By Avishek Deb
The Canadian Government, in a historic move, introduced a slew of gun control measures through Bill C71, which was tabled in Parliament on March 20, 2018. Ralph Goodale, the Federal Public Safety Minister and chief sponsor of the bill, called the measures necessary to curb the rise of firearms-related violence in urban Canada and to simultaneously protect law-abiding gun-owning citizens.
Guns have always been a polarising issue in the frigid North American country. Hunting is more than just a sport for the rural population, it is a way of life. Despite the potential political backlash from rural regions in the upcoming 2019 elections and the resistance to restrictive gun laws from powerful lobbyists like the National Firearms Association, the Liberal government decided to stand up for its citizens. Around 69 percent of Canadians support tighter gun laws, according to a recent poll conducted by the Ekos Research Associates for The Canadian Press.
The new provisions
The proposed law mandates that gun buyers must show valid licenses when transferring firearm ownership. It establishes a more comprehensive background check for potential customers that previously existed. Prior criminal history or mental illness on the record would be taken into account before issuing licenses. The transportation of restricted and prohibited weapons such as handguns would be subject to scrutiny by the authorities. Vendors will also be required to keep records of gun sales for twenty years in order to aid law enforcement officials in firearms-related investigations. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) will take over from the government as the competent authority to classify weapons so that there is no political influence in gun classifications.
The new law has been lauded as a progressive step towards reducing violence by curtailing the illegal trafficking of handguns. Canada has witnessed a spurt in firearms-linked incidents in recent times. Even though its violence rate is less than that of United States, it is higher than Europe and Australia. In 2016, around 2465 instances of gun violence were recorded, an increase of 30 percent since 2013. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, saw 392 shootings in 2017 and firearm-related violence accounted for 31 percent of all murders in 2012. The previous laws failed to tackle this dangerous trend.
The bill, if passed by parliament, seeks to overturn ambiguous provisions of the current law passed by the previous government. Previously it was possible for a gun owner to buy multiple guns without raising a red flag due to lax record maintenance provisions and background checks were limited to only five years.
Drawbacks of the legislation
However, C71 falls short of restoring the country’s long gun registry. This means that gun retailers are still not obligated to maintain records of long guns like rifles or shotguns, making the crimes perpetrated with these weapons extremely difficult to track. Surprisingly, the US has a better record in documenting gun sales than Canada.
The National Firearms Association claims that the new law has a deliberate loophole that could be exploited by the police to seize the firearms of licensed users. The Conservatives believe that the bill treats law-abiding gun users as criminals and vow to fight any move to bring back the long gun registry. The broad discretion enjoyed by authorities in issuing licenses despite several red flags is also a cause for concern.
Critics say that the bill is unnecessarily restrictive and does very little to prevent crimes, as most of the gun violence in the country is committed using illegal handguns which cannot be tracked. They point out that existing Canadian laws still require gun owners to obtain a third party reference, take a safety training course and register their gun with the police. There is no legal right to possess guns in Canada. Adding more restrictions would only serve to harass existing gun owners.
Enforcing public welfare
Despite all its faults, the C17 Bill should be recognised for initiating an enhanced background check on gun owners and extensive record keeping of gun sales for investigation purposes. Canada has set an example by showing that governments can emancipate themselves from the political shackles of interest groups and lobbyists for the greater good of its citizens. The US could learn a thing or two from its northern neighbour in this respect.
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