Police support for gun registry targeted

Opponents of the long-gun registry took aim at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police while testifying Thursday before MPs who heard conflicting evidence from a number of witnesses for and against the registry.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and opponents of the long-gun registry faced off during a committee meeting Thursday where they delivered conflicting views to MPs on the registry's effectiveness.

Two representatives of the CACP, Matthew Torigian, Waterloo Region's chief of police, and Mario Harel from the Gatineau Police Service in Quebec, testified that the registry is a cost-effective tool that is useful for investigations and that it promotes accountability among gun owners. Abolishing it will mean more costly and lengthy investigations, Harel said. The CACP believes the registry strikes a balance between individual rights and society's right to be safe and that the registry has saved lives.

Torigian said his association has given support to the Conservative government in many of its crime-fighting initiatives, including the omnibus crime bill, but not when it comes to abolishing the registry and its data, as Bill C-19 is proposing to do.

In his opening statement at the public safety committee that is studying the bill, Torigian made it clear he isn't happy with how the Conservatives have proceeded.

"Throughout the debate on this long-gun registry, there has been a disturbing attempt to discredit the view of law enforcement chiefs of police and an attempt to create divisions."

He then went on to cite a press release from one MP, though he didn't name which one, that referred to a survey of police officers that demonstrated support for scrapping the registry. The MP said the survey proves that the CACP doesn't speak for police officers on the registry.

The survey was done independently by Edmonton police officer Randall Kuntz who was also at the meeting Thursday and the press release was issued last year by Tory MP Candice Hoeppner, who has been leading the fight for her party to abolish the registry. She had a private member's bill in the last Parliament that nearly passed.

"You can’t accept our opinion when it serves your purposes and then dismiss it when it does not," Torigian told the committee. "We ask that you respect our opinion or at the very least respectfully disagree – especially when it comes to this issue. And especially when it comes to this issue the latter has not occurred."

The police chief said his message was for all MPs, but in later comments he was critical of the Conservatives.

"A few within this government would rather give voice to the exceptions and claim that they are actually the real voice of policing," he said. 

Torigian, one of many witnesses heard from on both sides of the debate, said there has been "no consultation" with law enforcement on this bill and that his association's multiple attempts to reach out to the government have been rejected.

"We are allowed to disagree but we should always be respectful in doing so. We are hopeful that this will become the preferred way of doing business by all parties moving forward," he said.

'A wedge' between Conservatives and police

At her first opportunity, Hoeppner shot back against the police chiefs association. She said the CACP is "not telling the truth of how police are using and not using the registry" and she also questioned its assertion that at its 2010 annual meeting, members voted to support keeping the registry.

She said members were in fact asked if they supported the Canadian Firearms Program, not if they specifically supported the long gun portion of it. The Conservatives are not seeking to dismantle the whole registry program or change any licensing requirements. Restricted and prohibited firearms will still need to be registered and all gun owners must have a licence.

"During this argument your organization, who deserves tremendous respect, you do a great service to our country, to the cities that you represent, you’re in a uniform and Canadians when they see you on television they believe what you say," Hoeppner said.

"We do have very different views on this issue. There is a gap and a wedge between your position and our government’s position, and sadly that gap has not been closed," she said.

When Kuntz made his remarks to the committee he said the gun registry is a list of people that is based solely on a piece of personal property that they own. Forcing them to register that item is no different than asking every male to register their DNA as a potential sex offender.

"It would be no different than registering every woman who ever suffered from post-partum depression in this country as a potential child killer. Or any member of the clergy, any soccer or hockey or football coach, Scout leader or teacher as a potential pedophile or any military as a potential homicidal serial sex offender," said Kuntz. "Now that I’ve offended about 99 per cent of Canadians by just simply merely suggesting such a registry, think about the firearms registry."

Kuntz said he personally knows 15 people who were the victims of gun violence, both suicides and murders, some with long guns, some not, and he's still in favour of abolishing the registry because it "does not save lives."

"That is the premise behind the Chiefs of Police when they say it’s public safety. I am telling you it is not," he said.

"The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has said that police officers support the registry. I am one that does not," he said in his opening statement.

The committee is in the midst of hearings on the bill, which was introduced last month by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. There is added opposition to it now because of how it specifies that the records will be destroyed. Hoeppner's bill did not include that provision, but the government says its promise to abolish the registry always implied that the records would be scrapped too.

Dawson students say they are ignored

Toews told that to the committee on Tuesday and Tory MP Maxime Bernier reiterated the argument Thursday just minutes before a scheduled press conference by some of the witnesses at the committee meeting who are in favour of the registry.

They included Quebec's public safety minister, Robert Dutil, the Coalition for Gun Control, and students from Dawson College, the Montreal school where a student was shot dead and 19 were injured in 2006.

The students testified that they too have been ignored by the Conservative government and their requests for meetings have gone unanswered. They pleaded with MPs to take their time with the bill and to work on fixing the problems with the registry instead of scrapping it.

"When our legislation disappoints us we should not shrug it off and declare defeat. We have a collective responsibility to look at the holes in the system and plug them. Students know it’s better to repair and improve rather than forget and reject," said Mathieu Murphy-Perron, executive director of the Dawson Student Union.

Quebec is fully in favour of keeping the registry and wants to do its own after the federal government uses its majority to successfully push through the bill into law.

Dutil acknowledged there are irritants for hunters associated with the registration regime, but he called for those to be worked on instead of abolishing the entire registry.

"We don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said.

Dutil said Quebec is entitled to the registry data since Quebecers helped pay for it.

Individuals who hunt and do sports shooting also testified at the committee meeting Thursday in support of the government's efforts.

"There is no question that the long-gun registry has deterred individuals from entering shooting sports," Diana Cabrera, a member of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association said.

Hélène Larente, a member of a Quebec hunting association, said the registry is ineffective and useless in protecting public safety and it targets law abiding gun owners.

"As a hunter, I find it unfair that we are treated like criminals because the real criminals get around the laws and do not register their firearms," she said.