Thanks very much. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the committee on behalf of the Coalition for Gun Control, which is an alliance of approximately 300 organizations from across the country that have been working on this issue now for about 25 years.
I apologize, as a professor I'm used to talking in three-hour blocks, so I will need help with my time, Mr. Chairman.
I just wanted to start by reminding the committee members, some of whom did not live through the development of the Firearms Act, of the purposes of the firearms legislation and the key elements. The intent of firearms regulation is to reduce the risk that firearms will be misused, while allowing the legitimate purposes of law-abiding gun owners.
The key elements of the legislation, and in fact any regulatory system in most parts of the world, are aimed at reducing the chances that firearms will be misused by their owners on the one hand, and on the other hand will be diverted, stolen, or misused by others. The key elements of that are: screening all firearm owners; licensing all firearm owners so we know who the lawful owners are, as distinct from those who have not gone through the screening process; holding firearm owners accountable for their firearms, and in Canada now that includes the registration of restricted and prohibited weapons; and reducing access to firearms where it is viewed that the risk outweighs the utility. In Canada since the 1930s, there have been higher levels of control over handguns, for example, because the view is that unlike rifles and shotguns, they serve more specified purposes, and because of their concealability, represent a higher risk to public safety.
I think the evidence is strong that suggests that as Canada has increased and strengthened its controls over firearms, we have seen a reduction in firearm death and injury. Remember that the risks of firearms are not just associated with what we normally define as crime, but also suicide and increasing political violence, which we have seen, for example, targeting police officers and members of the House of Commons.
When the legislation was introduced, the licensing provisions were intended to provide rigorous screening, and to take into account not just criminal acts or criminal records but also to require additional information, for example, from references, ensuring that spouses, for instance, were notified in the event that they had concerns. At the same time that the legislation was introduced, it was recognized that many existing firearm owners would be inconvenienced if they had to go through the same level of screening as individuals who wanted to acquire new firearms. That was why the distinction was made between possession-only licences, which allowed the owner to retain the firearms they previously had, versus possession and acquisition licences. There were about a million possession-only firearm owners at the time.
Because of time constraints I won't go into this in great detail, but I also want to refer the committee to the program evaluation of the firearms legislation that was done for the RCMP, because it reiterated both the value of the legislation and also identified a number of gaps in areas where the legislation needed to be strengthened. Most of those areas had to do with screening of licensing, with keeping licensing records up to date, and so on.
I think it's critically important to point out that were we concerned primarily with public safety, we would be looking at ways to strengthen the licensing provisions in this legislation, not to weaken them. One of the key messages in this document is that enhanced screening is important. The information required to ensure public safety does not reside just in police databases. There's more outreach required, for example, to public health professionals because of the risks associated not only with violence but also suicide.
We also know that recent explorations of risks associated with political violence or terrorism have also indicated that there are risks in Canada, not perhaps where the media focuses our attention, but among groups, for example, who oppose government intervention and involvement in their business. We've seen a number of cases, for instance, where police officers have been targeted by individuals who hold those beliefs. There is also evidence that stockpiling of firearms has been a problem with some groups over a long period of time.
With that in mind, I just want to walk through—in the few minutes I have remaining—the key elements that we are concerned with.
One is the proposed relaxation of the authorizations to transport, to make them less specific and more generic. While on the surface this may seem simply technical, as I mentioned at the outset, one of the reasons that Canada has far lower handgun violence rates than the United States is because we have been very strict in terms of controlling access, to the point where the current Prime Minister, for example, once stated that handguns are virtually banned in Canada.
We believe that relaxing the controls over the authorizations to transport will increase the risk that these firearms will be misused. If you can transport your firearm to any gun club in the province, it means you can be virtually anywhere with it.
The second area of concern is the automatic renewal of licences. As I said, the RCMP were very clear that the renewal process for licensing is an important complement to continuous eligibility checking. It allows information to be collected about aspects of an individual who may present risks to themselves or others, and also ensures that the information about who has guns and where they live is kept up to date. In the absence of firearms registration, this too is important.
I mentioned previously that the possession-only licences were designed to provide lighter screening than possession and acquisition licences because it was viewed that people acquiring more firearms present a bigger risk than people who already have them. We think that merging those is an error.
As well, when we look at other forms of regulation, there is normally an effort to rely on expert opinion. We have real concerns about changes that suggest that the minister has the power to reverse decisions by the RCMP with respect to the classification of weapons. This is something that has been an area of concern by police for at least 15 years. While there may be ways to strengthen transparency and rigour in the process, we would oppose shifting that to allow more political interference.
Finally, we believe that the roles and the powers of the chief firearms officers are critically important.
That of course is reinforced again in this evaluation report for the RCMP. Allowing the firearms officers to take into account a wide range of concerns in issuing authorizations to carry, as well as the transfers of firearms, is a critical piece of public safety and also allows more discretion around responding to local needs.
I will leave it at that point. I think I'm at 10 minutes.