moved that Bill C-71, An Act to amend certain Acts and Regulations in relation to firearms, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased today to begin debate on Bill C-71. This is important legislation that prioritizes public safety and effective police work, while treating law-abiding firearms owners and businesses fairly and reasonably. With this bill, we are upholding the commitments that we made to Canadians during the last election. To be clear, that includes our commitment not to reinstate a federal long gun registry. As we heard a couple of weeks ago at a policy summit here in Ottawa, many Canadian communities have been facing a steady increase in gun violence over the past five years.
Crime rates generally in Canada have been on the decline for decades, and of course that is a very good thing. However, offences involving firearms are bucking the positive trend. They have become more prevalent since 2013. There were almost 2,500 criminal incidents involving firearms in Canada in 2016, and that was up by 30% since 2013. Gun homicides are up by two-thirds. Cases of intimate-partner and gender-based violence involving firearms, as reported to police, are up by one-third. Gang-related homicides, a majority involving guns, are up by two-thirds. Since 2013, break-ins for the purpose of stealing guns are up by 56%. These are realities that we need to face.
Also by way of context is this. The majority of firearms owned by Canadians are non-restricted. They are typically long guns, like hunting rifles and shotguns, used in a manner that is fully compliant with the law. In 2016, however, 31% of all gun-related homicides involved these types of firearms that do not need to be registered. Furthermore, while cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Regina have been particularly hit by violent gun crime, in my home province of Saskatchewan more than 60% of such crimes actually happen outside the major urban centres. In the Atlantic provinces, there is a similar pattern, where 56% of violent gun crimes occur outside the cities. Hard evidence shows a gun violence issue that is serious, appears to be worsening, and is not confined to big cities or to particular weapons. Bill C-71 would help in five important ways.
First, it would enhance background checks for those seeking to acquire firearms. Right now, when a person applies for a licence, there is a mandatory look back over the immediately preceding five years to see whether the applicant has engaged in violent behaviour or whether he or she has been treated for a mental illness associated with violence. That five-year limitation would be removed by Bill C-71, so the applicant's full record as it relates to violence and criminal behaviour can be taken into account. This is in fact a measure once proposed in a private member's bill introduced in Parliament by former Conservative MP and cabinet minister, James Moore. As he said at the time:
...if a person has ever committed a violent crime in their life never does that person get to own a gun. If a person has ever beat his wife or ever committed rape or ever committed murder and is released from jail, never in his life does that person get to own a gun in Canada. This is effective criminal justice and this is something the Liberals should put into law.
Those are the words of the Hon. James Moore, and the provision that he was recommending is in fact included in Bill C-71. It is also important to underscore that when it comes to mental illness the background check that we are talking about involves only mental illnesses associated with violence. We all have friends and family who have dealt with mental health issues, and in the vast majority of cases there is no violence associated with it at all, so those people would not be affected.
The second important way that Bill C-71 would make our communities safer is by enhancing the usefulness of the existing licensing system.
Since 2012, when a person acquires a non-restricted firearm, there has been no obligation for them to demonstrate that they are authorized to do so. To be clear, vendors can check voluntarily, but there is no legal requirement to do so. In other words, a person could apply for a firearms' licence, undergo a background check, be denied because of a history of violence, and then go on to buy a shotgun anyway, because the seller does not actually have to check whether they have a licence or not.
Let me provide another practical illustration for why this provision should be mandatory. Picture a small firearms shop where a customer has shopped for many years. In 2016, that customer was one of hundreds of people who committed violence toward his partner with a firearm present. The court ordered him to forfeit his firearms and his licence. Today, a few years later, he drops into the usual shop looking to buy a rifle. The person behind the counter currently has the option of verifying whether the customer's licence is valid or not, but they are not obligated to do so. Having sold several firearms to this same customer over the years, the sales clerk decides that he knows the customer well enough and does not have to run a check against the licence.
Bill C-71 will ensure that the salesperson is required to make that call to the firearms program. This is just basic common sense. The process for doing so will be efficient and straightforward. The RCMP will operate a call centre, as well as an online portal that will be open 24 hours a day. The verification will take about three to five minutes, and for transactions involving non-restricted firearms, no information about the firearm itself will be sought or retained. The call is to verify the validity of the licence, not to identify a non-restricted firearm.
Third, Bill C-71 will support police officers investigating gun-related crimes and crime-related guns by requiring commercial retailers to apply good, common business practices in maintaining adequate business records of their inventories and sales. Most, in fact, already do so for economic, safety, or liability reasons, and because it may have a bearing on such practical things as their insurance.
Their records would be private and not accessible to governments, but police would be able to gain access given reasonable grounds and with judicial authorization as appropriate. This would help police trace guns discovered at a crime scene, detect straw purchasing schemes, and identify trafficking networks.
In the last few days, we have heard from some folks who have been raising concerns about this being some kind of new long gun registry, and that is simply not the case. According to A.J. Somerset, a firearms expert, a hunter, and a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces, “The sales records are maintained by the retailers. So the government does not have access to them, so they can't be treated as a registry. In fact, it's going to be exactly the same system that exists federally in the United States, and nobody complains there is a registry in that case.” In fact, the requirement to keep business records has existed in the United States since 1968.
The co-owner of High Falls Outfitters, a firearms retailer in Belleville, Ontario, says that while the long gun registry tracked “where guns are kept, the home, the addresses, all these different things.... All they are asking for now is for store owners to keep records of who bought the gun, and under what PAL (Possession Acquisition Licence). It just gives the police a starting point when they have to investigate a crime.”
The fourth important public safety measure included in this bill has to do with ensuring the impartial, professional, accurate, and consistent classification of firearms by RCMP experts. Parliament, of course, will always control the definitions that create the various classes of firearms. As is the case with many other laws and regulatory frameworks, the rules will be written by the elected officials in this House and then interpreted by law enforcement.
Currently, as we all know, there are three classes of firearms defined by Parliament in the Criminal Code: non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited. Within that frame, we will rely on the technical expertise of the RCMP, not political considerations, to determine which guns belong in which class. This means that we are repealing the authority the last government gave itself to overrule RCMP determinations.
When we repeal that power, we will automatically invalidate two decisions made by the previous government to assign a lesser classification to two particular groups of firearms, one Swiss and the other Czech. These are firearms that the RCMP, applying the definitions established by elected officials, believe to be deserving of a higher classification than the previous government gave to them. In the interests of fairness, we will grandfather the ownership of these particular firearms so innocent third parties are not put offside with the law through no fault of their own.
Finally, Bill C-71 would bolster community safety in relation to restricted and prohibited firearms, mostly handguns and assault rifles, by requiring specific transportation authorizations to be obtained for moving those types of guns through the community, with the key exception of transportation between a residence and an approved shooting range. This is an important tool for police because it helps them determine whether a person is taking their restricted or prohibited firearm to somewhere it should not be.
As with verifying a licence, the process for obtaining an authorization to transport is simply a matter of calling the hotline or logging in to the online portal. This legislation would implement practical measures, all of which are directly connected to public safety outcomes. That is why the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police says it is “encouraged by the positive direction taken by [the government] towards sensible firearm legislation enhancing the tools available to #policing to ensure public safety”.
There are four other matters, which are not in Bill C-71, that I look forward to discussing with my provincial and territorial counterparts as well as with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and the Canadian firearms advisory committee.
One was raised with me by the mayor of Prince Albert, Greg Dionne, who is concerned that insufficient commercial storage rules allowed the thieves in that city to snip one cable and steal 24 handguns from a local gun shop and those restricted weapons are now in illegal circulation. It is certainly worth examining whether the current after-hours commercial storage regulations are appropriate.
Second, at the suggestion of Poly se souvient, I would like to look into whether it is reasonable for commercial firearms manufacturers to promote the sales of their wares, namely restricted and prohibited weapons, in a manner that particularly glorifies violence and simulates warfare. Is such promotion consistent with public safety?
Third, as raised by the mayor and the police in Toronto, do we need a mechanism to identify large and unusual firearms transactions, especially those involving restricted and prohibited guns, which may be indicative of some illicit straw purchasing scheme, gang activity, or a trafficking operation?
Fourth, as is done in the province of Quebec already, should other provinces consider requiring medical professionals to advise provincial authorities about persons who have diagnosed conditions that are likely to put the lives of other people in danger?
The pros and cons of these and other questions will be given very careful future consideration. As we examine these matters, our priorities will always be protecting people and communities, supporting the police, and ensuring fair and reasonable treatment for firearms owners and businesses.
Those are the very same priorities that guided us as we developed the legislation which is now before the House in Bill C-71, and they will continue to guide us throughout the parliamentary study of the bill ahead. However, as that study unfolds, as members of Parliament consider the details, if they come up with good and useful ideas that can improve the legislation, we are always open to interesting, useful, new suggestions.