A letter from Ontario's chief firearms officer to gun vendors, outlining their responsibilities to collect personal information about legal purchases, continues to draw fire from firearms groups concerned the province wants to implement its own "back-door" firearms registry.

But Ontario Provincial Police Supt. Chris Wyatt says the request in his letter creates no new requirement. 

"Ledgers existed for decades before the long-gun registry. This is nothing new," Wyatt told host Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics Thursday.

Any person who purchases firearms in Canada must hold a valid firearms licence. Wyatt says businesses are required to keep records as part of their license to sell firearms. The federal government says those rules changed with the passage of legislation to abolish the federal long-gun registry last month.

"It's in the interests of public safety to ensure that firearms aren't being sold to criminals or persons who are prohibited from having firearms," Wyatt told Solomon.

The ledgers list the make, model and serial number of the gun sold, as well as the name and firearms licence number of the purchaser.

There was also a column to record the registration certificate number from the federal firearms registry, but this information will no longer exist with the end of the registry.

The national firearms registry was maintained by the RCMP for use by provincial police forces and other officials. The new law requires the RCMP to delete all the data in the registry, and requires each provincial firearms office to destroy records under its control. It's unclear whether that means all data, or just the data specific to the long-gun registry.

"It still remains to be seen whether or not Ontario actually has to delete all those ledgers that they kept with registry information," Ottawa criminal defence lawyer Solomon Friedman told Power & Politics. "Ontario seems to be intent on retaining ... the bulk of the useable data."

Wyatt confirmed that, based on legal advice his office has received, he will be destroying only the records of the registration certificate.

'Due diligence' offers legal protection

Wyatt suggested that businesses who verify the licences of purchasers and keep records of the guns they sell are better protected under criminal and civil law against charges of firearms trafficking because of their due diligence.

The ledgers are a paper-based system, Wyatt noted, and not linked to a computer network or other related data the way the firearms registry was designed to work.

If a gun is sold person to person, rather than through a registered business, no equivalent record exists.

Friedman, who runs a gun advocacy website called Firearms Law Canada, suggested police could wrongfully target previous owners of firearms found to have been used in an offence, even though they had been bought or sold numerous times since the transaction recorded in a gun store's ledger.

"The fact that we're creating records here to record the transfers from businesses to law-abiding individuals is precisely the thing that Parliament abolished with C-19," Friedman said.

Wyatt downplayed that concern.

"The police have to have, in my view, a starting point to be able to trace firearms, and that's the initial transaction usually in most of them," Wyatt said. "The police have to do their own legwork to establish where it went after that."

Friedman suggested there could be a legal challenge to the chief firearms officer's interpretation of the law, either from the federal government or an individual.

The province of Quebec already has taken the federal government to court to stop the destruction of the data in the federal long-gun registry for citizens of that province. A court injunction has blocked implementation of the law to scrap the registry pending legal arguments in this case, set for June.

Ontario accused of 'contempt'

The Canadian sports shooting association (CSSA) Thursday accused the public servants in the Ontario chief firearms office (CFO) of being "way in over their heads legally" and showing "contempt for the parliamentary process."

"The CFOs have declared war against the Canadian firearms community and our elected federal representatives through oppresive enforcement and arbitrary, shifting rules," wrote CSSA and Canadian Institute for Legislative Action executive director Tony Bernardo in a release, adding that the association will be "asking Parliament to rein them in."

Julie Carmichael, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said in a statement that "while provinces are free to act within their own areas of jurisdiction, our Government will not support the creation of a long-gun registry through the back door."

Ontario's community safety and correctional services minister Madeleine Meilleur responded in a statement of her own, "Ontario does not have a province-wide gun registry or database, and Ontario has no plans to create one. Period."

"The chief firearms officer of Ontario will continue to uphold and enforce these federal laws, as is his duty," Meilleur said.

Corrections

  • This article has been edited from an earlier version that said federal law requiring gun vendors to maintain ledgers of firearms sold did not change with passage of the bill to kill the gun registry. In fact, the federal government says the provincial chief firearms officers no longer have authority to require the ledgers under the Firearms Act.
    May 11, 2012 2:21 PM ET