CANADA

In the crossfire

LUKE FISHER October 3 1994
CANADA

In the crossfire

LUKE FISHER October 3 1994

In the crossfire

CANADA

LUKE FISHER

In the late 1960s, Robert Campbell fought hard against gun control as a member of a group called Firearms and Responsible Ownership. He even appeared before a parliamentary committee to denounce proposed legislation to tighten restrictions on guns, and what he saw as growing public paranoia about firearms. For the 50-year-old Campbell—a manager with an Ottawa telecommunications firm who is still a gun collector—not much has changed in the past 25 years. Last Thursday, he found himself back on Parliament Hill to denounce the Liberal government’s plans for tighter gun control. Except this time, he was joined by 10,000 noisy gun owners determined to block further restrictions on their weapons. “We are just seeing the same old crap here,” said Campbell. ‘We are not the problem and we never have been.”

The Ottawa rally brought the emotional issue of gun control to the steps of Parliament. For the past several months, dozens of groups representing hunters, sport shooters and gun collectors have organized rallies

across the country and mobilized a powerful movement against Justice Minister Allan Rock’s proposals for more restrictions. Last week, demonstrators waved placards bearing such slogans as “I’m a sportsman, not a hit man” and “Adolf Hitler favored gun control, too,” and booed Rock when he addressed them. Through an effective mail-in and phone campaign, they have persuaded as many as 30 Liberal MPs to distance themselves from some of Rock’s proposals, such as banning handguns in cities.

That has left the governing party caught in

Firearms owners lobby Ottawa to drop plans for tougher gun control

the middle of a divisive debate. Ontario Liberal MP Paul Steckle (Huron/Bruce), a longtime hunter, says his office has been overwhelmed with mail from outraged gun owners. After last week’s demonstration on Parliament Hill, Steckle told Maclean’s that he thinks Rock should back off. “We are rushing into this too quickly,” he said. Another Liberal backbencher, Benoit Serré (Timiskaming/French River), has distributed a discussion paper to the party’s caucus calling a total ban on handguns “impractical and ineffective.”

The gun owners’ groups are matched in emotional firepower by national organizations such as Victims of Violence, whose leaders say that handguns are designed simply for concealment and have no place in Canada. Just a couple of hours before the gun owners invaded Parliament Hill, the group brought families of the victims of some of Canada’s most sensational murders to Ottawa to deliver heart-wrenching pleas for government action. The group’s president, Robert MacNamara, admitted that he was impressed by the gun lobby’s newfound clout. But he pointed to opinion polls showing that as many as 75 per cent of Canadians favor tighter controls. MacNamara, who became an activist after his brother Patrick was killed in 1989 by a man wielding a handgun, said of the gun owners: “They’re a minority—a very vocal minority.”

However, with as many as six million Canadians owning firearms, the federal government faces what is potentially a large and determined minority. Learning from their opponents, pro-gun groups have realized the political impact of a tragic story. Protesters wore black armbands and dedicated their rally to the memory of Roger Pardy, a strong opponent of firearm restrictions who was shot to death on Sept. 14 during a holdup at his gun store in Oshawa, Ont. John Perocchio, president of the Canadian Firearms Action Council, insisted that further restrictions will only inconvenience legitimate gun owners and fail to address the fundamental problem: lack of enforcement of current federal laws. Campaigners complain that existing laws requiring automatic jail terms for criminals who use firearms have been weakened because the extra penalties are often plea-bargained away. “Enough is enough,” said Perocchio. “We won’t put up with it.” Indeed, gun owners believe that they have Rock on the run. Gun control proved divisive for the Tories, whose government was forced to water down tough new restrictions after it brought in legislation in 1990. Then-Justice Minister Kim Campbell introduced another bill the following year, which prohibited the purchase of certain types of assault weapons and submachine-guns. Leaders of the new gun

lobby clearly hope that they can force the Liberal government to make a similar retreat. Merv Grunow, president of the Responsible Firearms Owners of Alberta, said that Rock has already distanced himself from a total ban on handguns because of vocal opposition. Said Grunow: “It’s the old story—the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

In fact, Rock has been speaking to groups in many rural areas in recent months about his proposals. Fie has said he is considering changes in three key areas: a crackdown on illegal weapons; increased sentences for those who use guns while committing crimes; setting up a national registry of all firearms (registration is now required only for handguns and certain restricted weapons). “I will only recommend the registration system if it works, and if it can be put in place without undue expense to the firearm owner,” Rock told Maclean’s last week. “If we have a registration system, it will be phased in to minimize inconvenience.” At the same time, the minister insists that he will not prevent hunters and sport shooters from enjoying their pursuits when he introduces his proposals, expected before Christmas. “Our object is not to harass people or interfere with their enjoyment of a legitimate sport,” he said. “The object is to achieve public safety, as we do with automobiles and every other piece of property in the country.”

Whatever Rock’s proposals, they are likely to get a cold reception from the Reform party, with its base in the West and in rural areas. With many rural Canadians strongly opposed to tighter controls, Reform MPs like Albertan Ray Speaker have taken up the fight against tighter regulation, suggesting that Rock is appealing to fear of crime among more numerous urban voters. Reform sees this as an opportunity to chip away at Liberal popularity.

After mingling with T-shirt and hunting-cap-clad demonstrators, Speaker said: “This issue goes to the hearts of people where I am.”

For Robert Campbell, the widespread image of gun owners as “some sort of weirdos” is heartbreaking. “You know what the gun lobby is?” he asked last week, gesturing to the chanting crowd. “It’s all these honest people who are fed up.” But both sides have compelling arguments. MacNamara of Victims of Violence pointed to the continuing carnage in Canada, where 1,400 people died by gunfire last year. “I really wish the pro-gun groups would stop and think how this could help Canadians,” he said. With so many people so angry, the government’s final decision on which way to go will likely fall to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien himself.

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa