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James Cowan

The Hon. James  Cowan, Q.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. Senator James Cowan has greatly influenced the educational and legal communities of Nova Scotia. He was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005 by the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.

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Maintaining Merchants' Records of Sales of Non-restricted Firearms—Inquiry

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Statement made on 29 June 2012 by Senator Joan Fraser

Hon. Joan Fraser

I regret to inform honourable senators that I am rising to speak one more time, I hope the last time, about guns, specifically long guns, but I am not speaking about the gun registry. As honourable senators know, Bill C-19 is the law of the land, so I am talking about something more in the nature of what has turned out to be a consequential matter.

Some of you may have noticed that, I think it was last week, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee reported that it had studied a regulation presented by the Minister of Public Safety. A regulation may sound a bit bureaucratic, but this one is very important.

This regulation says that provincial chief firearms officers may not oblige gun merchants to keep records of non-registered guns, that is, long guns, that are bought by their customers. Let me stress again: This is not the long-gun registry and it is very important to keep the distinction clear. The records to which I refer have been, for many years, kept by merchants in ledgers known as "green books." They existed for nearly 20 years before the registry was established, and they were compulsory. They are used basically for two purposes.

First, the chief firearms officer in each province and territory uses those ledgers to check gun merchants' inventory during local on-site inspections. The information is not centralized, but if an inspection discovers that something has gone wrong, that a gun is missing or has been stolen, then, because that is a clear signal that something has gone wrong, that information is reported to CPIC, the national information system for the police.

The second way in which the ledgers are used, the green books, is that if the police have reason to believe that a gun that has been used in the commission of a crime comes from a given merchant, they can get a warrant to consult the record of the sale of that gun, so these records are a real tool for law enforcement. They have no impact whatsoever on ordinary law-abiding gun owners — none — no cost, no bureaucratic hassle, nothing, but they are important for law enforcement. If keeping them is not compulsory, your committee heard from a number of people that the door will be opened for criminals to operate more easily.

I would stress that there is nothing revolutionary about the concept of keeping these records. Many countries require comparable records to be kept — the United States, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, as well as countries in Europe. The United States federal law requires gun merchants to keep records for 20 years. In addition, various international instruments — conventions, protocols, agreements, United Nations programs — relate to small arms, and they all require the keeping of detailed records for law enforcement purposes and not for the purpose of harassing innocent citizens. They are kept for law enforcement purposes.

In Canada, in the years when these ledgers were compulsory, which is basically before the gun registry was established, there were, so far as we were able to ascertain, never any complaints from anyone about them.

I found it interesting to look back at the testimony that was given to the committee when we were studying Bill C-19 from Sergeant Murray Grismer, who is a police officer from Saskatchewan. 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.

These records, of course, assume particular importance now that the long gun registry is being abolished under Bill C-19.

Let me just remind you, honourable senators, that when we are talking about long guns, we are not just talking about, to use the frequent phrase, "duck guns" that are used by law-abiding hunters. Unfortunately, the category of non-registered firearms in this country also includes some that no one thinks of when they think of law-abiding hunters. I will cite three: The IMI Tavor TAR-21, which is categorized by its manufacturer as an assault weapon; the Steyr Mannlicher HS .50 M1, which is a .50-calibre sniper rife that can pierce light armour at 1.5 kilometers; and then of course the famous Ruger Mini-14, which killed 14 women and wounded 13 others in about 20 minutes in Montreal, and which has been dubbed the poor man's assault rifle. It can be modified to be even more effective, and that is how one man was able to kill 69 people, most of them young, in Norway last summer.

That is one reason why, when Bill C-19 was being studied, many witnesses, including the police, said it was important to reinstate this compulsory ledger system, to reinstate these compulsory green books, as they are called. For example, Chief Rick Hanson of the Calgary Police Service said flatly, "We must reinstate point of sale recording," and he was just one of quite a number of people.

In earlier versions of the bill to abolish the long gun registry, the requirement to keep the ledgers was in there, but it was not included in Bill C-19. Nevertheless, statements from the bill's proponents at that time certainly suggested that one reason that no one should worry about the loss of the registry was that these records would exist. For example, the Minister of Public Safety, Mr. Toews, said:

Gun shops, in fact, keep records of their sales and those records can be accessed through a warrant or other appropriate provisions. You don't need the registry for that.

More explicitly, Mr. Tony Bernardo from the Canadian Sports Shooting Association, which has been one of the most assiduous campaigners for the abolition of the registry, said to our committee:

Remember that all businesses are required to keep records mandated by the chief firearms office of the province that they live in. To remove the record from this registry does not remove their obligation to keep business records. Business records are mandated by the chief firearms office in the issuance of a business permit. . . . The record- keeping requirements are not going away . . .

It seems clear.

It is hardly surprising that after Bill C-19 was passed, a number of chief firearms officers turned their attention to the green books. Notably, the chief firearms officer of Ontario notified gun dealers that they would henceforth have to keep green books in connection with the sale of long guns. His authority for doing this was section 58 of the Firearms Act, which says that the chief firearms officer may attach any reasonable condition — any condition that the CFO considers reasonable — to the business licence of a gun dealer.

However, then — whoops — Mr. Toews and the anti-registry lobby suddenly became very upset. My notes say, "went ballistic," but I think that is a bad pun in this context. Mr. Toews wrote to the chief firearms officers to say, "You may not oblige gun merchants to keep the green books." Then, just in case anyone was in any doubt, he presented the regulation that your committee studied last week.

Apart from Mr. Toews and groups like the Canadian Sports Shooting Association, just about everyone else thinks the compulsory green books should be required for long guns. Certainly the police think so.

For example, Chief Mario Harel, Vice-President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said to your committee:

. . . firearm vendor ledgers provide at least one method through which law enforcement can investigate a long-gun used in a criminal act — I repeat, in a criminal act.

It is not a searchable, centralized database. It has no cost to Canadians. It does not criminalize law-abiding citizens, and it places no burden upon them.

Why would we remove such a practice and how can we justify it from a public safety perspective?

Those are good questions, in my view.

Victims pleaded for the maintenance of the registries. Many of you may have come across Ms. Sue O'Sullivan, who is the very eloquent Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. She sent a submission in, saying:

Requiring that information be collected and maintained at the point of sale for non-restricted firearms is an important tool that can assist law enforcement in preventing further victimization, and effectively investigating victimization that has occurred. For victims, this investigative tool is essential in providing them with access to justice.

Many of you have also over the years become familiar with Ms. Priscilla de Villiers, a most eloquent spokesperson for victims, who is a great lady. She wrote to the committee:

The inconvenience of registering the purchase of a gun —

— that is, at the point of sale —

— pales by comparison to all the forms and processes that we, who have lost children or have been injured by gun violence, continue to live with for many years.

Yet again, the need to prevent further victimization is put aside in this rush for convenience. Piece by piece, we are weakening the systems and precautions to prevent victimization by firearms that Canada had made much progress at implementing. Step by step we are singling out long guns as being immune to the usual controls on sales to qualified buyers that apply to all other commodities which are potentially harmful to society.

Opponents of the green book system say that they do not like it because it opens the door to a back-door gun registry. Frankly, honourable senators, I believe that to be an absolutely ludicrous assertion, but do not take my word for it. Take the word of the Prince Edward Island government. We received a submission from Ms. Janice Sherry, who is the Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Prince Edward Island. She wrote us quite a long and strong letter. Among other things, she said:

If the concern surrounding the ledgers is that, in the custody of the Firearms Office, they could be used to create a form of a registry, this is simply not feasible . . .

The reasons she gave for it not being feasible are that it would be impossible to set up a provincial registry of non-restricted firearms using only the information that is kept in a firearms business ledger.

These ledgers only contain the information relating to transactions that occur at that business. There are literally thousands of firearms bought and sold among individuals every day in this country. Any attempt to build a registry from this information —

— that is, the merchants' information —

— would be pointless as there would be no means of ensuring the ongoing accuracy or integrity of the information. The ledgers offer "point in time" information for ensuring that a dealer is acting lawfully in the operation of the business.

Ontario, the province whose CFO seems to have started this whole thing, has said very firmly that it does not plan or want to establish a provincial long gun registry, but it still thinks the green book system would be a good system to have.

What would be the result of ending the compulsory ledgers? Let me quote the Chief Firearms Officer of Ontario, Superintendent Chris Wyatt of the OPP. He said:

If this regulation comes into effect, no one involved in a long-gun transaction with a business will have to produce a firearm licence or have it recorded.

They will not have to produce a licence, even.

That is not an element that the committee pursued, but it is an arguable interpretation of the regulation as drafted, since it says that a gun dealer cannot be required to collect information with respect to the transfer of a non-restricted firearm. You could argue that a person might not have to produce a licence, and there are also arguments to be made that under Bill C-19 a merchant does not actually have to demand to see the licence.

Anyway, that one will remain to be straightened out.

Superintendent Wyatt went on:

With the end of the ledgers there will also be no information on where a long gun came from or where it went.

Further on, he stated:

In Ontario, firearms business inspectors make sure that every firearm is accounted for during an inspection. Very few are found to be missing or stolen, and those that are found are reported to the police and entered on CPIC. This high level of accountability protects the public in a way not possible if this regulation does away with the ledgers.

Finally, he said:

I believe the elimination of the ledgers will result in more firearms being sold by businesses to criminals and unlicensed persons.

Honourable senators, we all know that it is only a tiny fraction of the population that gets involved in crime, and that is as true when we are looking at the matter of guns as it is in the case of any other crime, but it is because of that tiny fraction that society has to establish protections for itself. That is why we have the Criminal Code: because a few people will commit crimes.

The same will be true of a few people involved in the buying or selling of guns. That is just human nature. The knowledge that their transaction was being recorded by the merchant would be a disincentive to people who wanted guns for less than honourable purposes. That disincentive may now disappear.

Most merchants, we were told, being law-abiding persons eager to help ensure the safety of the public, will voluntarily continue to maintain the ledgers, for their own inventory control, if nothing else. However, what about the tiny fraction of gun dealers who see the opportunity to make rather more cash than they might running entirely legitimate businesses? Things may not be so great there.

Honourable senators, these ledgers incur no cost to the purchaser or owner of a gun. They incur no cost to the taxpayer. There is no inconvenience to the buyer or owner of a gun, other than to have to spend a few seconds at the time of purchase providing the information about where they live, what their name is and what their licence is. It is such a simple system. I cannot for the life of me fathom why the Government of Canada does not want to continue with it.

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