Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Tuesday that destroying the records in the long-gun registry was implicit in his government's longstanding promise to abolish the registry.
The provision to destroy the existing data in the registry is included in the Conservative government's bill tabled last month, but it was not spelled out in Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner's private member's bill in the last session of Parliament that also aimed to scrap the registry.
The intention to destroy the records has prompted a lot of opposition but the government has rejected calls from some provinces, interest groups and opposition parties to maintain the data.
Toews told the House of Commons committee now studying Bill C-19 that no one should have been caught off guard by the provision to destroy the records.
"The registry is the data. Without the data there is no registry," Toews told the public safety committee. "When our government and our party made the very clear commitment that we would scrap the long-gun registry, that we would end it, implicit, indeed explicit in that is that we are destroying the information that has been collected under the authority of that legislation."
He said that it would be disingenuous for any politician to tell their constituents that they thought the government intended to keep the data.
"This is a revisionist type of excuse that some are making in order to try and justify flipping their position on the registry," said Toews.
Taking a position on the long-gun registry has been controversial for some MPs, particularly in the NDP caucus. Some had sided with the government on Hoeppner's bill, but in the latest vote on the current bill now before Parliament, they supported their party's policy and voted to keep the registry. Two NDP MPs voted with the government and were disciplined for it.
The government's bill would eliminate the requirement for gun owners to register non-prohibited firearms and destroy the existing records. All gun owners still have to get a license, take a safety course and complete a background check. Restricted and prohibited firearms still have to be registered.
Registry causes wedge between police and gun owners
The Conservatives say the long-gun registry targets law abiding gun owners and on Tuesday Toews said it's created a division between them and the police because they feel that the police are coming after them, he said.
A defence lawyer who also appeared at the committee Tuesday said those who fail to register their guns, or to do so properly, are punished harshly under the Criminal Code whereas someone who fails to register a car for example, doesn't face the threat of a criminal record.
Solomon Friedman said he has seen alleged violations of the registration requirements used as a pretext to detain people, search their belongings and their homes, and secure evidence to lay further charges.
He said it is "absurd" that law-abiding citizens are subject to greater police scrutiny than those who are in the unlawful possession of firearms. According to Friedman, the registry has driven a "wedge" between lawful gun owners and police.
Toews said police officers have told him that they believe the information in the database is inaccurate and that it's not an effective tool to protect their safety.
"For many years it has been clear that the long-gun registry does not work, does nothing to prevent crime or protect frontline officers," Toews said in his opening statement.
"We know that the long-gun registry has no ability to prevent crime, there is no evidence that it has stopped a single crime or saved a single life. It does not prevent anyone from using a firearm for violence and it does not keep guns out of the hands of criminals," said Toews. "It is clear that on all fronts it is a failure."
"After a legacy of waste that has lasted almost 17 years it is time to swiftly and decisively end the long-gun registry once and for all," he said.
The committee voted Tuesday to spend five meetings hearing from witnesses on the proposed legislation. The NDP voiced its opposition, saying that's not enough time but the Conservatives have a majority on the committee.
Toews also commented on a story in the media about an internal memo from his department that said scrapping the requirement to register rifles and shotguns could fuel illegal firearms trafficking across the Canadian border.The memo, obtained through the Access to Information Act by the National Firearms Association, says the move would weaken import controls by eliminating a requirement for border officials to verify firearms coming into the country.
Toews said the official that wrote the memo presented an analysis that was "factually flawed" and "incorrect."
He said contrary to the suggestion made in the memo, Bill C-19 does not remove any controls on the importation of firearms.
Labour group opposed to bill
The committee heard from some other witnesses Tuesday that are opposed to the government's efforts to abolish the gun registry, including Barbara Byers from the Canadian Labour Congress.
"We support the long-gun registry as an effective tool for workplace and community safety. Eliminating it will put workers and Canadians at risk," she told MPs.
Byers said the registry has helped in criminal investigations and is a tool to help reduce violence against women and domestic violence.