Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Wednesday to pursue more stringent gun control measures in the aftermath of the Nova Scotia massacre — but his government still hasn’t enacted amendments to the Firearms Act that were passed by Parliament last year.
“We are resolute that we need to move forward on strengthening gun control in smart, common-sense ways and on banning assault-style weapons – they have no place in our communities, in our country,” Trudeau said Wednesday when asked if the Portapique murders demand new legislation.
But while Trudeau has promised to press ahead with a ban on “assault-style weapons,” the more modest gun control measures promised in the government’s first term are gathering dust. At least 30 changes to the Firearms Act are still pending.
The gunman fingered for killing 22 people in Nova Scotia last weekend used a firearm to carry out some of his crimes, but the RCMP said Wednesday that he did not have a licence to own a firearm — meaning he procured those arms illegally ahead of his murderous rampage.
Trudeau campaigned on his government’s gun control record in the last election campaign.
“We’ve moved forward from the policies of the Harper years and we’ve got the record to prove it,” Trudeau said at Sept. 20 campaign stop as he announced the ban on “assault-style” firearms.
“We did take meaningful steps to address gun violence. Stephen Harper made it easier to purchase and transfer a weapon. We reversed that. We started requiring firearm retailers to conduct more extensive background checks — something the Conservative leader plans to scrap if he’s elected.
“Andrew Scheer wants to scrap enhanced background checks and he wants people to be able to buy a gun without ever even showing their licence to own it.”
Eight months later, none of the initiatives Trudeau mentioned in that campaign speech have been enacted.
The legislation in question, then known as Bill C-71, made consequential amendments to the firearms regime and was passed into law in May 2019.
The legislation enhances background checks, forces retailers to keep records of firearms sales and tweaks the authorization to transport (ATT) rules — but many of those changes have been in limbo because the prime minister’s cabinet hasn’t issued the necessary orders to implement the new regulations. They are listed on the government’s website as “amendments not in force.”
The chief firearms officer in each province must conduct a background check on anyone applying for a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) — something all firearms owners must have before they can legally purchase a firearm in this country.
Bill C-71 requires that police examine an applicant’s entire life history for potential red flags — criminal charges, violence, spousal abuse — instead of the current standard of just the past five years. But that standard isn’t being enforced as police wait for the necessary orders-in-council from cabinet.
Under C-71’s rules, the Nova Scotia shooter would not have qualified for a licence because he was criminally charged after a violent assault on a 15-year-old boy in 2001.
While introducing the legislation in September 2018, former public safety minister Ralph Goodale touted C-71 as an “important piece of legislation in support of public safety and the ability of law enforcement to investigate gun crimes.” But the regulatory changes designed to help police haven’t been enacted either.
Under Bill C-71, a business selling a firearm must record dates, references and licence numbers along with the firearm’s make, model, type and serial number — information Ottawa has said will help police trace guns used in crimes. Without cabinet approval, stores aren’t required to collect this information.
The Liberal government also tightened the rules on carrying firearms away from home.
A licensed gun owner must possess an authorization to transport (ATT) document if they want to travel with a restricted firearm, such as a handgun.
Under C-71, an automatic ATT would be extended to those taking a firearm to a certified shooting range but in all other circumstances — such as going to a gunsmith or a gun show — a separate ATT would be required.
Those ATT changes haven’t been implemented either, as they require cabinet authority.
‘Necessary administrative changes’
A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Bill C-71 provisions will come into force “once the necessary administrative changes have been made, funding has been approved and the associated regulations have been tabled in Parliament for review.”
“C-71 brought in much needed reforms to the Firearms Act and other related acts that make our communities safer. Systems and protocols are in development with the RCMP to implement the remaining sections that have not yet been enacted,” the spokesperson said.
iPolitics reported in February that the C-71 amendments haven’t been enacted yet. Blair told that news outlet then that the work was “ongoing.”
“It’s regulatory, so there are some budget issues that will be addressed in the coming budget and then regulations will be brought forward to bring into effect all the measures that were approved in that bill,” the minister said. “I don’t have a timeline.”
The federal budget was disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis as Finance Minister Bill Morneau turned his attention to crafting programs like the Canadian emergency response benefit (CERB) and the wage subsidy while the economy cratered.
‘Simply isn’t a priority’
Heidi Rathjen is a graduate of École Polytechnique in Montreal — scene of the Montreal massacre of 1989 — and coordinator of Poly Remembers, a gun control group.
She said the year-long delay in implementing C-71’s provisions shows that gun control “simply isn’t a priority” for the government.
While it might promise gun control at election time, the current Liberal government has a poor record of actually following through, she said.
“It’s not surprising,” Rathjen told CBC News. “They have a strong position of gun control but in terms of turning that rhetoric into concrete measures, they’re sorely lacking.
“It took a long time for them to table C-71 — it was introduced late in their last mandate — and now we know no measures have been implemented so far. These weapons pose a risk to public safety and we expect them to move quickly on it.”
She said gun rights advocates have been busy lobbying rural MPs to stand against all changes to the Firearms Act. “We’re getting more and more worried that the opposition has, again, started seeping into the Liberal Party through this very active, politically engaged gun lobby,” she said.
Critics maintain C-71 is nothing more than a symbolic sop for gun control advocates that will penalize lawful gun owners with unreasonable regulations.
Rod Giltaca, executive director of the Canadian Coalition of Firearm Rights, said C-71 demands “substantial infrastructure,” which could explain the delay.
He said the measures in C-71 are largely unnecessary since homicides have been on the decline since the bill was first introduced.
“These promised measures are purely political and we believe there can be no worse reason to create new law. It is a misuse of governmental authority,” Giltaca said.
He said the Nova Scotia massacre should not be used by the prime minister as an excuse for more firearms legislation.
“No aspect of this unthinkable tragedy bears any connection to firearm regulations in Canada. Thus, the implied connection is purely political,” he said.