Gun Control a Key Issue of the Next Federal Election

August 9, 2019

With the recent shootings in Texas and Ohio that killed 31 people and the passage of Canadian legislation that tightened checks on the sale of rifles and shotguns, gun control is poised to become a hot topic in the upcoming federal election.

For many years, the now-defunct hunting gun registry made headlines and mobilized Canadian gun advocacy organizations, including sport-shooters and farmers. After a lull, this lobby group is back on the political landscape.

The pro-gun lobby across Canada is mobilizing to defeat the Trudeau government in the next election, which has tightened checks on the sale of guns via Bill C-71.

Many organizations are throwing their thousands of members and volunteers into the election battle, mobilizing to convince Canadians to turn their backs on the Liberal Party and asking their members to contribute to the Conservative Party candidates' election fund.

"We will ensure that this government's days are numbered," says Tracey Wilson, Vice-President of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR), the Canadian equivalent of the American National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States.

More than 300 volunteers of the organization are already active in some strategic ridings, with more to join as the CCFR expects that "thousands of our members" will join the effort during the election campaign.

In an internal note distributed to its members at the end of May, entitled "A Call to Action", the CCFR provides some guidance to its supporters. "You must first find out which riding you are in. Then, identify the federal candidate who best reflects your vision of this issue. The Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party all have anti-gun policies, so do the math," it says.

Public Opinion on Gun Control in Canada

A report commissioned by the federal Liberal government has found that there is mixed support for a handgun ban in Canada. The report, conducted by a private consulting firm, collected the opinions of tens of thousands of Canadians through in-person meetings and written and online questionnaires. Its key conclusion is one that should come as no surprise: the gun control debate in Canada is deeply polarized and there are people dug in on both sides of the issue.

Of the 134,917 questionnaires completed online, the vast majority did not support further limits on access to firearms and/or assault-style firearms: 81 per cent of the questionnaire responses said nothing more should be done to limit access to handguns.

It is interesting to note that Canadian gun owners purchased unprecedented numbers of handguns after the Liberals won the 2015 federal election. In December 2015, in the aftermath of the election, 7,600 handguns were registered with the RCMP, 1,400 more than in November. Monthly handgun registrations have topped 7,000 eight times since the election. Before the election, registrations never reached that level. The Liberals were elected on a gun control platform that included stricter background checks on would-be handgun owners, as well for Canada to join the international Arms Trade Treaty.

That is why bill C-71 was introduced in March 2018 by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, fulfilling a Liberal Party election promise.

Bill C-71

Bill C-71 was passed on May 28, 2019, by a Senate vote of 55 to 33. All Conservative senators voted against the Bill.

From now on, the criminal or mental health background check of an applicant for a possession and acquisition license will cover his or her entire life, not just the five years preceding the application. This verification will also apply to the renewal of the permit.

As committed by the Liberal Campaign Platform in 2015, retailers selling firearms will now have to keep a sales register and an inventory register, which was not previously mandatory.

The seller of a rifle, whether a retailer or a private citizen, will have to ensure that the buyer has a valid firearms license. Bill C-71 further requires a gun seller to check in with Government authorities before selling a gun, or risk losing their own firearms license.

C-71 ensures that the government will no longer be able to go against the RCMP's advice if the police force decides that a weapon should be changed from unrestricted to restricted status. In the summer of 2015, just before the election, the RCMP advised the Government to switch the status of the Swiss Arms Classic Green and the CZ-858 to restricted status.  The RCMP considered that it was too easy to turn these weapons into automatic rifles. The CZ-858 was used by Richard Henry Bain on the night of the attack on former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois at the Metropolis, in Montreal, in 2012.

However, the Conservative Minister of Public Safety at the time did not comply to the expert advice of the RCMP, under pressure from the gun lobby.

From now on, the governing party will be able to increase the restriction on weapons, but it will not be able to do the opposite and reduce the classification without the RCMP's agreement, as the Harper government had done.

Finally, C-71 imposes more restrictions on the transport of prohibited or restricted weapons, such as pistols or semi-automatic weapons. It is now necessary to ask for certain permissions so that certain weapons can be moved from point A to point B if it is not between the house and the shooting range.

Conservative Senator Don Plett, who led the charge against the Bill in the Upper House, argues that the legislation will only affect law-abiding gun owners, who will have to complete more paperwork and face more potential charges. "The government is making law-abiding gun owners scapegoats, while ignoring the real problems. This is unfortunate," he said.

Firearm homicides in Canada

Between 2013 and 2017, firearm homicides in Canada increased by 98.5% (from 134 to 266 per year), and those committed with shotguns by 107% (30 to 62 per year), according to Statistics Canada.

Firearm-related crimes have also increased by 25% since 2013, according to the most recent Statistics Canada figures.

Hand guns and the 2019 Election

An August long weekend that saw a tragic shooting in El Paso, Texas and 17 people shot in Toronto in 14 different incidents has fueled calls for a national handgun ban.

The Public Safety Minister went on the record on Tuesday stating that any legislative changes will have to wait for Parliament’s return. With all four parties supporting anti-gun policies, the pressure is on the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party to take stances on the issue.

As the public consultation on tougher gun control found, the public is divided on the subject, wherein urban constituents tend to be for, whereas rural constituents tend to be against. Last month, a Forum Research survey of 1,143 Toronto voters found that a majority of respondents — 62 per cent — expressed a belief that a handgun ban would reduce the number of gang shootings in the city.

For the Liberals, taking a tougher stance throughout the campaign will negatively impact them in rural ridings where their incumbents are already struggling. Not taking a tougher stance could lose them votes on tight races to the NDP and Greens. The Liberals had an opportunity to ban hand guns following the results of the Government’s public consultation on the matter. Next steps were stalled until after the federal election, with internal lobbying from Liberal MPs in rural areas likely responsible for the delay.

Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair, who was charged with overseeing the public consultations, outlined the government's thinking in a series of media interviews in June. He signaled that he was in favour of a national ban on assault-style weapons, but not handguns as requested by the Mayors of both Toronto and Montreal. The cost of compensating owners is estimated at $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

What a Liberal Government seems prepared to do should they get re-elected is to create some legislative framework to allow major cities to enact local gun control measures on things like the sale, storage or transportation of handguns.

Liberals are convinced urban bans would be big vote-winners in major centres that are critical to their re-election, such as Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. But the LPC needs to gain seats in rural communities if they want to be re-elected in October.

For their part, it is not in the Conservatives' interest to stand up too much alongside pro-gun lobby. Otherwise, they will lose their hopes of making gains in major cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Quebec City.

According to Statistics Canada, one-quarter of all Canadian households own one or more guns. And according to the international Small Arms Survey, Canada has the seventh-highest rate of gun ownership on the planet, and the second-highest among developed nations behind only the U.S. (although their ownership rate is three times higher).

It means 25% of voters would say NO to gun control and potentially vote ABL (anything but liberal). What to do about gun control is a big dilemma for Justin Trudeau – one that isn’t going to go away.