LAW

Up in arms

Proposed gun laws face massive opposition

NORA UNDERWOOD December 10 1990
LAW

Up in arms

Proposed gun laws face massive opposition

NORA UNDERWOOD December 10 1990

Up in arms

LAW

Proposed gun laws face massive opposition

Twelve months have passed since 25year-old Marc Lépine walked into Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique and, in a 20-minute orgy of violence, used a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle to gun down 27 people, killing 14 women. Then, Lépine used the rifle to kill himself. It was the worst single-day massacre in Canadian history, and it sparked nationwide demands for tougher gun legislation. But as Polytechnique staff and students marked the anniversary of the killings this week, federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell’s proposed gun-control bill, which she introduced in the House of Commons in June, faced massive opposition from pro-gun lobbyists. Many of them say that Bill C-80 will penalize gun collectors, hunters and recreational shooters while leaving guns in the hands of criminals. Declared Richard Cornblum, a director of Toronto-based Safeguard, a national lobbying group that opposes stricter gun control: “It's a mistake to differentiate be-

tween good guns and bad guns. Any gun is lethal in the wrong hands.”

Originally intended as an updating of existing gun regulations, which had not been amended since 1978, Bill C-80 took on new urgency following the Montreal massacre. When it was introduced in Parliament, the bill, which would make it harder for gun enthusiasts to acquire any type of firearm, drew a storm of criticism from pro-gun groups. At the same time, MPs who represent rural and native districts expressed concern that the regulations would limit gun ownership in areas where hunting and target shooting are a way of life.

Following intense lobbying by groups opposed to the legislation, Campbell late last month referred the bill to a special all-party committee for preliminary study. That action was bitterly opposed by many of those who favor the proposed new gun-control legislation. They said that by delaying the bill’s progress through Parliament, Campbell’s decision would

almost certainly result in the bill dying when the current Parliament ends sometime in February. “The bill is going to die,” said Liberal justice critic Russell MacLellan, a member of the special committee. “The government is killing it.”

Campbell insisted that Bill C-80 was not being shelved. But opposition critics say that there will not be enough time left during the current Parliament to pass the legislation through both houses. That means that Campbell will probably have to reintroduce a guncontrol bill during the next session, likely in the spring. Said MP Mary Clancy, the Liberal’s status-of-women critic: “It’s a very scary situation. We need that legislation now—not six months from now.”

If the bill becomes law, it would impose tough new restrictions on gun ownership. Under the terms of the bill, anyone found guilty of converting a semi-automatic firearm, which fires a single shot with each pull of the trigger, to fully-automatic could face five years in prison. Bill C-80 would also limit the size of the ammunition magazines on a semi-automatic rifle to five bullets (Lépine’s rifle had a 30-shot clip).

The bill would also tighten registration requirements. Under existing law, anyone wishing to buy a firearm must first obtain a firearms acquisition certificate from police. For people without criminal records, they are relatively easy to get. But under the proposed law, all applicants would have to provide the police with photo identification, and their applications

would require two guarantor’s signatures from professionals, including doctors or ministers. As well, to discourage impulse buying of guns, Bill C-80 would require a 28-day waiting period between registration for gun ownership and the date of taking ownership of a gun. “There are shortcomings,” said criminologist Darryl Davies, a consultant to the Ottawa-based Canadian Criminal Justice Association’s gun-control group. But, he added, “it’s a good first step.” Like other supporters of the bill, Davies expressed concern over the growing use of

firearms for criminal purposes in Canada. He said that shooting is the most commonly used method of committing murder in Canada, accounting for 33 per cent of the 657 murders reported in 1989. According to Staff Insp. Robert Crampton, a firearms expert with the Metropolitan Toronto Police, there has been a significant increase in the number of restricted weapons, including handguns and some kinds of semi-automatic rifles, in recent years. He said that, as of Dec. 31, 1989, 947,072 restricted weapons were registered in Canada, up from

893,505 two years earlier. Said Crampton: “The question is, why are people arming themselves?”

But gun lobbyists maintain that legislation like Bill C-80 will not stop criminals. Said Safeguard’s Cornblum: “You’re going to go to the United States and walk into a gun store, buy what you want, drop it in your pocket and drive across the border.” Instead of restrictive laws, spokesmen for most pro-gun groups advocate increased education and training in gun use, as well as tough, compulsory sentencing for criminals who use firearms.

Some gun-control advocates, including Crampton, contend that if Bill C-80 had been in force a year ago, it would not have prevented Marc Lépine from going on his killing spree. Crampton said that in 1989, he suggested in a report to then-justice Minister Ramon Hnatyshyn that every application for a firearms acquisition certificate, which is valid for five years, be accompanied by a waiver allowing police to look into the psychological backgrounds of the applicants. But Crampton said that Ottawa did not even respond to his advice. While there is no foolproof way of stopping someone like Lépine, said Crampton, “had those things been in place, I daresay that whole incident might have been preventable.” Meanwhile, as silent vigils marked the first anniversary of the Montreal massacre, the prospects of more effective gun contol remained uncertain.

NORA UNDERWOOD