Liberal government's firearms bill clears Senate, despite Tory attempts to gut it

The federal Liberal government's firearms legislation, Bill C-71, was passed by the Senate last night as Independent senators fought off an attempt by the Conservatives to weaken key provisions of the legislation designed to tackle gun violence.

Conservatives vow to repeal legislation that includes enhanced background checks, retail record-keeping

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale championed the passage of Bill C-71, the government's changes to the firearms regime, saying these 'common sense' reforms would help the police with investigations and help keep more Canadians safe. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The federal Liberal government's firearms legislation, Bill C-71, was passed by the Senate last night as Independent senators fought off an attempt by the Conservatives to weaken key provisions of the legislation designed to tackle gun violence.

The bill — which, among other things, enhances background checks, forces retailers to keep records of firearms sales and tweaks the authorization to transport (ATT) regime — has cleared all the legislative hurdles and is now awaiting royal assent. The Conservative opposition issued a statement Wednesday saying that, if elected, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would repeal the bill.

"A Conservative government led by Andrew Scheer will get tough on gangs, give law enforcement the tools they need to keep Canadians safe and crack down on illegal gun smuggling. And we will repeal C-71 once and for all," Pierre Paul-Hus, the Conservative critic for public safety, said in a statement.

The bill has faced entrenched opposition from guns rights advocates who maintain the legislation will do little, if anything, to actually reduce gun-related crime in this country — most of which is carried out by people using guns smuggled from the U.S. Gun control advocates, meanwhile, have championed the bill as a prudent attempt to better police firearms at a time when troubling crime stats demand action.

Heidi ​Rathjen — a gun control activist and survivor of the 1989 Polytechnique massacre who has advocated for tighter restrictions on handguns — welcomed the bill's passage but said the Liberal government still has more to do on gun control.

"While the measures in Bill C-71 are a direct outcome of the Liberals' election platform, most are weaker than what one would expect from a majority government elected on the basis of a pro-gun control platform, with some measures including obvious concessions to the gun lobby," she said.

"Even though the final package is far from what we had hoped, C-71 contains a number of important measures that are sure to increase public safety. We wish to thank Min. Ralph Goodale for bringing in the only federal legislation in 23 years that strengthens Canada's gun control law, as well as the majority of senators for having prioritized the public interest by rejecting Conservative amendments that would have weakened the bill."

Conservative Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, an ardent foe of the Liberal reforms, successfully amended the bill at the Senate's national defence committee, saying some of the bill's provisions unfairly target law-abiding gun owners. The government had enough votes among Independent members to overturn those changes and restore the bill as originally written.

While the upper house generally respects legislation that enacts explicit election promises — and most of the content of C-71 was included in the 2015 Liberal manifesto — Plett said the bill fails to achieve its public safety objectives and should be defeated.

In a heated speech to the chamber, he admonished members of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) for supporting the bill.

"If you are not prepared to give it an A-plus, then where are the corrections? Where are the amendments? Why are you about to send this terrible bill back to the other place, rubber-stamped and ready for implementation, if it's broken or incomplete?" Plett said.

"I know that every senator in this chamber supports measures that increase public safety. Yet, instead of taking action to do so — any action — you quietly fall in line behind your leader."

Independent B.C. Sen. Bev Busson, a former commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said the bill's relatively modest reforms are not a complete solution to gun violence, but they're still welcome.

She said that in Canada, unlike the U.S., there isn't an explicit right to bear arms.

"This bill is not, pardon the pun, the magic bullet against gun violence or organized crime, or even the proliferation of gang guns," she said. "But in my humble opinion, it is a definite step in the right direction in the quest for a respectful and commonsense balance between the requests and requirements of legal gun owners and the need to regulate gun ownership with minimally intrusive measures."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who introduced the legislation in March 2018, championed the bill's passage in a tweet late Wednesday, saying these "common sense" reforms would help the police with investigations and help keep more Canadians safe.

Changes to the firearms regime

The chief firearms officer in each province conducts a background check on anyone applying for a Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) — something all firearms owners must have before they can legally purchase a firearm in this country.

Under Bill C-71, the RCMP will now have the power to examine an applicant's entire life history for potential red flags before allowing them to pursue a firearms licence. The current standard assesses only the previous five years.

The legislation also forces retailers to keep a record of all firearms sales and inventories. A business must now record dates, references and licence numbers and a firearm's make, model, type and serial number — information Ottawa said should help police trace guns used in crimes. The Conservative opposition has called these measures — which most retailers already follow as a matter of good business practice — a "backdoor gun registry."

The Liberals are reversing another Harper-era change to the country's firearms laws by tightening the rules on carrying firearms away from home.

A licensed gun owner must possess an authorization to transport (ATT) document if they want to travel with a restricted firearm like a handgun.

The Harper government tweaked the regime so that the ATT was attached to a person's licence, eliminating a layer of paperwork; some called it an "automatic ATT."

After the change, gun owners did not have to seek approvals from police each time they transported their firearm for certain routine activities, like target shooting, taking a firearm home after a transfer, or going to a gunsmith or a gun show.

Under Bill C-71, an automatic ATT would be extended to those taking a firearm to a certified shooting range. In other circumstances, a separate ATT would be required. The government maintains that 95 per cent of all gun transportation is to and from a gun range, so the impact on most owners would be minimal.

Gun rights advocates say this is strictly a political move designed to punish legal owners because no criminal has ever applied for an ATT to carry out a gun crime. Gun control advocates, on the other hand, argue that strong controls over legal guns reduce the chance that they'll fall into the wrong hands.

The bill also reclassifies two types of firearms — most models of the Ceska zbrojovka CZ-858 rifle and certain Swiss Arms firearms — as "prohibited," which means owners will have to apply to have their rifles "grandfathered" or face dispossession.

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John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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