including the food, labour, and parking revenues as well.

The city's new firearms bylaws, which not only ban the sale, display or promotion of guns, also restrict the creation of new shooting ranges anywhere in the city, not just on city property, and also ban companies from assembling, manufacturing or storing guns in the city if they're not already doing so.

In June of last year, the city also evicted two shooting ranges from city property, one of which was home to several Olympic shooters, and had been quietly operating at Union Station for 81 years.

The two ranges gave the city about $5,000 total in permit fees annually.

But more quietly, and more recently, the city also evicted the Toronto Sportsmen's Association, which had been operating at 17 Mill St., a heritage city property, for more than 30 years.

Peter Edwards, the association's executive director, said they received a letter in March telling them they had to leave because "we do not fit the criteria laid out by the City of Toronto, which says that you cannot sell, display or promote firearms on any property that's leased, rented or owned by the city."

Oddly, though, the association's office on Mill was for paperwork. There isn't a single firearm on the premise, according to Edwards. In fact, the association, which was created in 1925, spends most of its time teaching firearm and hunter safety courses for the federal and provincial governments respectively.

"We don't promote firearms. We promote safety," Edwards said, noting they have until June 30 to move out. "The city has given us the shaft."

The perceived double standard isn't lost on Edwards, either.

But Francine Antonio with the city's strategic communications said the city's zoning bylaw, which evicted the shooting clubs from Union Station and the Don Montgomery Community Centre, and prohibits companies from manufacturing, assembling or warehousing firearms doesn't apply to today's events at Fort York.

Neither does the city's laws banning the sale, display or promotion of firearms on city property, she said.

"The historical re-enactment of the Battle of York is not about the promotion of the use or sale of firearms. It's about the promotion of a significant part of Toronto's history," she said.


Stuart Green, a spokesman for Toronto Mayor David Miller who championed the city's firearms bylaws last year and is still lobbying the federal government for a nationwide handgun ban, said today's re-enactment is "not comparable" to the shooting ranges that were evicted from city property last year.

"This is a dramatic re-enactment and is not promoting the casual use or sale of firearms," he wrote in an e-mail to the Sun.

"It would fall under the same classification as a stage play or film shoot taking place on city property."

But Councillor Michael Thompson, a longtime critic of the mayor's views on legal firearms and their owners, said the hypocrisy of the musket firings today and the city's views on hunters exposes the new gun bylaws as nothing but a misguided "knee-jerk" reaction.

"At the end of the day, to simply make a bylaw to ban the promotion and use of guns on city property, and to try to label legal gun owners as the problem of what's ailing us, is unconscionable," he said, noting there is a more ironic point to be made by today's musket firings.

"Those muskets allowed us to have this independent and great City of Toronto where the now-mayor can put laws in place that say, 'Let's restrict the instrument that saved us,' " he added. "It's absurd."


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