Goodale rescinds Conservative directive that opened door to gun 'misclassification'

A secret directive issued in the dying days of the Conservative government opened the door to guns being classified according to a manufacturer's suggestion if RCMP experts took too long to evaluate a firearm.

Former public safety minister Steven Blaney issued order to RCMP 3 days before election call

Former Conservative public safety minister Steven Blaney issued a directive to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson three days before the 2015 election was called, spelling out new rules for processing firearms classifications. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Former public safety minister Steven Blaney issued a secret directive in the dying days of the Conservative government that opened the door for firearms to be classified according to a gun manufacturer's suggestion, CBC News has learned.

Responding to complaints from firearms advocates and the industry, Blaney's directive gave the RCMP 180 days to evaluate a gun, decide its classification and issue the Firearms Reference Table (FRT) number needed to import that model into Canada.

If that deadline wasn't met, the firearm would automatically be classified according to the manufacturer's suggestion and the FRT number would be issued.

The directive sent to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, personally signed by Blaney, is dated July 30, 2015 — three days before former prime minister Stephen Harper plunged Canada into a general election campaign. It was also just a couple of days after Blaney met with members of the government's Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee, which under the Conservatives was dominated by firearms advocates.

Former public safety minister Steven Blaney with members of the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee on July 28, 2015, only a couple of days before he issued the classification directive to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson (Twitter)

The next day, Blaney issued a news release to announce he had overturned the RCMP's decision to classify the Ceska Zbrojovka CZ-858 rifle and certain Swiss Arms firearms as prohibited firearms — but there was no public announcement of his directive to Paulson.

In fact, Ralph Goodale, the current Liberal minister of public safety, said he only learned of Blaney's directive during one of the briefings he received from officials months after he became minister. He rescinded the directive on June 6, less than a week after he learned of its existence.

In an interview with CBC News, Goodale said one of the problems with Blaney's directive was its timing.

"That's the one thing that immediately sent up a red flag — that it came just two or three days before an election was called. That is not the right way to make public policy — at the last minute, on the back of an envelope."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale rescinded Steven Blaney's directive within a week of learning of it. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Goodale said ministerial directives are supposed to dictate changes to policy, not administration, and Blaney's directive imposed an "arbitrary timeline."

"For those three reasons, the very lateness of the directive, the fact that it was misusing, in my judgment, a policy instrument to deal with an administrative issue, and, thirdly, that it was entirely arbitrary and could lead to the misclassification of certain weapons and therefore present a danger to public safety — for all of those reasons we rescinded the directive."

Goodale said he was advised no firearms were classified, or were about to be classified, under the directive. "We were able to rescind it quickly enough that it did not have any negative effect."

"If we had left it in place the negative effect might have developed over time."

However, Tony Bernardo of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association said he knows of one firearm that was classified by the RCMP while the directive was in effect. While the application from an importer had been languishing for four years, it was suddenly processed after the directive was issued. The RCMP determined the firearm should be prohibited despite the manufacturer's recommendation that it be classified as restricted.

Blaney defends his decision to issue the directive.

"This ministerial directive honours our commitment to always stand up for law-abiding hunters, farmers and sport shooters and I will continue to do so in the future to ensure legal firearm owners are not treated like second-class citizens by this Liberal government," he said in a statement to CBC News on Thursday.

On Friday, Blaney issued a second statement, calling on Goodale to reverse his decision to rescind the directive.

"In refusing to classify new firearms within reasonable delays, the Liberals once again show their visceral hatred towards honest citizens who respect the laws of our country. I formally call on the minister to reverse his irrational decision, which shows an odious contempt and which treats honest Canadian firearms owners as second class citizens."

Blaney also said he issued another ministerial directive requiring managers of the Canadian Firearms Program to receive the same training as firearms owners so they would understand all the requirements of the Conservatives' firearms law. 

Classifications and variants

Blaney's directive goes to the heart of one of the most contentious issues in Canada's debate over gun control: who should have the power to classify firearms and which firearms should be classified as non-restricted, restricted or prohibited. The higher that classification, the harder it is to purchase a firearm and the more onerous the rules surrounding it.

Currently, the RCMP's Canadian Firearms Program classifies guns and assigns an FRT number to new models entering the country. According to a government briefing note obtained by CBC News, "restricted and prohibited firearms require physical verification, while the verification of non-restricted firearms is done over the telephone by CFP staff during the registration process."

RCMP put weapons similar to these on a prohibited list, but the former Conservative government moved Swiss Arms Classic Greens to the restricted list. (www.m4carbine.net)

The briefing note says experts began physical examinations of several types of guns in 2009 "following several misrepresentations by importers and verifiers." Having such experts physically examine firearms is also intended to reduce the chances a firearm ends up having to be reclassified after being imported to Canada.

The RCMP has angered gun enthusiasts for changing classifications.

For example, according to a 2014 briefing note, the RCMP determined in 2013 that CZ-858 models previously classified as restricted or non-restricted based on barrel length "were converted fully automatic Vz58 firearms, and, therefore, prohibited."

In 2001, the program classified the Swiss Arms family of rifles as restricted or non-restricted depending on the barrel length, "based on documents provided by the manufacturer and the importer, which indicated incorrectly that the firearm was a variant Swiss Arms SG540."

In 2013, though, the RCMP's firearms program received information that a prohibited version of the firearm was available and conducted a physical inspection.

"As a result, the RCMP has determined that all of the Classic Green Rifles and its variants are descendants of the prohibited Swiss Arms SG 550 firearms and are prohibited firearms under the Criminal Code," officials wrote, adding that there are more than 2,000 of the Swiss Arms family of rifles in Canada.

Frustration over delays

In issuing his directive, Blaney cited the reclassifications of the CZ-858 and the Swiss Arms rifles and "significant delays in processing new requests for classification of firearms."

"In fact, I have had a Canadian business bring to my attention a case in which they waited three years to receive an answer. In my view, this is not the manner in which we ought to respond to the needs of law-abiding Canadians, including Canadian business," he wrote.

Blaney then outlined a series of eight steps the RCMP were to follow in handling applications for FRT numbers, from acknowledging all requests for classification within two days to the automatic classification of a firearm according to the manufactures' recommendation if an FRT number was not issued within 180 days.

The directive also spells out a process for reviewing classifications, saying the RCMP must render a decision within 30 days of a review application being made and, subject to any review applications, an FRT entry "is not to be altered once it has been in place for 365 days."

Blaney's directive also curbed the program's latitude for classifying new models of guns, saying "a new entry in the FRT is not to be created for a firearm that is substantially similar to a firearm already in the FRT."

Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition For Gun Control, says Blaney's directive could have resulted in firearms that shouldn't be in Canada being available. (brocku.ca)

Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition For Gun Control, said Blaney's directive could have resulted in people being able to obtain firearms that shouldn't be available in Canada.

"We know that there are always efforts to circumvent the restrictions on firearms and clearly what could have happened is what we have seen happen before, which is that firearms that ought not be available to civilians come into the market because small changes have been made (and) they are called something different."

Bernardo, however, said the directive was simply an attempt to introduce service standards to a department that has sometimes taken years to issue classifications for some firearms.

"When a business is trying to make a living, especially a small business, that's completely unacceptable."

Bernardo, who sat on the Conservatives' firearms advisory committee, said Blaney's directive came after the committee flagged the delays to the minister.

Goodale said the RCMP is preparing a protocol to ensure classification is done "in a timely way" without compromising public safety.

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Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.


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