The Justin Trudeau-led Liberal government has announced changes to Canada’s gun laws. The “good” news is, Canada’s large and thriving community of lawful gun owners probably expected it to be much more brutal than this. The bad news is, the laws aren’t really going to make anything better, and will probably make some things worse.
Disclosure: I myself am a lawful gun owner. I’m also a supporter of reasonable and effective gun control measures. Some of what the Liberals are proposing this week is reasonable. Whether it’s effective, well, time will tell.
On the face of it, for instance, I don’t see any harm in enhancing background checks for would-be gun owners, or those seeking to renew their licences. And I certainly see nothing wrong with requiring even private sales of most rifles and shotguns (which are generally no longer registered in Canada) to include validation of the purchaser’s firearms licence. The government might still find a way to screw up the execution — the Liberals’ record on smoothly implementing gun control measures is, to put it mildly, bad — and I don’t really see how some of this is practically enforceable. But the notions are fine.
I’m more skeptical of the government’s plan to turn over the classification of guns to the RCMP. Guns in Canada fall into three classifications: non-restricted (most rifles and shotguns), restricted (most handguns and some rifles) and prohibited (certain handguns and rifles, typically those that would be commonly, if not quite accurately, called “assault rifles”). In theory, there are clear definitions for each of these categories, but certain guns have long been weirdly classified at a higher level than you’d expect on the whims of political office holders.
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You’d think that putting it in the hands of the RCMP would allay those concerns. It doesn’t. Canada’s gun-owning community, to put this bluntly, does not trust the RCMP. There is a real sense among Canadian gun owners that police forces in general, and the RCMP in particular, would prefer to see all Canadians disarmed. Changing a bunch of gun classifications is a backdoor way to accomplish that, gun owners worry, and they fear the RCMP won’t hesitate to do exactly that.
If this sounds paranoid, read up on what happened in High River, Alberta in 2013. The Alberta town, evacuated during floods, was the scene of a methodical police operation, with officers going from house to house to “seize” guns — their word — including even legal, properly stored firearms. The RCMP’s oversight watchdog criticized this, and millions in compensation was paid to residents. The guns were eventually returned, but Canada’s gun owners remember this well.
Under the current rules, cabinet has some involvement in the process — which was good. Fear of public backlash after bad decisions is more a deterrent for a politician than a cop. The Tories had put together a panel that included political input, police and technical experts in firearms. That was better than the Liberals simply handing over responsibility to a police force that has issues with public accountability.
But the real problem with the proposed changes is that it repeats the primary sin of modern Canadian gun control: it imposes silly and ultimately pointless bureaucratic requirements on the people that aren’t the problem.
The Liberal government is responding to a real rise in gun crime in Canada. In 2015 and 2016, gun crimes did jump in Canada’s major cities. The problem isn’t mysterious. Half of gun murders in Canada are directly linked to gang violence. Of the remaining half, many are linked to drug-related activity. There’s no precise figure for that, but John Tory, mayor of the City of Toronto, recently noted that only two per cent of gun homicide victims in Toronto had no connection to either gangs or drugs. That’s not a typo. Only two per cent.
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And yet, as expected, the Liberals are getting tough on … target shooters. They are reimposing a ridiculous paperwork requirement on those Canadians who own restricted guns, including most handguns and some rifles. Under the law, a properly licenced individual can own a handgun or certain restricted rifles, but can only transport them to specific locations and for a specific purpose. Transporting them, in a properly secured container, is permitted from home to a gun show, to a gunsmith’s shop for repairs, or to an approved shooting range for some target practice. The Liberals have decided to restore a former piece of paperwork that had been scrapped by the Conservatives, called the Authorization to Transport (ATT). An ATT will soon again be required to take a restricted gun to a gun show or gunsmith.
No, seriously. Why? If someone has a valid restricted firearms licence, and has properly registered his or her guns, and is transporting them in a properly secured container, to a gun show or repair shop … what is served by making them apply for a permit? Why are the valid licence and registration forms not enough? This is like having a valid driver’s licence and proper registration and insurance and still needing to apply for a specific form before taking your hatchback in for an oil change.
What possible purpose does this serve? What public safety goal is met or enhanced by having a bureaucrat issue these forms? What advantage does anyone gain from layering this requirement onto the existing licence and registration requirements?
You’ll never hear a good answer to this question, because there isn’t one. The only purpose is political. The return of the ATT lets government claim, with a straight face, that it’s “strengthening Canada’s gun laws.” That’s true, but there will be no improvement on public safety. No drug dealer will be impacted, no gang member deterred, no domestic homicide prevented. Law-abiding folk will fill out the forms. That’s it.
It’s not the end of the world. But it’s a dead giveaway about how fundamentally unserious so much of Canada’s gun control is. I support gun control. I don’t support political theatre on the backs of my fellow hobbyists. That’s what this is. And, again, the only good news is that it really could have been worse.
Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.