OTTAWA — The Conservative government appears to be quietly shelving its controversial “Common Sense” gun bill in light of Wednesday’s shooting.
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan’s office was silent Friday about the future of Bill C-42. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s office refused to comment, directing inquiries to Van Loan. The Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act was scheduled to be debated for the first time on the day of the shootings, with three days set aside for discussion. It no longer figures on the government’s stated agenda.
But NDP Public Safety critic Randall Garrison told The Huffington Post Canada on Friday that he understands why the government might want to shelve this bill for the time being.
“I think it’s obvious that the climate where firearms were used to murder a member of the Canadian Forces and to bring an attack into the House of Commons means that the climate for a discussion on a bill that would loosen, in any way, restrictions over the licensing of firearms is unlikely to be something the government wants to do right now,” he said.
The firearms bill has drawn criticism from the NDP, the Liberals and the Coalition for Gun Control for loosening restrictions on the transportation of restricted and prohibited firearms and for giving the cabinet rather than the RCMP the final say over the classification of dangerous weapons.
In the House, Van Loan said the “bill would cut red tape for law-abiding firearms owners and provide safe and simple firearms policies.”
Garrison, however, argues that the bill increases the threat to public safety.
Right now, he said, anyone who wishes to transport a restricted or prohibited firearms has to obtain a permit. “If you’re not on a straight trajectory from A to B, then you are in violation.”
The new bill changes that.
Not only will firearms owners no longer need a transportation permit, he said, but they will also be able to assert that they were heading to any one of five places: a gun shop, a gun range, a police station, an exit point from Canada or a gun show.
“Someone who wishes to transport the gun illegally has, if you wish, cover by just naming any of those five places,” Garrison said. “There may be better ways to deal with transportation in rural areas, but certainly it will create great difficulty for police in urban areas.
“If you can’t enforce the law against the illegal transportation of firearms, it’s a threat to public safety.”
Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter said he is also concerned about the relaxation of transportation permits and the possibility that someone could stop at a bar on their way home from the shooting range. Easter said, however, that his main preoccupation is that the bill shifts responsibility over the classification and reclassification of dangerous firearms away from the RCMP to the minister of public safety and the cabinet.
“That is a very worrisome, that we would give the political minister, who for whatever reason – [perhaps] to do favour with a certain interest group –[the power to] move a gun from restricted to non-restricted [classification]” Easter said.
The minister can have a say, the Liberal critic said, but when you leave the decision to an impartial group, such as the RCMP, “then you’re going to have better policy, because you don’t have a political axe to grind – they have the safety agenda to look at.”
The Canadian Police Association, however, told HuffPost that it members are not overly concerned by changes proposed in the bill. Giving the government the final say on classifications “isn’t a policy shift that presents significant concerns, provided that the government gives serious consideration to the advice and information provided by law enforcement personnel, particularly those who are involved on the front lines in our communities,” spokesman Michael Gendron said.
Earlier this year, the Conservative government stepped in to grant owners of Swiss Arms Classic Green firearms or CZ858 rifles a two-year amnesty after the RCMP reclassified the semi-automatic rifles as prohibited firearms.
The reclassification came after a year-long review by the RCMP, which determined that the gun could be easily convertible to fully automatic use. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was informed of the impending change and signed off on it. When the decision was actually made, however, he said the change by “unelected bureaucrats” was news to him.
The National Firearms Association (NFA) has long argued that the RCMP is on a covert mission to prohibit non-restricted firearms in order to confiscate guns from licensed owners.
Easter said the government was “catering” to gun folks who believe that the Mounties have such an agenda.
Blair Hagen, the NFA’s vice-president of communications, acknowledged that the Tories are trying to curry favour with gun owners previously annoyed with the RCMP’s decision to prohibit Swiss Arms rifles.
“Unlike previous reclassifications, these guns are owned in Canada in quantity,” Hagen said, pegging the number about 14,000. “We are talking about thousands of rifles, in the hands of thousands of firearms licensees, so when the RCMP forced the issue … a lot of people got very upset, contacted their MPs, contacted the government … and I think they understood the seriousness of the situation,” he said.
Unlike several other groups such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation and the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, the NFA is not backing C-42. Hagen said the bill addresses only “bureaucratic largesse” and “useless paperwork” and doesn’t go far enough in fixing Canada’s gun laws.
Still, he is pleased to see the government try to curb the power of provincial firearms officers who, he says, are using transportation permits to “control ownership of firearms.” Hagen said provincial firearms officers have been tying decisions over the issuing of authorization to transport to the issuing and revocation of firearms licences and registration. “This has been a long-standing complaint,” he said.
The “Common Sense” firearms bill gives the cabinet the right to limit the discretionary authority of provincial chief firearms officers – though the bill does not explain what exactly the government wants to address.
That has people such as the Coalition for Gun Control's President Wendy Cukier concerned.
Bill C-42, she said, goes far beyond the government’s efforts to reduce controls on rifles and shotguns, dismantle the registry and to destroy the data on who owns what guns.
“Now, [it] relaxes controls on military assault weapons, relaxes controls on handguns and restricted weapons, weakens the powers of the provincial chief firearms officers to rigorously implement controls and even relaxes somewhat the controls on firearms licences,” she said. “It’s part of a continuous chipping away of the legislation.”
Cukier is also concerned that public safety could be threatened by a measure in the bill to convert all possession only licences (POL) into possession and acquisition licences (PALs).
Gun owners, who were previously allowed to keep their firearms without going through the vigorous screening reserved for people who want to get new guns, will be allowed to purchase new firearms without screening if the bill goes through, she said. “They have opened a huge loophole, because people with possession only licences were not screened nearly as rigorously as the others.”
While Easter and Garrison said there are aspects of the bill they like – including a measure that would make it more difficult for someone convicted of domestic violence to own a firearm – they both noted that their respective parties had yet to take a clear position against the bill.
While C-42 seems benched for now, nobody believes it will stay on the shelf forever.
“I don’t have any expectation that they would see that this shooting or any other shooting has implications for what they intend to do for the legislation,” Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear two weeks ago that he intends to talk about the gun laws in the next election. Harper suggested that “bureaucratic initiatives” are “effectively trying to put the long gun registry back in through the back door.”
"This is not something we can tolerate," he told a Northern Ontario gathering hosted by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.
The branding for Bill C-42 is also reminiscent of the campaign against the long-gun registry.
Hagen, of the NFA, said the government will inevitably bring back Bill C-42 or introduce another bill, entirely because of pressure from interest groups, especially in rural areas and western Canada.
“[This] frankly knee jerk reaction by opposition MPs in the face of even modest firearms law reform like this is ludicrous.”
“This will be an election issue in 2015,” he predicted.
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