Tories, opposition spar over gun classifications

Opposition parties said the legislation to abolish the gun registry will make it easier for criminals to access dangerous weapons on Tuesday before the bill passed second reading.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced the introduction of the bill to scrap the long-gun registry at a farm near Ottawa last week. On Tuesday, he said it has done nothing to improve public safety. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

The government fended off accusations from the opposition Tuesday that it is making it easier for criminals to access dangerous guns by abolishing the long-gun registry.

The Conservatives introduced legislation on Oct. 25 that would remove the requirement to register non-prohibited long guns in the RCMP's database. The requirement to register prohibited and restricted firearms would remain intact and no changes to the licensing regime are proposed.

The bill  passed second reading in the House by a vote of 156 to 123. The legislation will now go to a committee of MPs to hear from witnesses. NDP MPs Bruce Hyer and John Rafferty, both from northern Ontario, voted with the Conservatives to pass the bill.

The NDP said in question period that easing the registration requirements will mean certain firearms, including the one used in the Montreal massacre in 1989 and the mass shooting in Norway this past summer, are exempt from registration and shouldn't be.

The NDP's interim leader Nycole Turmel read a quote from Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino, the former chief of police in Toronto and former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, who said that a concern in policing is knowing what firearms might be around when police respond to a call. Turmel asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper if he agrees with Fantino and if he agrees that the gun used by Marc Lépine to murder 14 women in 1989 at Montreal's l'École Polytechnique is a dangerous one.

"The system for the classification of firearms was established long ago, the government follows the process, it's not changed in any way by this particular bill," Harper responded. "The government has been clear, it favours the elimination of the long-gun registry. The government will not do anything to support the creation of a registry by other levels of government."

Quebec vows to fight for registry

The government's bill also orders the destruction of all existing records in the long-gun registry, a provision that has prompted a lot of criticism, especially from Quebec. The provincial government there wants to maintain the registry and Quebec's justice minister, on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, said it's not giving up.

"We are looking at all the opportunities, all the means that we can deal with to give to our police forces this tool that they use to protect the public," Jean-Marc Fournier told reporters after testifying at the House of Commons justice and human rights committee on the government's omnibus crime bill.

"If we talk about protecting the public and hearing the policemen, they are asking us to keep that registry and we will do whatever we've got to do to protect it," he said.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is on side with Fournier when it comes to trying to save the registry, but he said Tuesday that his province won't try and create its own.

"I'm disappointed with the decision being made by the federal government, it's something that I have opposed for some time and made that very clear. I favour the gun registry system that we have in place. I think it serves the public interest and most importantly it serves public safety purposes," he said while at an event in Ottawa.

McGuinty said if the Conservatives are going to get rid of the registry they need to do something else to replace it in order to protect police.

"The question has been, 'Are we going to be pushing our own provincialgun registry system?' No. I support a national gun registry system, not a hodge podge of various and sundry provincial registry systems ... that is less than ideal," he said. 

Concerns are also being raised by the Coalition for Gun Control about the types of weapons that fall under the non-prohibited category that will no longer have to be registered once the Conservatives successfully pass their bill. The alliance of more than 300 organizations that was formed in the wake of the Montreal Massacre is trying to put a stop to the government's effort to scrap the registry and it sees the bill as an "archaic rollback" to the days of looser gun control.

There is no inclusion in the proposed legislation to require storeowners to once again keep records of the guns they sell and to whom, something registry supporters say the government must bring back.

"Without the long-gun registry, the government must re-establish the requirement that merchants keep records of gun purchasers, and the same requirement must be imposed upon gun owners who give, transfer or sell their firearms," Denis Côté, president of Quebec’s federation of municipal police forces and a member of the coalition, said in a statement last week.

Non-restricted guns are most rifles, shotguns or combination guns that are not included in the law's definition of restricted or prohibited firearms. There are various criteria, including barrel length and ammunition size, that are used to classify a gun and different rules for licensing, possession, storing and transporting the firearms apply depending on its classification.

New Democrat MP Jack Harris said the government is making it easier for "dangerous firearms to fall into the wrong hands."

"Why is this government making it harder to track who has these dangerous weapons? Why hasn't it learned from the past?" he said.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews echoed Harper's stance in question period saying Bill C-19 doesn't make changes to the classification system and that the government is following a system established by the former Liberal government. He accused Harris of fear-mongering and misleading Canadians.

Toews was asked following question period whether the classification criteria should be amended given the certain abolishment of the long gun portion of the gun registry.

"That's an issue for another day," said Toews.

The Conservatives argue that the registration requirement should be abolished because the long gun portion of the registry is a waste of money and it's ineffective at reducing gun crime. They also say the registry unfairly targets law-abiding long gun owners, hunters and sports shooters, and burdens them with restrictions instead of going after real criminals.

"It's a waste of money and we would like to see resources put elsewhere other than the long-gun registry," said Toews. "We don't believe that the long-gun registry will contribute in any way to public safety."

The government's arguments are rejected by police agencies who say they use the registry thousands of times a day, victims groups, the medical community and other supporters.

"Registering firearms does not demonize gun owners any more than registering a car demonizes car owners," Barbara Byers, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress has said. Byers says rifles and shotguns are the firearms that have figured prominently in workplace violence involving guns.

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae also rejected the government's assertions that the registry doesn't improve public safety on Tuesday.

"When people get up on their feet and they say that no crimes have been prevented by the registry, that is just absolute crap," he told reporters. "Lives have been saved."

"I just think this government is going down a crazy path," Rae said. He said some long guns should be re-classified given the impending abolishment of the registry.

The government moved time allocation after it introduced the bill in order to limit debate on it. It was scheduled for its final day of debate at second reading on Tuesday and will then move to the committee stage.