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Briefing note to Public Safety Minister hints at tighter gun control

KEVIN FRAYER/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Senior RCMP officials invited Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney to a briefing on gun control at a police range in Ottawa in late September, at which they seemed to be nudging him toward stricter rules on some types of firearms.

Blaney’s office wouldn’t comment on the meeting. But the notes suggest his department’s pushing an issue – updates to decades-old gun laws – that failed to gain traction with his predecessor.

Canada hasn’t singled out any firearm by name for prohibition since the mid-1990s.

“It was envisioned that the classification framework would be updated as more firearms came on to the Canadian market, but it has not been updated since its inception in 1995,” a briefing note for the meeting says.

“Firearms … not mentioned in the regulations are, by default, categorized as non-restricted (e.g. many .50-calibre sniper rifles and other military and paramilitary type firearms are currently non-restricted.)”

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Blaney replaced Vic Toews as Public Safety Minister in a cabinet shuffle in mid-July.In 2012, Public Safety officials warned Toews that the outdated list posed ‘a risk to public safety.’ 

In the list drawn up in 1995, dozens of specific firearms were singled out for prohibition or restriction. Gun rights advocates criticize it as based on cultural and aesthetic criteria, while gun control advocates say it should have been updated and expanded since then.

“Any changes to the classification framework would be controversial,” the note says. “Firearm advocates would view reclassification as an attempt to deprive them of their property, while gun control advocates would support the reclassification of some firearms to the restricted or prohibited classes.”

The note, released as part of an access-to-information request, ends by quoting Prime Minister Stephen Harper as saying that “prohibited weapons exist as a category under the law for essential reasons of public security.”

A number of senior officials from Public Safety and the RCMP were to attend the briefing, including Commissioner Bob Paulson.

In the briefing note, Blaney was invited to “shoot a variety of these firearms at a range located on site as a practical, hands-on means of better understanding the different types … business casual dress is recommended.”

A tightening of firearm rules would come as welcome news to gun-control advocates, and would likely be slammed by opponents as being based more on fear than sound methodology.

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“I see that as a step in the wrong direction,” argues Ottawa-based firearms lawyer Solomon Friedman. “There isn’t a list of features that lead to prohibition – nowhere does it say what the basis of prohibiting these firearms by appearance was.

“Semi-automatic firearms are all quite similar, functionally. You have what amounts to an arbitrary classification based on the appearance of the firearm, or on its heritage.”

Some provinces may also be pleased: Quebec and Ontario announced last month they’ve formed a working group to study firearm classification (Ontario’s Attorney General says it’s still preliminary and wouldn’t comment).

So what might new gun laws look like?

  • The note mentions .50-calibre rifles, now mostly classed as non-restricted in Canada. They were originally designed for military use against aircraft and lightly armoured vehicles. In November, Quebec Minister of Public Security Stéphane Bergeron called for their reclassification. “They should be banned,” says gun control advocate and Montreal massacre survivor Heidi Rathjen. “There are no deer with bulletproof vests in our forests. There is no reason for civilians to have access to weapons that can pierce light armoured military vehicles. It’s absurd that this weapon is available for ordinary civilians.”
  • Last August, the Canadian Association of Police Boards called for restrictions on ‘bullpup’ rifles, also non-restricted, which shorten a rifle’s length by placing the bolt and magazine and the rear of the barrel at the firer’s shoulder, much farther back than on a traditional rifle.
  • In May 2010, an RCMP briefing note for then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said “a case could be made” for prohibiting the ‘family of VZ58 rifles,’ which externally resemble the banned AK-47.
  • Rumours circulated this summer about a reclassification of the Swiss Arms Classic Green rifle.
  • Relaxing other aspects of the gun licence system might allow the government to present a balanced gun-control package – for example by allowing people with a “possession-only” licence, grandfathered when rules were tightened in the early 1990s, the right to buy guns. In April, Public Safety’s Firearms Advisory Committee, largely made up of people on the gun-rights side of the debate, discussed giving the remaining 633,000 POL-holders acquisition-grade licences. “(POLs) were left over as a sort of transitional thing when we switched over to the new system,” Abbotsford, B.C. police chief Bob Rich, a member of the committee, told Global News in July. “At some point you want to get over to one licence.”
  • At its 2012 and 2013 meetings, the committee discussed doubling the term of a gun licence from five to 10 years. (The RCMP opposed the move this year, saying it would “limit their ability to monitor, on a timely basis, any changes to an individual’s mental health status.”)

READ MORE: In-depth coverage of Canadian gun control

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But even if Ottawa wanted to restrict or ban a gun that’s now non-restricted,  it’s not clear how it would do it it: Thanks to the abolishment of the long-gun registry,the federal government no longer knows where the owners are.

“[The Canadian Firearms Program] would inform provincial Chief Firearms Officers, post a notice to its website, inform callers when they call the CFP toll-free information line and issue special bulletins to firearms businesses and police,” if a non-restricted firearm was made restricted or prohibited, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Julie Gagnon said in an email.

“It’s expensive, and it’s impractical, and it’s even more impractical now that we don’t have registration anymore,” Rathjen said. “The police will have the hardest possible time finding these weapons, or their owners, in order to make sure they’re classified properly.”

Friedman, for his part, remains dubious about reviving the practice of banning firearms by name.

“I think the best way to look as this is to advocate for a principled approach to classification, which at the moment does not exist. Are any firearms more or less likely to cause harm? If you don’t begin your prohibition discussion from there, you’re not doing it on a principled basis.”

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Blaney’s office had little to say.

“We do not comment on [the] ministerial schedule,” said spokesperson Jean-Christophe de Le Rue in response to a list of questions from Global News about the Sept. 30 briefing. “We are always looking at common sense measures to ensure public safety without placing needless burdens on law-abiding hunters, farmers and sport shooters.”

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