Bill to Amend Certain Acts and Regulations in Relation to Firearms

Third Reading--Debate Continued

May 15, 2019


Honourable senators, it’s a privilege for me to stand before you today in favour of Bill C-71, An Act to amend certain Acts and Regulations in relation to firearms. I believe it is a very important and timely bill, in a world where safety and security are so precious and, in many places, so precarious.

This bill is not, pardon the pun, the magic bullet against gun violence or organized crime, or even the proliferation of gang guns, but in my humble opinion, it is a definite step in the right direction in the quest for a respectful and commonsense balance between the requests and requirements of legal gun owners and the need to regulate gun ownership with minimally intrusive measures.

In many ways, Canadian culture is irrevocably entwined with that of our neighbours to the south, from the movies we watch to the music we listen to. However, one of the glaring differences is our attitude toward gun ownership, derived from our unique, historical and constitutional underpinnings. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that gun ownership is a privilege and not a right, and that the United States Constitution’s second amendment, or the “right to bear arms,” does not have a place in our Canadian constitutional landscape.

With this, I’m hopeful that we, as Canadians, can forge a better legacy for future generations, especially when it comes to the unintended consequences of a permissive gun culture.

I grew up around guns, and both of my parents hunted together, although it was always a bone of contention as to who was the better shot. I also enjoy target shooting and the thrill of a perfect score — okay, maybe one time — and I respect the people who enjoy that activity.

From this ex-peace officer’s perspective, as the mother of a police officer, as a grandmother and as a concerned citizen, I support this bill because I believe it makes sense. Any legislation that has the effect of increasing the efficiency of police officers and, by association, the safety of the citizens of this country, deserves consideration. This bill does that. It more strictly regulates the transport of restricted weapons from one place to another and adds a level of accountability to those who possess guns, and to do so with a measure of care and responsibility. Of course, when it comes to the vast majority of legal gun owners, this is already the case.

All licences, including driver’s licences, come with regulations and responsibilities.

Let’s add a bit of context. Prior to 2015, you were required to have an authorization to transport in order to move your firearm to any place other than a gun range. It was not automatic. Firearms must be treated with care and respect, and those who possess them must be accountable for their use, transport and safe storage.

Among other issues, more permissive transport legislation would further enable straw purchasers — people with a legal possession and acquisition licence — to purchase a firearm, transport it and then sell it legally to someone who would use it for a nefarious purpose. In one case cited in British Columbia, a single trafficker was estimated to have made approximately $100,000 using his legal PAL to purchase guns and then sell them to gang members. These were trigger-locked, not loaded and were even boxed for delivery, as required by law, but nonetheless they were dangerous to the public.

Make no mistake. The bill is not targeting bona fide gun owners. It probably comes as no surprise to you that many checks made by the police are neither random nor accidental. They are directed by evidence and intelligence gathered through serious crime investigations and informants and other sources. The police need legislated tools to seize weapons found during these investigations.

At a committee hearing, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police further stated that the current law is open to grey areas where people can lawfully transport a restricted or prohibited weapon in their vehicle for long periods of time. Personally and professionally, I find this unacceptable.

Another topic that was addressed by various witnesses from very different perspectives was clauses 16 and 18 in the bill that reinstate the responsibility to classify or reclassify firearms from restricted to prohibited in the hands of experts in the RCMP. With its mandate to keep Canadians safe, the force is collectively charged with safeguarding the security of Canadians, and I rightly believe that they are the best adjudicator to maintain this responsibility under Bill C-71. To retain this reclassification function in the hands of the Governor-in-Council would place the decision, I believe, in the hands of political reach rather than with professionally trained experts.

I stated my opinion from a policing point of view, but my perspective does not end there. I have grave concerns about the physical and psychological effects of gun violence on both the victims and the first responders and caregivers who attend to the aftermath. More extensive background checks would assist in the prevention of many tragedies. I’ll not shock you with some of the horrendous homicide and suicide scenes I have attended in my career where firearms were used, as I trust you can imagine the carnage yourselves.

Mental illness has become a growing issue in this country, and statistics show that access to firearms for someone who is struggling with mental illness increases the possibility of their use in a violent event that could not just harm the individual but those around them.

Critics say that a firearm is just a chosen weapon, and that a knife, a bat or some other object would be the weapon of choice if guns were not available. That may be so, but one of the witnesses who spoke during the Senate committee hearings for this bill explained that when faced with that scenario, no child was ever killed from across a schoolyard with a bat or knife. It’s the simple fact that guns by their mere power and reach are far more formidable and lethal than any other weapon readily available.

Another section designed to increase our safety is the extension of background checks from the present five-year barrier to the ability to refer to a longer period. The world has changed. What more staggering evidence do we need than to be told there is an “active shooter action and escape plan” program for most schools in Canada? The mere thought of this possible terror is simply unspeakable. It dictates that we need to reboot our thinking when it comes to firearms legislation.

More extensive background checks would provide an extra level of inquiry and thus further the opportunity to intervene, and, in doing so, reduce the active shooter tragedies and the terrible spectrum of suicide and domestic violence where guns are involved.

According to Statistics Canada, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death in Canada in 2016, with a total of 3,978 suicides that year.

There were 723 deaths in Canada from firearms injuries in 2016. Among these, 75 per cent were suicides, 19 per cent were homicides and 2 per cent were classified as accidental.

According to one source, the presence of a firearm in a home increases the suicide risk by a factor of five and increases the risk of domestic homicide and accidents. In addition, that brief mentions that a large share of firearm suicides are committed with a firearm that does not belong to the victim. Firearm access control measures, therefore, protect not only the firearm owners but also the people around them.

Pertaining to domestic violence, a joint letter to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security stated:

In determining risk for domestic violence in the home, guns remain the single most determinant factor for lethality.

The threat environment continues to evolve, especially with the number of mass shootings that have occurred around the world. Like the recent tragedy in New Zealand, we used to think our Canadian culture made us immune from these events. Unfortunately, École Polytechnique, Mayerthorpe, Moncton and the Danforth, to mention a few of the catastrophes we have experienced, remind us that we must strengthen our resolve to avoid further tragedies and provide the earliest identification of any emerging or imminent threat of violence involving firearms.

The bill also addresses the requirement of a vendor to record the name and address of anyone purchasing a weapon. Most retailers already do this. I would remind you that the police would need a warrant to obtain this information for an investigation. I give my name, address and a great deal more information when I purchase a car or even a refrigerator, so I feel it’s not overly intrusive to have this part in the bill.

Clause 7 mandates the collection and retention of certain personal information which would enable police, with the aid of a judicial authorization, to trace firearms involved in crimes. Before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, a representative from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police stated:

Regarding record-keeping by vendors, I would say that most reputable businesses are already doing this for their own purposes. Since the long gun registry was abolished, the police have been effectively blind to the number of transactions by any licenced individual relating to non-restricted firearms. The absence of such records effectively stymies the ability to trace a non-restricted firearm that has been used in crime.

This is not a gun registry but a normal business practice only accessible to police with judicially authorized search warrants, like any other business records kept by professionals.

In closing, the Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that the possession and use of firearms does not constitute a right or guarantee under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms but is a privilege.

Honourable senators, I urge you to support this bill and hope that you will consider my comments and those of my colleagues who have spoken before me in favour of Bill C-71. This bill will ensure that we are responding to the concerns felt across Canada and that we do not follow a different, more permissive path — a path that is fraught with tragic complications and I believe is not supportive of the public interest.

We must strive to find a balance between our indisputable right to security of the person and the privilege of gun ownership. I humbly submit that Bill C-71 moves toward that balance. Therefore, honourable colleagues, with reflection on both my police background and my concern for future generations, I urge you to support Bill C-71.

Hon. Stan Kutcher

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-71, An Act to amend certain Acts and Regulations in relation to firearms.

I will speak in support of Bill C-71, not because I think it is the best legislative response to effectively address public health concerns regarding firearm deaths, but because it is a small and, in my opinion, a rather hesitant step toward improving the safety of Canadians.

My speech will be guided by both my professional and personal experience. I will focus on the relationship between guns and suicide, a very important concern that, in my opinion, could have been more fully explored during the committee’s study of this bill. It is a relationship that is not well understood by many Canadians.

I would guess that every member of this chamber has been affected by suicide in some way. I recognize that my remarks may bring back painful memories. I wish this was not the case.

I have spent my professional life dedicated to the improvement of mental health and the treatment of mental illness. In that vocation, I became only too aware of the tragic consequences of suicide. It is tragic for parents, family members, friends and communities.

That professional exposure, however, paled in comparison to my personal experience with suicide. My beloved uncle, an accomplished and very successful banker and a father to two amazing children enjoying a loving marriage — who had survived the chaos of World War II as a teenager — took his own life.

Nobody who knew him would ever have predicted he would die the way he did. I am certain that if a fortune teller had told him that his fate would be suicide, he and everyone he knew would have thought that the soothsayer was off-course. Like other families, we were left with the question of why, and no clear or satisfactory answer.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve made the study and application of suicide prevention an essential part of my research and clinical work. I would like to share with you my understanding of the potential impact of Bill C-71 on death from gun-related suicide through my professional lens, informed by my personal experience.

Suicides account for 75 per cent of all gun deaths in this country. From 2000 to 2016, suicide accounted for almost 10,000 out of the 12,692 gun deaths in Canada. Our biggest challenge in gun-related death in Canada is not gun homicide. Our biggest challenge is gun suicide.

A suicide attempt is a behaviour chosen to result in death. However, many Canadians may not know that most suicide attempts do not result in death. Indeed, about 90 per cent of people who attempt suicide do not actually die by suicide. This is both startling and extremely important. It raises a vital question: What differentiates those who attempt suicide and do not die from those who attempt suicide and die?

The difference is primarily due to the lethality of the method used. The more lethal the method, the more likely death will be the result.

Guns are very effective killing instruments. Less than 5 per cent of suicide attempts involve guns; however, about 30 per cent of all suicide deaths result from guns. If a person uses a gun in their attempt, they will likely die.

It is also important to understand that suicide attempts are often impulsive. The human brain’s control of behaviour is complex but generally involves two decision-making systems. One reacts rapidly to a thought or event, and one reacts more slowly. The first leads to impulsive behaviour, and the second, to reflective behaviour.

Usually, the reflective component is able to override the impulsive component. Sometimes, usually in the context of extreme emotional strain such as depression, diminished cognitive capacity such as psychotic thinking or use of substances such as alcohol and drugs, this modulation does not occur.

Impulsive behaviour such as a suicide attempt is the result. This is called a suicide crisis. Evidence shows us that, on average, about half of all suicide attempts are impulsive. About 25 per cent occur within five minutes of the initial thought. About 70 per cent occur within one hour of the initial thought. The onset of a suicide crisis is often immediately followed by a suicide attempt.

This is why lethality matters.

If a gun is available during the suicide crisis, the impulsive action that occurs leaves no time for reflection. The gun is used and death is the likely outcome. If a gun is not available and another method is chosen — for example, taking pills — death is not the likely outcome.

About 5 per cent of deaths from gun suicide occur in homes where no gun is present. In contrast, almost 80 per cent of deaths from gun suicide occur in homes where a gun is present. It is living in a home that has a gun, and not owning a gun, that is the issue. Indeed, it is a family member, including a child of a gun owner, who can take their own life. And, as I have shared with you in my uncle’s story, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict who in your family will take their life, and if so, when.

In my professional life, whenever I was conducting a suicide risk assessment, I always asked about the presence of guns in the home. Often, this question raised a concern that parents had not considered. Loving, caring parents — people who wanted their child to live and flourish — had not made the connection between having a gun in the house and the increased risk of death for their child. This possibility had never crossed their minds. They were not aware of the relationship between guns and death by suicide.

Globally, the weight of the best available scientific evidence demonstrates a common conclusion: interventions such as improvement of oversight and regulation of guns save lives.

These findings have been reported over and over again in studies from many different jurisdictions using a number of different research designs. Interventions that control access to guns, including background checks such as those that appear in Bill C-71 and more substantial regulations related to the use of guns, are associated with lower suicide rates.

It is also clear that substitution of method leading to similar death rates does not occur. If access to the most lethal means of suicide is made more difficult, lives are saved.

It is clear that the extensive weight of best-available evidence shows there is a relationship between guns and suicides and that better oversight of firearms results in significantly lower firearm suicide rates, as well as the proportion of suicides resulting from firearms.

It is, therefore, reasonable for us to see Bill C-71 as a step forward to improving the safety of Canadians seen through the lens of the relationship between guns and suicide — even though this bill is only a small step in that direction.

There are many ways we can improve our oversight of firearms to help lower the rates of gun-caused suicide and, by so doing, lower overall rates of suicide. One of these is through thoughtful regulations.

In particular, at this time I would like to propose two suggestions that I think might make a difference moving forward. They are based on my professional experience as well as my study of guns and suicide.

In addition to better oversight of guns, better information about how to decrease suicide risk provided to gun owners may help prevent gun suicide. In my opinion, it is imperative that information about suicide risk and guns be made available to all gun owners.

My first suggestion focuses on the Possession and Acquisition Licence, or the PAL process. To acquire a licence, a potential gun owner is currently required to learn about a number of topics that include operating a firearm, the physical parts of a firearm, how to use a firearm and responsibilities of a firearm owner, among other things.

Nowhere on this list is found understanding of suicide prevention as it relates to guns. I believe this is a missed opportunity to put into place a simple intervention that may save lives.

Therefore, I would suggest that the PAL education and training course be modified to include information on the relationship between guns and suicide and information on how to identify and assist a person who is suicidal.

Second, I would suggest that whenever ownership of a weapon is transferred, the transferee be obligated to provide specific information about the increased risk of death from suicide associated with gun ownership.

The Hon. the Speaker

I apologize for interrupting you. It’s now 6 p.m. Pursuant to rule 3-3(1), I’m required to leave the chair unless it’s agreed we not see the clock.

Is it agreed, honourable senators?

Senator Kutcher

These are both suggestions that could potentially reduce gun-related suicide.

To my surprise, after I had come up with this idea, my staff discovered it was not novel. It exists already and has achieved some traction through grassroots movements in the United States of America. In Colorado, the CO Gun Shop Project works with retailers, range owners and safety course instructors to add suicide prevention information. New Hampshire also has a similar project that shares materials developed by and for firearm retailers and range owners on the ways they can help prevent gun-related suicide.

Reducing risk of harm through education and legislation is a proven method for increasing the safety of our citizens.

Honourable senators, whatever our own personal relationship with guns is, we need to use our knowledge about the relationship between guns and suicide to help guide us in our current deliberations. We need to think proportionally and compassionately when considering how to best discharge this duty.

We also need to reflect on our own experience with the tragedy of suicide and use that experience to help guide our decision making.

Suicide is a significant public health concern. It is known in every community and has touched the lives of many people. We need to help reduce rates of suicide, and this includes better oversight of guns. In my opinion, Bill C-71 can be part of that larger dialogue that needs to happen in this country. It is not all that needs to be done, but it needs done.

It is an attempt to move towards a safer Canada. And honourable senators, that is what we as legislators must consider as part of the duty of a government to ensure the safety of its citizens.

Please join me in this work by voting to support Bill C-71. Thank you.

Hon. Jean-Guy Dagenais

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-71, An Act to amend certain Acts and Regulations in relation to firearms in Canada. I want to say from the outset that the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence thoroughly reviewed every aspect of this bill and did serious work that deserves to be acknowledged. The senators who sit on the committee heard from many witnesses who addressed every element of the text and delivered passionate testimony that allowed us to confirm that the government has to be involved in reducing gun violence. However, most of the witnesses also talked about the effectiveness of the government’s firearms measures. I believe that most of the witnesses — and most Canadians — feel that the government has to be accountable for its actions. It is that aspect of the bill, on government accountability, that I want to talk to you about today.

Honourable senators, we live in a country where the politicians we elect are, and must be, responsible to voters for their decisions, especially when bills are introduced that follow through on an election promise. Of course we don’t want to live in a country where the police are the final authority and have the power to arbitrarily prohibit goods without being accountable to Canadians for their decision. When it comes to firearms, however, the current government and some senators across the aisle are saying that we should in fact authorize our police forces to do just that. Specifically, they are pushing for the police and civilians working at the Canadian Firearms Centre to be empowered to make classification decisions. This could lead to increased restrictions being suddenly and arbitrarily imposed on firearms owners. Those same individuals, and the senators who support them, believe that un-elected officials must be able to prohibit certain firearms, without proper oversight and without providing any remuneration to individuals who have acquired those firearms legally and in good faith under the existing laws of this country.

Under the current law, the Canadian Firearms Centre has that authority, but important safeguards are in place. The Governor-in-Council also has the authority to make regulations under the Firearms Act. In fact, the Governor-in-Council can examine decisions made by public servants and make alternative regulations where he sees fit. It is important to understand that the Governor-in-Council does this only in exceptional circumstances. One such rare occasion happened in 2015, when he overturned a decision by the Firearms Centre to prohibit two specific firearms, Swiss Arms SAM rifles and CZ rifles, without any prior notice.

The Swiss Arms weapon was an non-restricted weapon in Canada for 12 years. Gun owners purchased it knowing it was non-restricted. However, in 2014, the Canadian Firearms Centre decided these firearms had been inappropriately classified for over 10 years, so they were suddenly and without warning reclassified as prohibited weapons. As a result, nearly all CZ858 rifles imported after 2007 were also reclassified as prohibited firearms. That decision affected over 10,000 Canadian gun owners who had purchased their weapons in good faith rightfully believing them to be non-restricted firearms. The decision to reclassify meant that these firearms were suddenly banned, which had a significant negative impact on their value. Owners were never compensated.

Gerry Gamble of the Sporting Clubs of Niagara told the committee that the decision cost gun owners between $1,500 and $4,000 per firearm. That is a significant financial impact.

When the decision was made, the government still had the authority to overturn it by order in council. That’s why these two guns were reclassified as non-restricted in 2015, the way they had been for over a decade.

By introducing Bill C-71, the current government is using the legislative process to override that decision. The senators believe that is unfair, but at least the government is being transparent by bringing legislation before Parliament. However, Bill C-71 also proposes to give the firearms centre the power to reclassify other guns and even other types of devices in the future, without the Governor-in-Council being able to review or possibly overturn the decision.

While the government insists that it trusts the firearms centre to make this kind of decision without oversight, there are limits to its trust, because it only authorizes the centre to classify a gun as more restricted, not the other way around. It wouldn’t be able to extend the non-restricted status of certain guns, for example. In reality, the government trusts the police and its representatives to impose restrictions, but not to remove them. There is a pretty glaring inconsistency here.

The government indicated that reclassified firearms would be covered under a grandfather provision. However, grandfathering won’t protect the value of these firearms. When a firearm becomes classified as prohibited, it loses all of its monetary value, but the government doesn’t intend to compensate owners for that. I’d like to remind senators that in other countries, like Australia, owners are compensated when a firearm is reclassified as prohibited. In Canada, the current government is proposing to give public servants unlimited power to prohibit firearms without providing for any kind of compensation for owners when such decisions are made. I think that this way of doing things behind closed doors makes this provision unfair and uncalled for. It could even lead to abuse with serious financial consequences. This measure is disrespectful toward many law-abiding gun owners in Canada.

The National Security and Defence Committee heard from many witnesses who spoke about how the firearms centre often makes arbitrary decisions regarding classifications that have been in place for years, if not decades. Today, the current government is telling us that in future, under Bill C-71, it won’t even be possible to appeal such decisions. In my view, this provision is neither justified nor fair. I would go so far as to say that it is contrary to Canadian values.

In almost every other area of public policy, those we elect have the right to question decisions made by their representatives. For example, with respect to natural resource development under Bill C-69, the government supports its argument in large part by stating that, ultimately, final decisions rest with the ministers. In Bill C-69, the government gave itself dozens of opportunities to intervene in the process and impose solutions or political results. Business organizations told us that, in this case, these actions would be detrimental to Canadian businesses.

However, in Bill C-71, this same government is recommending the opposite. Representatives who are not subject to any oversight will be delegated this authority to the detriment of businesses that have large inventories. This means that there could be arbitrary prohibitions that are detrimental to individuals.

The problem with Bill C-71 is the lack of oversight of government officials. We must address this inconsistency before returning this bill to the other place. No bureaucratic process is perfect, which is why we need to establish an appeal mechanism. There must be enough flexibility to fix mistakes and to ensure that representatives know that someone is monitoring them.

Thank you.