Madam Speaker, I am pleased to continue my remarks on Bill C-68.
When I spoke on this bill previously, I said straight away that I agree with the principle of gun control and that, on the whole, I support the justice minister's bill. Later, I will raise specific
concerns I feel my party should address in a parliamentary committee.
I was somewhat surprised with the type of debate that took place in this House around the gun control issue. I heard some speakers mention individual freedoms. Some spoke of the right for every Canadian citizen to own firearms. Others perceived the proposed measures as unjustified government interference in people's private lives.
To some extent, we are having a societal debate here. Many representations were made and many letters were sent to my office by Canadian citizens who oppose this legislation. I read almost all of them to have a good idea of what the problem is.
I think that this debate is about looking at society differently. It is a matter of individual freedom against public interest. No one in Canada, I think, opposes the right of the government to control firearms, to ensure that anyone who owns weapons, handguns in particular, be identified and be required to justify requesting permission to own such weapons. The problem right now is with the registration of firearms which are hunting weapons.
Some say: "I am an honest citizen and I am not going to cause problems for others with my firearms. Consequently, I do not see why the government wants to know if I own such firearms and determine whether I am allowed to do so". Those who use that argument forget something important, namely that our society-we are not talking here about American society in the 19th century, but about society in Canada and Quebec in 1995-has changed. Customs have changed, as well as the concept of community life, and I believe that one of the main thrusts right now is that society is opposed to violence.
Society is opposed to violence against women and children. Actions which were condoned 25 or 30 years ago are now being denounced and can trigger criminal proceedings. Society tells us, legislators, to control violence. If violence can sometimes show itself in such brutal and damaging ways, it is because some people are armed. It goes without saying that the vast majority, maybe 99 per cent, of those who own firearms will not commit violent crimes. This control which we want to implement over firearms may deter only a small number of people from misusing their firearms, or from using them with bad intentions.
But I want to make it clear that, in my opinion, this bill is a message. It is a message which society is sending to itself. It is society which no longer wants to live in a climate of violence, which wants peace and safe streets, and which wants to make sure that, if a neighbour, a person across the street or those people whom one meets in one's daily activities are armed, they will have had to state that they own firearms.
Owning a gun does not necessarily mean a person is violent, but society tells us that it wants to know who has guns, so that the message is clear. To own a gun is, in a way, a right, but there is also a duty involved. Guns must be used carefully, so that no one is ever at risk.
That being said, I think it is important to adopt the kind of bill before us today, even if it means curtailing certain individual freedoms. I think that, to a certain extent, society is ready for this bill.
Some aspects of the bill are not entirely satisfactory, however. Before my time expires, I would like to comment on these aspects. There is the matter of prison sentences. The bill provides for a minimum prison sentence of four years for serious crimes committed with firearms. The bill also contains several provisions that would increase prison sentences for individuals convicted of contravening this legislation, once it is passed.
I question the use of prison sentences and their effectiveness. The other day, I read in the paper that Canada ranks third among a number of western countries for the number of persons incarcerated per population of 100,000. Countries like Germany, France or the Netherlands have incarceration rates that are lower than Canada's. There is no indication, however, in the newspapers or in reports on the subject, that in these countries violence has greater impact or that people are not as safe as in other countries where incarceration is the measure of choice to control crime.
Incidentally, the two countries where incarceration is used most often are Russia and the United States. The United States has opted for incarceration as a way of exercising social control, as a way of controlling crime. If we look at what is happening in the United States, we do not get the impression that American society is less violent or less dangerous than German or French society.
I think that incarceration is not the right way to deal with the crime rate, and that is why I question some provisions of the bill that seem to reflect this emphasis on the deterrent effect of more severe prison sentences. There may be other ways to approach this problem. This is a very complex issue, and I think my party should raise it in committee.
There is also the matter of sentencing. It is said that judges do not have enough leeway. The minimum sentence is too high to allow sufficiently for the circumstances involved. I think judges should be allowed greater flexibility in setting the minimum sentence. Obviously, when a crime is committed with a firearm, this is an aggravating circumstance. However, there are situations where a judge may have to penalize individuals because under the law, he must determine a minimum period of incarceration. This does not mean justice will necessarily be served in every case.
There is also the time frame. This is important in connection with the requirement to register a weapon and license it. If we add up all the possible time periods, and take into account the number of people currently owning firearms, we are talking about a period of almost seven years.
Obviously, enough time must be allowed for the appropriate administrative measures to be taken to ensure an effective registration and licensing system is in place. However, I think seven years is a lot. This is a very long time, in view of the urgency of the situation and the value of the firearms control measure of registration. It would be preferable to shorten the time period so that people with firearms could take note of their responsibilities and register their weapons as quickly as possible.
There is also the whole matter of costs. There are fairly low fees for registration and there are fees for licensing, which is renewable every five years. I think many people who opposed mandatory registration of firearms mentioned that significant amounts would be involved. Of course, if we add everything up, we arrive at a figure of perhaps several tens of millions of dollars. Not a mind boggling figure, but a reasonable amount, to some extent.
Clearly, if we could lower the administrative costs of licensing and registration, it would be easier on people who have to keep an eye on their spending. But I do not think that the $50 or $60 fee currently provided for under the proposed regulation is high enough to prevent people who would like to own guns from assuming their responsibilities and from registering them, a measure designed to let society know who is armed.
There is another aspect. Some categories of guns-for example the infamous AK-47-will remain in the hands of their present owners. In my opinion, these kinds of weapons have no place in a democratic and free country. They have a history in several countries. They have served all sorts of purposes, not always noble. I think it would have been appropriate for the minister to immediately recall these weapons.
Those are the main points I wanted to make about this bill, which is legitimate in a free and democratic society. In a society favouring non-violent values, it is important to know who owns firearms, because they increase carnage when violence breaks out. As well they are a symbol of violence.
These days, no one can walk the streets with a gun without alarming citizens. This was not the case 30 years ago. In my own town, which was closer to a medium size town than a small town, I recall that, at 17 or 18 years of age, we went through town carrying our .22 calibre rifles to go target shooting in the fields. People did not make a fuss because most of them knew each other and knew who was who. They did not think we were violent. Nobody worried about it. But now, no one can walk the streets of my town, Jonquière, with a .22 rifle without the police hearing about it.
In my opinion, this indicates a shift in society's values and I believe that the time has come for us in Quebec and in Canada to know who is armed, who owns guns, and why, so that people become fully aware of their responsibilities as gun owners.