CANADA

Allan Rock’s war on guns

The justice minister unveils a set of proposals to restrict firearms

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1994
CANADA

Allan Rock’s war on guns

The justice minister unveils a set of proposals to restrict firearms

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1994

Allan Rock’s war on guns

CANADA

The justice minister unveils a set of proposals to restrict firearms

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Behind the polished, polite exterior of Justice Minister Allan Rock, it is becoming clear, beats the heart of a singleminded and shrewd political warrior. As recently as late September, his plans to introduce tough new gun-control legislation were endangered by a Liberal caucus revolt that was driven, in turn, by a growing and well-co-ordinated national campaign by gun owners. More than 10,000 gun lobbyists showed up for a demonstration on Parliament Hill, while several Liberal MPs said publicly they would vote against any further gun controls. And Rock, some of his opponents added with a sneer, should not pronounce on a topic he knew nothing about. The 47-year-old justice minister, who had never handled a firearm in his life, responded with characteristic meticulousness. For one thing, he said last week, he decided that opponents “would want to know that I actually had picked up a firearm, knew the heft of a Magnum [revolver], knew the recoil of a shotgun. So I went to the RCMP firing range and blasted away.”

If gun advocates had expected the experience to be an epiphany for him, they were sorely disappointed. Firing a gun, Rock said, was “interesting,” but otherwise changed nothing for him. He, on the other hand, began working hard to change the minds of opponents within the Liberal caucus, crisscrossing the country to visit their ridings and urging them to arrange meetings for him with concerned groups. He also decided to confront skeptics—among both his supporters and opponents—who suggested he would rather talk about the issue than act on it. “An opposition member recently said I should be called the minister of consultation rather than the minister of justice,” Rock said with a grimace. “It came time to show that is not so.”

Last week, Rock did so in dramatic fashion. He introduced a “decision document”—a precursor to a series of bills that will be introduced in early February—that outlined sweeping reforms to the way Canada regulates the ownership and use of firearms. Among the key measures:

• All gun owners will be required, over a seven-year period beginning in 1996, to register themselves and, subsequently, their weapons. At present, the government estimates that Canada’s three million gun owners have about seven million firearms.

• Canadians will be banned from owning handguns unless they are collectors or use them for target shooting. Sales of handguns will face stiff new controls, and it will not be possible to transfer or bequeath ownership of handguns after the death of the present owner.

• Anyone using firearms while committing serious crimes, such as robbery or kidnapping, will face a minimum four-year sentence to be served in addition to the sentence for the other crime.

• Sales of ammunition will be severely restricted, and 21 types of assault weapons and paramilitary rifles will be banned.

Of those measures, almost everyone on either side of the debate likes the idea of tougher sanctions for the use of firearms during crimes. “We are the law-and-order party and surely will support a strengthening of penalties,” said Reform MP and justice critic Jack Ramsay. As a result, the most angry protests centre on the registration plan, and the measures affecting ownership of handguns. Although gun control has long aroused intense debate within Canada, one new element is the adherence of some Reform MPs and gun owners to an American-style belief that lawabiding citizens should have a constitutional right to bear arms.

Gun-control legislation, said Ramsay, requires a government to “balance the right of the individual to own property, in this case firearms, with the responsibility of the state to protect members of society from the dangerous or illegal use of firearms.”

To no one’s surprise, Rock defends the need to take tough action by, among other things, sharply criticizing the American approach to gun ownership. “There are very few countries in the world that, like Canada, live on a 5,000 km border with a culture awash in guns that saturates us with their entertainment, that tries to seduce us with their values, and that puts us next to 200million-plus handguns and rifles in private ownership,” said Rock.

Still, in their opposition to Rock’s registration plan, the gun lobby will receive support that is at least symbolically important and comes from an unlikely source: the federal New Democratic Party caucus. On the one hand, there is an obvious irony in the NDP—the party that has always been most in favor of government intervention—opposing a gun registration law. But the party’s traditional—although now-shrunken—roots are in the Prairies, where the tradition of gun ownership is particularly strong. “We need to be persuaded that the national registry will work,” said Saskatchewan MP Chris Axworthy. “I have some questions about the cost, the bureaucracy, and the extent to which it will work in rural areas versus urban areas.” At the same time, some recalcitrant Liberals say they may still oppose a bill containing that requirement. “I hope the proposals will not be in one bill,” said Ontario Liberal MP Benoit Serré. “I’m afraid I would have to vote against it.”

Serré will not get his wish. A senior justice department official

told Maclean’s that the new measures, which affect a variety of existing laws and regulations, will be tabled simultaneously in one omnibus bill. That means, among other things, that MPs like Serré, who support new restrictions on gun use for criminals, but oppose other aspects of the bill, must now decide which issues are more important to them. In the case of Reform MPs, the vast majority will likely vote against such a bill. Not many Liberals are expected to follow suit—at least if Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has his way. Said an adviser to Chrétien: “That [opposition], is not an option we think our caucus members should consider.” And even if several Liberal MPs do break ranks, the bill is almost certain to pass easily: while criticizing

Rock for delaying the legislation, the 53-member Bloc Québécois caucus otherwise supported its main goals.

At the same time, Rock insists that many present opponents of the registration plan will be won over when they see the “ease” with which it is implemented. He compares the new process to the equivalent of “holding a driver’s licence and a separate registration form for your car.” The driver’s licence equivalent will be a Firearms Possession Certificate (FPC). From Jan. 1, 1996, anyone owning a firearm will be required to send a form containing their name and address to the justice department. In turn, they will receive an FPC—if they pass a background check by the department to ensure that they are not prohibited from owning weapons. That form will have to be renewed every five years. The second form is a Firearms Registration Card (FRC). Beginning on Jan. 1, 1998, firearm owners will have to fill in a form listing their name, address, FPC number and the type and serial numbers of any weapons they own. That form will be valid for as long as the owner maintains the firearms. Although federal officials have not yet said how much each of those forms will cost, they say they are likely to give the FPC for free as an incentive to anyone registering within the first year of the program. “Owners,” predicted Rock, “are going to be pleasantly surprised by how painless this process will be.”

If so, that may be one of the only simple points in an otherwise complex plan. Federal officials worked closely with computer experts from IBM to create what they describe as a stateof-the-art system that will help police across the country to instantly verify whether firearms holders are legally entitled to the weapons they carry. If, for example, someone living in Ontario and possessing an FPC is convicted in British Columbia of a crime that results in their losing the right to carry a weapon, that information will be listed instantly on a data bank that will be available nationwide to police—even in their patrol cars. The system, said a Justice official, “will be one-of-a-kind: no other country is even close to doing what we plan.”

But plans are one thing—and achieving them sometimes quite another. Some opponents of the proposed legislation predict mass civil disobedience. “You can pass any laws you want, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the public will do it,” said Luc Dufresne, a gun-shop owner in Hull, Que. And even Rock concedes that stopping the flow of guns « from the United States will be “an ex| tremely challenging task.”

5 There are also some complex—and

0 conflicting—priorities to be considered.

1 One involves balancing the traditional right of native people to bring weapons across the border without undue restrictions against the concern that native reserves will become hotbeds for smuggling. In the Yukon, Rock says, he met

natives who told him “when you organize your law, Mr. Minister, you better be bloody careful to ensure we can still have our traditional potlatch [with the bringing of guns as gifts] with our neighbors and band colleagues from Alaska across that artificial border you’ve drawn.” The lessons of that experience, says Rock, are that you have to be flexible, that none of this will be easy, but we cannot let that be an excuse for inaction.” And Rock, in bringing months of tempestuous discussions to a dramatic close, has now taken action that will speak louder, and longer, than any words.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH With LUKE FISHER in Ottawa