Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party campaigned on promises to take “pragmatic action to make it harder for criminals” to get guns, and to roll back the gun law changes made by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, claiming those laws made “Canadians more vulnerable and communities more dangerous.” Likely mindful of the spectacular failure (and infamous cost) of the national gun registry law that the conservatives had repealed, his legislative agenda included a “read my lips”-type pledge that no new long-gun registry would replace the one junked in 2012.
Canadians now have the opportunity to evaluate the reality of these commitments with the introduction of Bill C-71, a gun law sponsored by the Liberal government’s Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale.
To understand the impact of the bill, it’s useful to have some background on the existing federal gun law. Canadian law classifies firearms as “prohibited” (including .32 or .25 caliber handguns or those with a barrel length of 105 mm or less, automatic firearms, short-barreled long guns, and any firearm designated as prohibited), “restricted” (handguns that are not prohibited firearms, semi-automatic long guns with a barrel less than 470 mm, and any gun designated as restricted), and “non-restricted” (those not regulated as either restricted or prohibited, or that are designated as non-restricted). These designations may be made by regulation, including regulations to designate a prohibited or restricted firearm as a non-restricted firearm, or a prohibited firearm as a restricted firearm. Any firearm that is prescribed to be a non-restricted firearm is “deemed not to be a prohibited or restricted firearm.”
A Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) is required to possess firearms; additional authorizations and registration certificates apply to prohibited or restricted firearms. The eligibility for a PAL includes a background check to determine whether the applicant, “within the previous five years,” has been convicted of any of the designated offenses, has been treated for any mental illness associated with actual or threatened violence, or has a “history of behavior” that includes violence, or threatened or attempted violence.
The Firearms Act allows a non-restricted firearm to be transferred if the transferee holds a license to acquire and possess that kind of firearm and the transferor “has no reason to believe” that the transferee is otherwise prohibited. The legislation allows, but does not require, a transferor to confirm this by contacting the division of the RCMP responsible for maintaining a registry of licenses, but expressly prohibits the government from retaining “any record” associated with these voluntary checks.
The amendments proposed in Bill C-71 include eliminating the discretion to designate, by regulation, any firearms as non-restricted. Minister Goodale explains that once classifications are established by law, the decision as to which firearms fall within each classification should be based on the “impartial” and “consistent” “technical expertise” of law enforcement (the RCMP) rather than political considerations; accordingly, this change would repeal “the authority the last government gave itself to overrule RCMP determinations.” This amendment’s particular impact is best appreciated by examining its history. In 2014, the RCMP, with no warning, upgraded two kinds of firearms that had been previously classified as “non-restricted” to “prohibited,” a change that affected thousands of law-abiding Canadians. A legislative fix in 2015, Bill C-42, provided the government with the power to override the RCMP regarding what constitutes a non-restricted or restricted firearm. Now, according to Mr. Goodale, C-71 will “automatically invalidate two decisions made by the previous government to assign a lesser classification” to these guns.
Another amendment, described as an “enhanced” background check, removes the reference to the five-year period in the license eligibility law. For persons seeking to acquire firearms, this means the mandatory “look back” period would be unlimited and apply to any qualifying conviction or mental illness, regardless of how remote in time from the licensing decision. Understandably, gun groups in Canada have raised important questions about how these lifetime background investigations will be conducted, the costs, their impact on veterans, police officers and other first responders, and the underlying rationale, given the existing background check system is satisfactory.
Bill C-71 would also change transfers and sales of non-restricted guns by replacing the optional verification with a new, mandatory verification process, which would result in a government-issued “reference number” once the transferee discloses the “prescribed information.” Verification and reference numbers would be provided through a 24-hour RCMP call center. As a condition of their business licenses, dealers and gun shops would be required to record transaction-related information: reference numbers, transferee information, the firearm’s make, model and serial number, and more. Businesses must maintain these records for a minimum of 20 years (or for any longer period that the government may select). While insisting that this information will remain “private and not accessible to governments,” the Minister nonetheless confirms the documents would be available to the police, and the bill specifically directs that such records be turned over to the government once a business ceases to operate. Once these become government property, the records may be destroyed only “in the circumstances that may be prescribed” by law.
Despite the government’s disavowal of any new “gun registry,” C-71 would remove the existing prohibition on government record-keeping related to verification requests. It lacks any express restrictions on the use, access to, and retention of the verification activity and reference number data that must be collected under the bill. The police will have access to dealer-maintained records, and the government is designated as the ultimate custodian of these “private” records. Apart from the legitimate fear over the potential for a “back door” gun registry, the tax-paying public is justified in voicing concerns over the cost of administration and enforcement (given the financial fiasco that the now-defunct gun registry turned out to be) and the impact that increased licensing and regulatory restrictions will have on hunters, target shooters, and gun enthusiasts.
Despite the government’s disavowal of any new “gun registry,” C-71 would remove the existing prohibition on government record-keeping related to verification requests.
Indeed, a recent study by Dr. Gary Mauser of Simon Fraser University appears to confirm that regulatory gun laws overwhelmingly burden ordinary Canadians. He examined the number of criminal charges laid in Canada from 1998 to 2015 for violations of firearm rules related to gun storage and paperwork compliance – charges that could result in fines, imprisonment, and the loss of the violator’s guns. Out of over 3,000 charges a year related to violations of the bureaucratic firearm rules, only four percent were tied to criminal charges for violent crime, even though guns were used against approximately 1,300 victims of violent crimes each year during roughly the same period. Instead of charging criminals with both firearm rule violations and the violent crime offenses, enforcement of the administrative firearm rules was almost exclusively associated with nonviolent offenders. Dr. Mauser concludes these “findings suggest that law-abiding Canadian gun owners are the target of administrative infractions,” with “firearms laws being used to disarm peaceable firearms owners and not violent criminals who use firearms.”
Speaking to Bill C-71, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus (Charlesbourg- Haute-Saint-Charles), no doubt summarized the sentiments of many ordinary Canadians when he observed that “this bill does little to nothing to improve public safety. However, it imposes a number of new conditions on law-abiding gun owners. We cannot say it enough: it is always honest folks, sport shooters and hunters who get punished… This is an insidious way of bringing back the registry. The government can deny it, but clearly, this is about putting everything in place to eventually bring back a registry. At this point, the Prime Minister needs to decide where the real threat is. Is it street gangs or farmers? Is it sport shooters or organized crime? That is the real question. To most Canadians, the answer is obvious.”