As major Canadian cities face a spike in gun violence — Toronto has seen 10 people shot in just the last five days — local leaders are calling on the federal government to do more to help them grapple with a wave of gang-related crime.
In response to these pleas, the federal Liberals are pointing to their multi-million dollar spending plan for a guns-and-gangs initiative, and new legislation Ottawa says will tighten the country’s firearms regime and keep more guns out of the hands of criminals.
But will the bill slow the circulation of crime guns used to commit these increasingly brazen homicides?
Liberals have pitched the bill, C-71, as a collection of “common-sense measures that will crack down on illegal handguns and assault weapons, creating safer communities” while “protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.” The changes were explicitly promised in the last Liberal election platform as a way to reverse a decade’s worth of Conservative government changes to gun rules that the Trudeau government claims have bolstered gun-related crime.
Critics maintain the bill is nothing more than a symbolic sop for gun control advocates that will penalize lawful gun owners by burdening them with unreasonable regulations. Advocates say troubling crime stats demand action.Between 2013 and 2016, according to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the number of criminal incidents in Canada involving firearms rose by 30 per cent, while the number of gun homicides spiked by 60 per cent.
(Some have criticized the use of 2013 as a baseline year because it saw Canada’s lowest rate of criminal homicides in 50 years, and the lowest rate of fatal shootings ever recorded by Statistics Canada — making any comparison look particularly dire.)
“This is a Canadian problem and it’s a Canada-wide problem. We need to tackle it head-on in ways that are effective and focused on public safety outcomes, while ensuring the firearms owners and businesses are treated fairly and reasonably,” Goodale said at a recent Commons committee meeting studying the legislation.
“Bill C-71 accomplishes those objectives.”
Three aspects of the bill — which is still before the House of Commons at the third-reading stage — are seen as crime-fighting measures.
First, it tasks the RCMP with enhanced background checks which would cover the entire history of a would-be firearms licensee — rather than the current standard of a five-year check — to weed out people considered too risky to own a gun.
Second, the bill would require that firearms businesses keep track of all their sales — including sales of non-restricted firearms, like shotguns — to help police trace guns used in crimes, detect “straw purchasing” schemes (where someone permitted to own a gun buys for someone banned from owning a gun) and identify trafficking networks. It’s a measure that existed in law before, but was dismantled in 1995 with the introduction of the now-defunct long gun registry.
Third, the bill would implement a system to flag “large, unusual” transactions made by those who have a “possession and acquisition license” (PAL) to prevent the diversion of legally procured guns into criminal hands.
Under the new law, the records would be owned and maintained by the retailers themselves and would be accessible to police only if they obtain a warrant.
While some gun rights advocates argue this sales log rule is simply the highly-controversial gun registry returning under another name, gun control advocates say the Liberals haven’t gone far enough — that they should have restored the so-called “1977 provisions.”
That is a reference to a firearms law that once forced gun retailers to record all firearms sales, document purchasers’ firearms license numbers and the serial numbers and models of firearms sold, and make those records easily available to police looking to trace non-restricted firearms. Those guns have become increasingly difficult to track as they do not need to be registered like restricted firearms (such as handguns) and prohibited guns.
The Liberals already have rejected an amendment to make the sales records more readily available to police.
“This is a political decision. It has absolutely nothing to do with the evidence,” Wendy Cukier, a professor at Ryerson University and the president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said in an interview with CBC News.
She said it’s a myth that handguns alone are used in the commission of crimes, pointing to an incident in Toronto on Saturday which allegedly saw a woman armed with a shotgun open fire on two pedestrians in a fit of road rage. The woman has been charged with attempted murder and unauthorized possession of a firearm.
“We have real concerns, based on watching this issue for more than 30 years, that if you make it really difficult for the police to have access to those records — and you require that they go and get a search warrant before they can access them — that’s going to be a major impediment to the tracing process and add to the costs considerably,” Cukier said.
She said she believes the Liberal government caved in to the “gun lobby” by rejecting demands for easier police access to store records.
“It’s not a secret they’re very worried about the politics of this. I didn’t hear one substantive argument against the amendments that we proposed,” she said.
“They’re worried about rural caucus, they’re worried about gun owners and most MPs have received at least a thousand letters from gun owners and virtually nothing from people who support gun control.”
‘Not a panacea to gun violence’
When asked recently if the Toronto Police thought Bill C-71 could reduce the frequency of gun crime, the supervisor of the force’s organized crime unit said it would be of “limited” value — but still useful.
“I’m not sure that the bill addresses these things directly. What it does do is it enhances police capacity to investigate. That’s all it does. It doesn’t go a whole long way into the forest, but it does bring some enhancements, from a policing perspective,” Supt. Gordon Sneddon said.
“Gangs are the problem, but it’s the guns that the gangs bring with them that are the real problem. From my perspective, where did those guns come from? What’s the source of those guns? … Every gun tells a story. It’s really important that we understand that.
“There are elements within this bill that help toward that. It won’t solve the issue.”
Mario Harel, the Gatineau, Que. police director who heads the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), said the bill is not a “panacea to gun violence” but fits into a larger strategy aimed at beating back an increase in domestic firearms trafficking cases.
“Since the long gun registry was abolished, the police have been effectively blind to the number of transactions by any licensed individual relating to non-restricted firearms,” he said.
Like gun control advocates, CACP is recommending the government amend C-71 to make it easier for police to obtain information about buyers from a retailer.
“The standard to obtain such a specific production order should be amended from ‘reasonable grounds’ to ‘reason to suspect,'” Harel said.
Police say more firearms coming from domestic sources
Most concerning for police are new stats — collected by Toronto police and and investigators in B.C. — that suggest more than 50 per cent of all firearms used in crimes in Canada were purchased legally in Canada, and were diverted to criminal elements either through the illegal arms trade or theft.
“It’s a trend that’s really disturbing. We identified it in Toronto and it’s a trend that has continued across Canada,” Sneddon said.
Goodale has pointed to these stats as reason enough to force all retailers to keep track of their sales. Many already do.
“Police authorities have told me they would have said three to five years ago that the major source was smuggling operations coming in from the United States. However, they believe the nature of the source has changed,” Goodale said, citing break-ins at pawn and gun shops as a particular problem.
But gun rights experts maintain this is anecdotal evidence and not backed up by facts gathered by Statistics Canada.
In fact, during a recent conference on guns and gangs, Lynn Barr-Telford, director general of health, justice and special surveys at Statistics Canada, said the origin of firearms involved in Canadian gun crime is largely unknown.
“At the height of the long-gun registry, Stats Canada documented that nine per cent of the firearms involved in homicides were registered,” said Gary Mauser, a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University who runs a blog called Justice for Gun Owners.
“Other than police claims based on a secret, bloated definition, there’s no support for the change in the source of crime guns. According to StatsCan, lawful owners cannot be a major source of crime guns. According to StatsCan, PAL holders are much less apt to commit murder than other Canadians.”