The Hill: Gun debate erupts anew

Stephen Harper wants to weaken gun control in Canada. He wants to strengthen his rural base in Western Canada and stands to make electoral gains later this year in isolated areas of rural Eastern Canada where there is proud and considerable opposition to registering one’s guns.

First, Harper is trying again to abolish the 10-year-old gun registry. But strangely he is using the Senate this time rather than the Commons where he has failed twice before.

Second, he wants to extend for another year the amnesty for gun owners who disobey the law and refuse to register their weapons. The current amnesty is set to expire May 16.

And third, Conservative member Garry Breitkreuz has introduced private bill, C-301. He wants to loosen controls on handguns, semi-automatic weapons, shotguns, and assault rifles used for hunting non-humans.
Apart from the amnesty extension, everything appears dead in the water because Harper lacks a majority.
But Harper’s purpose is cleverly more political than ideological.

He has targeted pockets of pro-gun support in about 10 Eastern Canada ridings held by the Liberals and New Democrats. They are in northern Ontario, farmland Ontario, rural New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

By using the Senate where things move slowly, instead of the Commons, Harper keeps the gun debate alive for the rest of the year and will not be blamed in the Commons for being more interested in talking about guns than the withering economy.

The Opposition, with its eyes on Canada’s three biggest cities, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, where fear of guns is greatest, is pretending there is a real threat from Harper to loosen gun control.

Nowhere does gun control sell as well as in Quebec; people there are overwhelmingly in favour of it. So this past week, the Bloc Québécois undertook a campaign against Harper’s gun policies.

Their campaign was led by Bloc MP Serge Ménard. He’s a former provincial minister of public security and a champion Crown prosecutor who made a reputation busting criminal gangs.

Last Wednesday night on Parliament Hill, the Bloc screened Denis Villeneuve’s prize-winning Quebec film Polytechnique which depicts the Dec. 6, 1989, slaughter of 14 young women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal by madman Marc Lépine. It was an all-party event.

About 50 MPs attended, including Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton. Only one Conservative showed up, Levis-Bellechasse MP Steven Blaney. Harper did not attend, nor reply to a written invitation.

The Bloc pulled out all the stops, even bringing in the mother of one of the slain women. She had never seen the film before and was in tears. It was a powerful and understandably brutal film. Some MPs left the room shocked and unable to speak.

The Bloc followed it up the next day with a motion against Harper’s amnesty for law-breaking gun owners. The motion easily passed. Harper will likely ignore it and extend his amnesty.

MP Dave MacKenzie, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Public Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the registry is not the answer. The real answer to fighting gun crime is to put more people in jail, people who commit gun crimes. This frightens other people away from gun crimes.

Defenders of the gun registry also got into the act, especially women’s groups. Rifles and shotguns are the weapon of choice in domestic dispute killings in Canada. Women are usually the victims.

The Canadian Police Association and the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs came to the defence of the gun registry. For them it’s protection. They like to check the computer to find out if there are guns registered where they are going.

They use the registry about 5,000 times a day.
There are about eight million registered guns in Canada. It cost a fortune - about $1 billion - to build the registry 10 years ago and tens of millions a year to keep it up to date, until three years ago when Harper brought in his amnesty.

Since then the registry is increasingly less accurate although it is calculated that about 80 per cent is still accurate. Some gun owners voluntarily register. It helps track down their weapons if they are stolen. Police do their best with it. They were the ones who first cranked up the cost.

They insisted they wanted all criminal records included and then all medical records of mental illness too, and some cops even wanted all police visits and calls to gun owner homes listed as well, and constant updates every time a gun owner changed address. And police checks had to be done on every entry. Incredibly time consuming.

With about five million gun owners in Canada, the cost quickly became phenomenal. It is estimated that by 2015, if Harper had not brought in his amnesty, the total cost would have reached $2 billion.
The big debate in the U.S. is over handguns. In Canada handguns were banned in 1934.

Here the debate is rural-urban, opposite mirror images of each other. No guns in the city, guns in the country. Since Canada is 80-per-cent urban, the gun control group wins easily. 

It’s this ideological split that creates electoral opportunities for politicians. That’s why Harper keeps on trying to loosen gun control, and that keeps the debate going.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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