Fourteen names were read out, 14 candles lit as the crowd of about 100 men, women, and children gathered at a downtown café. On December 6, as has been my practice each year, I attended the evening vigil for the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women in my home city of Guelph. December 6: a day to remember the 14 young women who were shot and killed in the Montreal massacre 23 years ago and a reminder that violence against women and girls has yet to be eradicated.
As poems were read and songs sung, I reflected on the state of firearms control in Canada. This past year has seen a worrying weakening of firearms control measures:
- Repeal of the long-gun registry that accounted for 90 per cent of all firearms in Canada and, except in the Province of Quebec, destruction of all the collected data;
- Elimination of mandatory records kept by firearms dealers on sales of non-restricted firearms, making it very difficult for police to trace such firearms if they are involved in crime;
- Significant weakening of marking requirements for firearms despite the emergence of stricter international standards;
- Repeal of gun show regulations, raising the possibility that, as in the United States, drug traffickers could target gun shows to illegally obtain and sell guns.
This erosion of control measures is in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s Statement on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, “In Canada, we are investing in projects aimed at ending violence against women and girls in communities across the country, and we are placing victims’ rights ahead of those of criminals by making our laws stronger” [emphasis mine]. In a further ironic twist, the same day the Toronto Star reported that the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee had made sweeping recommendations to further loosen Canada’s gun control laws, including:
- Eliminating the “prohibited” category of firearms and reclassifying them as “restricted,” allowing for greater access to handguns and assault weapons such as AK-47s;
- Extending the gun owner licensing period from the current five years to 10 years, despite objections raised by the RCMP that this would weaken the police’s ability to keep guns away from unstable individuals in a timely manner;
- Establishment of a committee to classify firearms, which is comprised of four firearms industry representatives and two government-appointed experts (no mention of police or public safety experts);
- Making available for public sale or trade seized firearms, contrary to current law (which is consistent with international best practice) in which they must be destroyed.
The proposed changes are unprecedented. Interestingly, the need to reduce the paperwork for both government and firearms owners figures prominently in the rationale for these changes. How, I wonder, would the survivors of the Montreal massacre feel? What would the parents of those young women who were killed think?
Responding to questions from opposition MPs on December 6, Prime Minister Harper stated categorically that “the government has absolutely no intention of weakening that category [prohibited weapons] of protections.” The Prime Minister’s repudiation of his government’s Firearms Advisory Committee recommendation is a positive sign. News from the Coalition for Gun Control headlined, “On December 6th, a radical change to our gun laws was stopped in its tracks”—for now, anyway.
The Firearms Advisory Committee certainly wields influence. The government had earlier followed its recommendations on gun show regulations and the postponement of UN firearms marking requirements. It was formed in summer 2006 as part of the government’s consultative process on firearms control measures; “the purpose was to engage and seek the views of Canadians as part of the Firearms Act amendment process.” The Committee, comprised of 14 members (subsequently reduced to 12) with backgrounds in firearms matters and law enforcement, provides subject-specific advice and expertise. The scope of advice and expertise is not specified nor is the Committee’s mandate. How the committee members are selected is also unclear.
Who are the current members? Four representatives are from one organization; the Canadian Sport Shooting Association, one representative each from the Quebec Wildlife Federation and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters; one Olympic gold medalist shooter, a retired professor of marketing who has been a long-time advisor to the National Firearms Association, a gunsmith, and two police officers who have opposed gun control and do not represent police associations. One position is currently vacant.
In sum, the Committee is overwhelmingly made up of civilian firearms users, mostly from the shooting sports community. There are no representatives from victims support groups or domestic violence prevention agencies and no crime and injury experts. Furthermore, the members’ expertise in public policy is unclear. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which has been asking since 2011 to have a representative on the Firearms Advisory Committee, is not represented.
Liberal leader Bob Rae suggested that to reach “a more balanced approach” the Prime Minister should consider “adding the chiefs of police to the group of people who will be on the committee, as well as those who are engaged in combating domestic violence and those who are dealing with suicide prevention.” Prime Minister Harper responded, “I will take the advice of the leader of the Liberal Party under consideration. Obviously [I’m] very concerned with some of the recommendations made in that report, and I think that the committee does need some re-examination in that light.”
Public consultations are crucial in the development of legislative and program changes to firearms control in Canada. The public should engage in constructive dialogue on this issue. Time to hit the reset button on the Firearms Advisory Committee?