Hill Dispatches: Quebec fights back on guns

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For the second time this fall a Quebec cabinet minister has appeared before a Commons committee to express profound dissent from a federal government legislative initiative. First it was Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, who said Quebec disagreed with many of the provisions of the government's omnibus "crime" bill (Bill C-10). Then, on Thursday it was Quebec Public Security Minister Robert Dutil's turn.

What did the Conservatives promise, anyway?

Dutil came to Ottawa not so much to stop the Conservatives from fulfilling a campaign promise as to question why the Conservatives plan to do something they never promised.

"We can understand that they want to end the long-gun registry, as they promised," he told reporters after his committee appearance, "We can disagree, but we have to respect their choice. However, the Conservatives never promised that they would also destroy all the data!"

In fact, Dutil pointed out, Conservative Minister Christian Paradis said, in the House, that once the long-gun registry was abolished provinces were free to set up their own registries.

Quebeckers paid for the data the government plans to destroy

The main Conservative goal, Minister Paradis stated, is to decriminalize gun ownership.
Sanctions under a provincial registry would not be criminal, as they are now under the federal registry. The criminal law is within federal jurisdiction. Quebec thus seeks to have a decriminalized registry, and the Quebec government does not understand why its federal counterpart seeks to impede this plan.

The Quebec government's position is that the Quebec facts and figures in the registry were, in essence, paid for by Quebec taxpayers. Why should the Quebec government now have to start from zero if it wants to launch its own registry?

Will Quebec take the feds to court?

The Quebec Minister would not get dragged into a discussion of what his government would do if its concerns are met by a deaf ear. He admitted that he has had no conversations with his federal counterpart since the legislation was tabled. And, when asked, he recognized that it was notable that Conservative members of the committee did not even ask him a single question. He was not offended, he said.

"They were there and they heard what I had to say," Dutil said.

Then he added: "We believe in collaborative federalism. As long as there is dialogue, there is hope."

And if Quebec's current efforts turn out to be futile -- what then? Judging by the Conservative Government's immediate reaction -- which was to send out Minister Maxime Bernier to say the Government was unmoved by Dutil's plea -- that seems like the most likely case. Reporters wanted to know what Quebec's next move might be. Would it take the federal government to court, for instance?

Dutil responded with two words: "On verra!" ("We'll see!")

Don't call us liars!

The Quebec minister was not the only one to appear before the committee on Thursday. The Association of Chiefs of Police and the Coalition for Gun Control were among others to comment on the proposed legislation.

The chiefs of police were not happy when Conservative MP Candace Hoeppner in effect accused them of lying. She said that it is not true that police access the registry 17,000 times per day, as the chiefs had said, because some of those "hits" on the registry are generated automatically.

The chiefs pointed out that they never claimed otherwise, and that they are convinced the registry has saved lives.

And, in response to the Conservative claim that many of their critics confuse registration of firearms with gun licensing, the chiefs said, simply, that "the two are intertwined."

Federal Public Security Minister Vic Toews appeared before the committee earlier in the week and emphasized that his government was against registering guns but was in favour of licensing individuals to own guns. Licensing is how we weed out mentally ill or otherwise unfit people, he said.

But, to the chiefs of police, licensing and registration are part of the same system. Without a registry police will have much less information as to where guns are and who has them, the chiefs say.

Can't we rely on people who sell guns

In addition, the chiefs insist, relying on shopkeepers and their records hardly replaces the registry.

Currently, when a gun is found at a crime scene, police can frequently use the registry to identify its owner, immediately. Once the registry is abolished, the police will have to trace that gun through its manufacturer (often foreign), to its distributor, to the retailer in Canada who sold and, if they are lucky, to the current owner. Even assuming that the shopkeeper has kept scrupulous records there is still no way he/she will know whether the original purchaser currently has the gun or has sold or given it to someone else.

Rolling back the clock to a dangerous time

The Coalition for Gun Control issued a statement after appearing before the committee in which it urged us "to consider the fine print of the proposed law which will not just dismantle provisions introduced in 1995 but will turn back the clock more than 30 years."

The current legislation "goes far beyond simply ending the registration of unrestricted rifles and shotguns," the Coalition says. "It removes critical measures that have been in place since 1977."

Prior to 1995, a 1977 rule required businesses to keep records of gun sales. That requirement was eliminated when the registry was created, because the information would be in the registry. The new law, Bill C-19, does not restore this 1977 provision.

"Without this information," the coalition argues, "There is no way for police to investigate the source of rifles and shotguns recovered from crime scenes or seized from suspects."

We have a majority -- don't we?

And so, this pantomime of a debate continues; but not for long.

The government has made clear it intends to ram through Bill C-19 as quickly as possible.

And the government has been clear, from the beginning, that one reason for destroying the data already collected is to prevent any future government (Conservatives refer darkly to some future, sinister "coalition") from reinstating a gun registry.

That is what change looks like when 40 per cent of the votes gives 100 per cent of the power!

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