Conservatives' gun bill, C-42, fails to impress gun owners

The Conservatives' long-awaited firearms reform bill won't fix the most serious flaws in Canada's firearms licensing regime, according to gunowners' lobby groups. And some say they feel the Harper government is taking their support for granted.

Some gun owners feel taken for granted as firearms bill falls short of expectations

Rifles like these are are no longer governed by the now repealed long-gun registry, but long-promised legislation to overhaul the firearm licensing system is still awaiting debate in the House of Commons. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

To the Coalition for Gun Control, the Conservative government's bill to overhaul Canada's gun licensing rules is more evidence that the party panders to gun owners.

"The gun lobby has bragged about its access to the prime minister, and this is the latest evidence of their influence," it says in a recent statement.

But, in fact, the good feelings between gun owners and the Conservative Party are being tested by Bill C-42, the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, which many say falls far short of what they had hoped for.

Bill C-42 was scheduled to be debated on Oct. 22, the day that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Parliament. When Parliament returned, Bill C-42 seemed to have disappeared from the agenda.

Inquiries to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and to government House leader Peter Van Loan went unanswered.

Tony Bernardo, president of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association and a close collaborator of the government on firearms legislation, says the bill is still alive and will return.

"After the shooting, the government had several terrorism-related bills they needed to move urgently on," he says. "You can't do everything, and something had to give. It's a question of priorities."

But a bigger issue for the government may be the consensus among people in the shooting sports that C-42 is better than nothing, but not much. And some party stalwarts say they're starting to feel taken for granted.

Dennis Young is a former RCMP officer who was the Reform Party's regional co-ordinator for Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the 1990s and then spent 13 years in Ottawa as an aide to Conservative MP Gary Brietkreuz. Recently, when called by a Conservative fundraiser at his home in Airdrie, Alta., Young told him not to bother calling back until the public safety minister responded to his letter about Bill C-42.

Young said he was "miffed" that after all his work for the Conservatives, he had received no real answer to his questions. "It all leaves us feeling a bit like we're just being used for fundraising," he said. "If they have that attitude they're going to be disappointed. People now want to see some action on Stephen Harper's promise from 2002, which he made again in the 2004 election, to repeal Bill C-68."

Bill C-68 is the 1995 legislation that now forms the basis of Canadian firearms law.

Conservatives reforms just 'tinkering'

Bill C-42 contains some changes to rules that put law-abiding gun-owners at risk of serious criminal charges over omissions in paperwork.

Those changes are welcome, said James Brake, operations manager at a Prince Albert gun store and president of the Prince Albert Pistol and Rifle Club. But that's as far as it goes.

"It doesn't address the core concerns. It's addressing poll-watchers who are weighing just how much they have to give in order to get a certain number of votes."

Brake, who is originally from Florida, said he appreciates "the good things about Canadian laws," such as the system of checks to keep people with mental problems from acquiring guns. But he said the rules penalize law-abiding people and complicate his job with red tape that doesn't make people safer. And he said the Conservatives are doing little to change that picture.

"I do believe they're the best of the worst," he said. "That's about it."

Be careful what you wish for

Bernardo acknowledges he's heard more anti-Conservative sentiments lately from shooters and hunters, but says "they should be careful what they wish for."
Justice Minister Peter MacKay wears a pro-gun T-shirt as he poses with Erica Clarke, left, and Kurtis Gaucher at a Conservative fundraising event in Edmonton. Clarke, who works for the National Firearms Association, posted the photo to her Facebook page. (Facebook)

"The firearms community has been disappointed with the Harper government. It could have been done a lot better. On the other hand, this is a step forward. As long as they're moving forward, we have to look at the alternatives."

Bernardo said Justin Trudeau has been "more slippery than an oiled eel" on the topic, and gun owners should remember that "the Liberals' track record is not good."

He said he's confident most of his group's members will still vote Conservative. "This is probably the last government bill on this before the election, but we hope to see more after that."

Not feeling the love

But the country's biggest gun owners' group is less optimistic. Sheldon Clare is president of the National Firearms Association, with 75,000 members across Canada.

"In my view, this is neither about common sense, nor even really much about firearms licensing. It's more about giving the appearance of doing something when, in fact, nothing much is being done."

Clare said the Conservatives have been careful to be on the side of gun owners when there's controversy, such as when the RCMP entered homes in High River, Alta., following floods and seized hundreds of legally held guns without a court order or the owners' permission.

But Clare said law-making is where the rubber hits the road, and the Conservatives' legislation has not matched the rhetoric.

"There's been a lot of lip service paid," said Clare. "But this part of the base — and they certainly seem to think we are part of their base and that we have no other place to go — I'd really like to remind them how firearms owners stayed home in droves after Kim Campbell brought in Bill C-17. There was a penalty to be paid by Conservatives for turning their back on firearms owners."

"I would say firearms owners right now aren't really feeling the love."


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