Last month, the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence (SECD) concluded two days of hearings on Bill C-71, the Liberal government’s gun control bill. (An additional hearing date has been set for March 18, 2019.) The committee has so far heard from approximately 40 witnesses, including gun rights advocates, gun control groups, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, researchers and academics, sport shooting associations, industry groups, small business owners, Statistics Canada, community activists, and others.
These hearings showcased the wide range of stakeholders in the current debate on the policy and effectiveness of Bill C-71. They also revealed that despite the differences between Canada and the United States, certain legislators in both countries share an unshakeable belief that the best way to respond to the criminal misuse of firearms is to ramp up restrictions on law-abiding gun owners.
One of the common themes in both the testimony and the committee member questions was the lack of objective, empirical evidence to support the bill measures, and the bill’s failure to address the real issues of the illegal firearm trade and sources of illegal guns, and the rise in street gang crime.
Dr. Caillin Langmann, the author of a 2012 study on firearm laws and homicide in Canada, testified he found no association between firearm homicides and laws imposing background checks, authorizations to transport, classification of firearms, or gun registries. Regarding suicide specifically, suicide by firearms in Canada “has been on a steady decline,” as compared to suicide by other methods (“on a slow, steady increase”). Another researcher, Dr. Gary Mauser, described Bill C-71 as “a Rube Goldberg contraption” (unlike those ridiculously overcomplicated mechanisms, though, the bill “misses the target completely”). “No evidence has been produced that [possession and acquisition license] holders are a major source of crime guns. No evidence has been produced that there are significant abuses of the authorizations to transport restricted firearms.” Even the number of license holders accused of homicide was so small that moose in Canada killed more people each year than registered and licensed firearms owners.
Among the insightful presentations in opposition to the bill were those of Chief Ghislain Picard, on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, who appeared with Stuart Wuttke, legal counsel for the Assembly of First Nations. He began by indicating that members of the First Nations “have been using firearms for a long time … for their cultural and traditional activities” and “have the right to pass on their culture to future generations without outside interference.” Bill C-71 not only raised “major constitutional concerns” but potentially had serious repercussions on First Nations’ rights and cultural heritage. Legislators should do more to directly address gang violence rather than add “unnecessary restrictions on the rights of licensed gun owners, “We stand with the many other Canadians who are not willing to forfeit their fundamental rights and freedoms, who are asking that this government engage in more careful crafting of this important piece of legislation.”
One concern consistently identified throughout the hearing was the ability of the existing bureaucracy to adequately address the shift to what would be required under the bill, including a change from a “five year” background check to the bill’s proposed “lifetime” background check. A senator observed that the RCMP was already experiencing “significant problems” in conducting mental health and domestic violence checks in at least one province, with a backlog of some 2,000 cases as of 2017. Testimony about another province’s office indicated it was “behind in their transfer requests for businesses by 4,500” in 2018. In theory, the bill would provide more rigorous screening, but – as pointed out by those testifying for the firearm industry and businesses – the bill lacked any funding for the increased responsibilities that it imposed. Going forward, there was nothing to ensure that the entities charged with implementation would be adequately funded, adequately trained, and “adequately resourced.”
The Committee members spent a significant amount of time discussing the bill with these witnesses, representatives of the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association (CSAAA). The CSAAA panel identified several serious shortcomings with C-71 (“ill-conceived, ideologically driven and minus any input or consideration on the significant impacts it will have on the 4,500 licensed firearm businesses in Canada or the 25,000 employees who work in these community businesses”). For example, the bill establishes the RCMP as the “product regulatory body” for the firearms industry, but without any oversight from elected officials or structured guidelines, an appeal process, or a way for the industry to participate. Pointing to the RCMP’s previous unilateral changes in classifications of firearms, a business owner described how one reclassification to “prohibited” status caused a $38,000 devaluation in inventory for his business due to 500 firearms that could no longer be sold or transferred. Another concern was the bill’s delegation of new record-keeping requirements on the gun industry and business owners so the government could “avoid being pegged as the creator of a new long-gun registry,” without regard for the insurance, legal liability, and compliance impact on these businesses.
The evidence presented in the hearings did not mention any official estimated costs for the implementation and enforcement of Bill C-71. Canadians burned by the cost of the spectacularly expensive and now defunct federal long-gun registry might be interested in the testimony of Dennis Young, a retired RCMP officer. Despite the RCMP having ceased reporting the spending and employment numbers for the Canadian Firearms Program to Parliament, Mr. Young has been able to estimate spending using government sources. According to him, total spending on the firearms program for the years 1995 to 2017 was between $1.79 billion and $1.6 billion. For the years 2016 and 2017, the Canadian Firearms Program cost taxpayers $53.7 million and employed an equivalent of 451 full-time employees. These costs will only increase should the bill be passed.
Senator Marilou McPhedran (Manitoba) contributed some of the more peculiar moments of the hearings when she pressed certain witnesses as to whether they were “funded in any way or affiliated in any way with the National Rifle Association of the United States,” being unwilling to believe, apparently, that ordinary Canadians could harbor genuine and honestly-held concerns about the effectiveness, utility and costs of the bill. None of the witnesses (unsurprisingly) had any such funding or ties to disclose.
While these hearings are sure to interest Americans who follow developments in our neighbor to the north, they also provide a forceful reminder of the value of the Second Amendment. A witness for a gun control organization who testified in support of the bill expressed her dismay over the proliferation of legal firearms in Canada, citing the need to enact additional bans and restrictions to reverse that trend. According to her, there was no downside to imposing greater gun control laws because “there are no gun owner rights in this county.”