Last week’s events in Ottawa and Marysville-Pilchuck High School have once again pushed gun laws to the forefront of political debate in North America. At the time of this writing, details are yet unclear as to the legality of the firearms used in these tragedies (a non-restricted lever-action rifle in Ottawa and .40 caliber handgun in Washington).
Proponents of both sides of the gun debate will surely use these incidents to support their respective positions. But in the meantime, we ought to reserve judgment on whether certain policies could or would have prevented these isolated incidents or assist in ongoing investigations. It is easy for all parties to use tragedies like this to forward an agenda, and out of respect to the victims, it is best not to fall into this trap.
We must also not allow these types of high-profile incidents to dictate policies affecting our civil liberties and public safety one way or the other. In light of the Ottawa shooting, Parliament has elected to suspend debate on the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act introduced earlier this month.
What these incidents do, however, is serve as a sobering reminder that gun violence remains a live issue – even in Canada, a country which has long been regarded as an international example of sensible gun laws. But as the rest of the world moves towards strengthening their restrictions on firearms, Canada appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
In addition to introducing the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act earlier this month, Parliament also passed Bill C-19, the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, in 2012. While most of the public attention was on the bill’s repeal of the long-gun registry, C-19 also contained other provisions that have quietly weakened the restrictions on obtaining firearms.
Of note is the lack of a mandatory licence check for selling firearms to individuals. C-19 removed the requirement for sellers to verify that a purchaser is licensed to obtain and possess firearms, and only requires that a seller have “no reason to believe” a buyer isn’t properly licensed. Sellers are no longer required to see the licence or ensure that it is valid, presenting a greater possibility that guns are falling into the hands of unlicensed owners.
For sellers that call the RCMP to verify if a licence is valid, C-19 also prohibits the RCMP from keeping any records of the call. This includes scenarios where an individual’s licence was revoked because they were believed to be dangerous.
Through an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Pierre Perron specifies the protocol used at the Canadian Firearms Program (CFP)’s call center:
“-If the buyer’s licence is expired the CFP tells the seller that the buyer’s licence is expired as indicated on the licence card.
-If the buyer’s licence is revoked, the CFP tells the seller to have the buyer contact their Chief Firearms Officer.
-No records are retained of the call. No personal data, other than the licence status is provided to the seller.”
The onus is thus placed on the firearms purchaser to contact their Chief Firearms Officer when attempting to purchase a firearm after having their licence revoked. This effectively amounts to telling the purchaser to report themselves for attempting to purchase firearms with their licence revoked.
Surely, a prudent criminal would not risk setting off any red flags in contacting the Chief Firearms Officer. Due to the requirement that no records be kept, the Chief Firearms Officer is effectively powerless to follow up upon learning of an attempt to purchase unauthorized firearms. Mandatory licence checks are an important “administrative burden on law-abiding gun owners”, the benefits of which greatly outweigh any inconveniences.
Until more details emerge as to how the shooter obtained his rifle, we ought to refrain from speculating about the applicability of recent policy changes to the tragic events at Parliament Hill. But one thing is clear: Canada’s once-proud firearms restrictions are eroding away year-after-year, presenting a threat to public safety and the proper administration of justice.