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Grant Mitchell

The Hon. Grant  Mitchell, B.A., M.A., C.F.A. Senator Grant Mitchell has had careers in the public service, business and politics in Alberta. He was appointed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in March, 2005.

Statements & Hansard

Ending the Long-gun Registry Act—Third Reading

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Statement made on 03 April 2012 by Senator Joan Fraser

Hon. Joan Fraser:

Honourable senators, I will come back to this very specific point in a few moments.

I would like to echo the sentiments expressed yesterday by Senator Lang, who said that in our committee, I think all members had their understanding of the other side deepened. I would like to say for the record that the person who was most responsible for deepening my understanding of the other side was Senator Lang himself. His passion, conviction and transparent honesty in presenting his passion and conviction were far more persuasive to me than any witness who supported Bill C-19.

We are told that the registry is not perfect. Well, no database is perfect, absolutely not perfect. The fact that it is not perfect does not make it unuseful, does not invalidate its use as a tool. I wish to note that if it is imperfect, if it contains errors, there are some reasons for that which tend to be overlooked. One is that, from the outset, some people set out deliberately to sabotage the registry, not only by tying up phone lines but by making false entries, as we were reminded yesterday, even in registering glue guns.

The amnesty this government brought in almost as soon as it took office and has renewed five times has also undoubtedly contributed to the fact that much of the registry's information is not up to date.

Finally, I would note that many errors, according to the Auditor General, relate to the transfer of earlier data about handguns, not about long guns.

We are told, among other imperfections, that many police do not really understand the registry, so they make mistakes when they are administering it because they have not been properly trained. Well, if they have not been trained, train them. That is not an excuse for abolishing the tool.

Let us go back to why the registry exists. It was designed to reduce, not eliminate, the risk of death and injury by guns. Despite the critics' allegations, it has helped to achieve that goal.

We heard from Senator Eggleton, for example, about statistics regarding the decline in gun-related deaths, even though the population has increased. Senator Eggleton and others have mentioned the foiling of the would-be copycat killer after the Dawson College shootings in Quebec as well as the case relating to the Mayerthorpe gun and the registry's utility in finding accessories to that. There are other examples of the utility of the gun registry. Heather Imming, who faced violence by her partner, credits the removal of the firearm because of the registry for saving her life.

In February, there was another example. An employee of a B.C. hunting store was charged with stealing 159 firearms from that shop and trafficking them by posting them on websites popular with gun enthusiasts. The police say the registry helped to apprehend the suspect and recover 159 stolen guns. That is a reminder that, even though it is true, as we are told so often, that criminals do not register their guns, criminals do steal guns and that it is not infrequent for those stolen guns to be traced back because there is basic information in the registry about the original source, the original owner of those guns.

That kind of example is why so many people, including police, support retaining the registry. We hear about one debatable survey of front-line police officers, but the fact is that every front-line police organization in the country, from front-line cops all the way up to chiefs of police, all support retaining the registry, and these examples show why they use it. We are told that of those 17,000 daily referrals to the registry, probably a lot of them are automatic and do not really count. Even some of the ones that are automatic produce useful information, automatic if a car that looks suspicious is stopped, even at a traffic stop.

For example, one thing that strikes me is that last year in the nine months to September 30 there were, as a daily average, 363 queries relating specifically to the serial numbers of the guns in the registry — 363 per day. That is over 130,000 per year. That means the police are using that registry.

The registry has been instrumental in producing 18,000 affidavits to support prosecution of gun-related crime, and 2,000 licences are revoked each year by court order or by the police. Because of the registry, when those licences are revoked each year, 4,500 guns are seized from people who it has been determined should not have guns and who represent a public danger. Nobody is talking about taking away the guns of safe, law-abiding, ordinary citizens, but some people should not have guns.

We also hear a lot about the costs. We hear over and over again that famous $2 billion figure. Well, first of all, what it costs to set up the registry is sunk money; it is gone and we will never get it back.

In any case, most of the money to start up the registry and to continue it in operation today, the firearms control registration system, is related to the licensing system, not to the long-gun registry. The long-gun registry accounts for less than 10 per cent of the operating cost of our gun control system. The RCMP says it will save only $4 million per year when the long-gun registry is gone, and as has been pointed out, the cost of police investigations will, of course, rise.

Against that cost, look at the cost of gun-related violence to Canadian society. Estimates range between $3 billion and $6 billion per year. Honestly, is it not worth retaining a $4 million tool to help keep down costs of between $3 billion and $6 billion?

One particularly emotional element of this debate is that it is often seen as opposing urban Canadians to rural, and especially to Aboriginal Canadians for whose way of life the use of guns for hunting is often integral. However, problems with guns exist in rural and Aboriginal communities as well. To give just one example, communities with above-average rates of gun possession also have above-average suicide rates, for example, in Aboriginal communities in rural Alberta. Other studies find that rural and Aboriginal women are far more apt than others to report great fear of spousal violence because there are guns in the house.

That last fact is a reminder that this is a women's issue. It is not only a women's issue. If you are dead, you are dead, whether you are a man or a woman. However, it is a women's issue because, over and over again, rifles and shotguns are the weapons most often used to threaten or kill women and children. That is why I find it so unbelievable and inexcusable that the government apparently did no gender analysis of this bill before presenting it.

There are so many things wrong with this bill, but if we pass it — as the government side is determined to do — without amendment, what will happen? What will be the results? For starters, we will be in breach of a series of international obligations, as we were reminded by Senator Hervieux-Payette. There are at least four or five international instruments that require that we trace firearms — the possession, sale and transfer of firearms.

We asked a civil servant who is supposed to be knowledgeable about this and he said, "Well, once you pass Bill C-19, there are other things you can do to trace the firearms." However, he was not specific at all about how one could do that without passing fresh legislation to enable the tracing of firearms if we are going to meet those international obligations.

In that context, as I told the committee, I was particularly struck by the case of the UN Firearms Protocol, which requires tracing. Just last October, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Prime Minister Harper urged Commonwealth heads of government to comply with all obligations arising under international law and urged all countries to become parties to and implement the UN Firearms Protocol. I do not know where to spot a note of sincerity in these conflicting positions; maybe in neither.

Here at home, we will damage federal-provincial relations. As we have heard, the Province of Quebec, as is its constitutional right, wished to set up a gun registry for its own citizens and asked the federal government to negotiate the transfer of the data. The Minister of Public Security of Quebec, Robert Dutil, wrote a letter to our committee which states:

Quebec wishes to agree on the conditions for the transfer of registry data concerning Quebec citizens as soon as possible. In our opinion, this would be the perfect opportunity for the federal government to deal with this matter in a spirit of co-operative federalism.

So much for cooperative federalism. This bill, far from consenting to negotiations, says that data have to be destroyed as soon as feasible after the bill is passed. I do not know whether that can be done in 10 seconds, 10 minutes, 10 hours or 10 days, but the law is going to say "as soon as feasible," which is, of course, why the Government of Quebec has now had to resort to seeking an injunction before the courts.

Far worse, from the point of view of ordinary citizens, is that this bill will create gigantic loopholes in our system. First, there is the matter of non-restricted guns. Some honourable senators have seen the email I sent around with illustrations of some of the weapons which, under Canadian controls now, are not restricted. They are, however, like all guns, at the moment, required to be registered. They include the gun that was used at l'École Polytechnique. The same gun was used, as Senator Hervieux-Payette said, to kill 77 young people in Norway last summer.

When the registry is gone, honourable senators, those guns will still be unrestricted and freely available — one can buy them on the Internet — and there will be no way to know who in Canada is toting around guns that are actually sold as assault rifles. Their makers, in some of these cases, call them assault rifles. These are not duck guns. If one tried to shoot a duck with one of them, one would blow the poor bird to smithereens.

That is one problem. The next problem, as has been said, is that there will be no obligation on merchants to keep records. For years before there was a gun registry, there was an obligation on merchants to keep what were called "green books," which were records of who bought which gun, and those records were available to the police if the need arose.

We heard from Sergeant Murray Grismer, who opposes the registry and supports this bill. He said:

Years ago, before I became a police officer, I worked in retail sales in a sporting goods shop. I am very familiar with the ledgers that were kept then. That kind of a system was not onerous then and I do not think the dealers of today would consider it onerous now.

However, the government is not interested in restoring that system. We will be going back not just a couple of decades, but we will be going back to the mid-1970s, to the status quo then when no such ledgers were required. The government side in committee voted down an amendment to re-establish this non-onerous system of keeping records, which would help the police to do their jobs and which would remove the onus from gun owners and give it back to the merchants to keep the records. I cannot understand why the government does not want to preserve those.

As has been much discussed here, there is the question of licences. It is unfortunately true that there is no obligation in this bill for merchants to check the validity of licences. The bill says that the purchaser must possess — not present, but possess — a licence and that the merchant must have — a double negative is about to appear — no reason to believe that the purchaser does not have a valid licence. There is no obligation on the merchant to verify in any way whether there is such a valid licence. The merchant is allowed to call the firearms centre to ask, "By the way, does this person have a valid licence?" However, the firearms people are not allowed to keep a record of that call.

We know that some of the worst people in our society who are going to turn up to buy guns are among some of the most plausible folks, some of them our next-door neighbours. I draw to honourable senators' attention the estimable character of Colonel Russell Williams, for example, the previously believed to be estimable character.

In the past — actually, under the law as it still exists tonight — the merchant does not have to check the validity of the licence, because what the merchant does have to do under the present law is call the firearms people to ask, "Can you give me a registration certificate for this person and the gun?" Before that certificate is issued, the firearms people check to see whether there is a valid licence.

However, there will no longer be registration certificates for long guns. We will have more than 7 million long guns out there — the ones that are now registered, plus all the ones that will be bought — with no means of knowing who has them, where they are or what their origin might have been, let alone whether they are in the hands of criminals or people who have lost their licence, as, I think, about 2,000 a year do, sometimes because of emotional difficulties, for example.

We proposed an amendment for licence checks as well, and the government side voted that down, too.

I find it incomprehensible, inexplicable that this government, which is so quick to trumpet its dedication to the police and to victims, should insist on pressing ahead with this bill, which is opposed by police and by the majority of victims.

Honourable senators should have heard some of their representatives speak to us. I will quote to you Mr. Steve Sullivan, the victims' representative in Ottawa, who said, "we talk about how maybe gun owners feel. I apologize if they feel that way, but, with all due respect, we," that is, those who deal with victims, "deal with people who face real terror and real fear." He went on to say a little later that "those people may feel targeted. The people we stand with are targeted."

That is the terrible truth, honourable senators. It is not the law-abiding gun owners who are the problem. It is the people who should not have guns who are dangerous and who will now find it much easier to get guns. Trust me — some of them will use those guns.

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