Canada

ARMED, ANGRY AND DEFIANT

‘Conscientious objectors’ who refuse to register firearms say they are fighting to protect freedoms

February 19 2001
Canada

ARMED, ANGRY AND DEFIANT

‘Conscientious objectors’ who refuse to register firearms say they are fighting to protect freedoms

February 19 2001

ARMED, ANGRY AND DEFIANT

Canada

‘Conscientious objectors’ who refuse to register firearms say they are fighting to protect freedoms

Ken MacQueen

Hand-painted the central British signs have Columbia popped up city throughout of Prince George as part of Phil Hewkin’s personal war on gun control. The messages are variations on a theme. “Gun control = people control.” Or “C-68, gun control, non-compliance = passive resistance.” Or one of his favourites, “GOT GUN, AMMO, BALLS. NO LIC. NO REG. NO C-68.” Hewkin, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad and tattoo artist, said an elderly woman climbed a ladder to tear down one of his creations. But most of the signs survive for weeks, in a region known as a hunter’s paradise—and where C-68 remains a hot-button issue.

On Jan. 1, Hewkin joined hundreds of thousands of Canadian gun owners—millions, claim some gun lobby groups— in violation of the Firearms Act. The act, known as Bill C-68 during its stormy ride through Parliament, required them to have a licence to own firearms or buy ammunition (though the government offered a grace period for applications postmarked by Dec. 31). Unconfirmed tales abound of weapons caches buried in backyards or barns. Most who ignored the law keep their transgression secret. “Why invite the Stasi to the front door?” asks Kevin Staines, vice-president of Responsible Firearms Owners Coalition of B.C., in a reference to the feared East German secret police. A rare few, like Hewkin, are openly defiant.

These self-styled “conscientious objectors” are not easily categorized. In British Columbia, which has the secondlowest level of gun ownership in Canada, Macleans also spoke with a retired police officer and an international tax expert who have, for various reasons, not complied with the Firearms Act. The personal stakes are huge. The maximum penalty under the new law for unauthorized possession of a firearm is 10 years in jail. Similar penalties will apply when the second phase of the act, registration of individual firearms, comes into force in 2003. “You bet I’m worried,” says Hewkin, who has hunted since boyhood and who owns

13 guns, some used by his three sons. He calls his resistance a principled stand against eroding freedoms. “I know what I risk. I believe Canada is worth it.”

Recent estimates by the federal Canadian Firearms Centre claim 300,000 of 2.3 million gun owners failed to apply by Jan. 1 for a $ 10 firearms possession licence or

a $60 possession and acquisition licence. The centre says about 140,000 owners have or will sell their guns or turn them over to police or, in some instances, museums. Still, that’s 300,000 people—a population equivalent to the city of Victoria—in violation. Their only option now is to seek the more expensive possession and acquisition licence, which requires passing a firearms safety test. Otherwise, the centre warns, unlicensed owners “are leaving themselves open to potential charges under the Criminal Code.”

Gun lobby Internet sites are aflame over the gun act: its cost, its licensing backlog, its perceived attack on freedoms and its inability to target criminals. They say the government, which previously estimated there were 3.3 million gun owners, lowered the number by almost a million so it would appear that a larger proportion of firearms owners were complying with the law. The firearms centre says the lower estimate of gun owners reflects new information. Some lobbyists feel outmuscled by the gun-phobia of urban voters. Among those claiming the law was rammed through against the wishes of western and rural voters is Bruce Hutton, founder and former president of the Alberta-based Law-abiding Unregistered Firearms Association. Hutton turned the former LUFA Web site into a pro-firearm forum dominated by conspiracy theorists and western separatists. “Sometimes it’s the laugh of the day before I have coffee,” David Austin, spokesman for the Ottawa-based firearms centre, says of the most outlandish claims on pro-gun Web sites. The National Firearms Association, for one, estimates the law will cost more than $2 billion. “Ludicrous,” says Austin, who puts the cost at $327 million over the past five years.

Its no laughing matter for some gun owners. Bill Mackereth, 56, of Burns Lake, a village of 2,700 cut into the wilderness 180 km west of Prince George, used to list his occupation as gunsmith. Bills Guns, he says, made money “until Bill C-68 came along and my business dropped about 85 per cent. So, I drive logging trucks for a living.” He is licensed to possess and acquire firearms, but he says the law is a fundamental misunderstanding of rural and Northern Canada. “Guns to people in the country are a part of their lives, just like a wheelbarrow is or a shovel is. It’s a tool, that’s all.” Another Burns Lake resident, Bill Waldren, 66, is also licensed. He says he’ll refuse to register his individual weapons by the 2003 deadline. The retired logger fears the list will be used to confiscate guns. “This is more than registering a duck gun and a deer rifle,” Waldren says. “This is one of your freedoms and it bothers me to no end that the government doesn’t trust me enough to let me have a firearm.”

Pockets of resistance exist even in urban Greater Vancouver. Gord Weitzel of Surrey is a retired member of the RCMP and, by his own admission, a rookie lawbreaker. Wrapped in a blanket in his attic is an heirloom

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.22-calibre rifle first given by his grandfather to his father during the Depression. “I don’t even know if it works.” He refuses to apply for a licence, calling the law a tax grab and an invasion of his rights. “I expect a lot of people are just like myself—they’ve hidden their guns and they don’t say anything. It’s silly to make a criminal out of me. I’m about as far from a criminal as they come.”

Then there is David Ingram, an international tax and immigration consultant and owner of two guns given him by his late father. Although he’d planned to be a “conscientious objector” and refuse to apply J for a licence, he had a change 1 of heart days before the dead| line. He made a futile search I for application forms at postal I outlets in his home commuI nity of North Vancouver and in nearby cities. In disgust, he sent a $10 money order directly to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He still has not received an application.

Gun owners complain there was a shortage of forms, while the firearms centre phones were jammed weeks before the deadline. If so, it may have been a manufactured crisis. Many gun groups advised waiting until the last minute to apply. LUFA even launched Operation Overload—urging members to jam the centre with phone calls, e-mail questions and incomplete applications. The firearms centre’s Austin concedes about 750,000 applicants are waiting for their licences. He says all those eligible will receive temporary licences this month, and official photo licences will be in owners’ hands by the end of June. Austin calls the delay tactics “Operation Overblown,” saying they had little impact. And he labels as “trash” the claims on Web site chat groups of pending mass arrests and home searches for guns.

Police, he says, are advised to deal with incidents that come to their attention on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, guns may be seized until the paperwork is cleared up. In others, criminal charges may be warranted, he says. Austin likens the furor to the resistance of some drivers to mandatory seat-belt laws in the 1970s—a public safety law now widely accepted. But for now, as the 2003 deadline for individual gun registration approaches, gun owners promise a rough ride.