I bought my first gun in a private sale, back in 1977 when I was sixteen. As it happens, 1977 was a turning point in the regulatory framework for gun owners in Canada; it was the last of the good old days for gun owners in Canada. The familiar classification system for firearms was in effect (non restricted, restricted and prohibited). This was enacted in 1969 with the passage of Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-69 (S.C. 1968-69, c. 38), which, coincidentally, also decriminalized homosexuality. In 1977 it was unlawful to sell guns to individuals of unsound mind or those under prohibition orders, otherwise Canadians were free to own and use guns for hunting, sport shooting and collecting without having the state on their back. As the Minister Justice, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, observed in shepherding the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-69 through parliament, “obviously, the state’s responsibility should be to legislate rules for a well-ordered society. It has no right or duty to creep into the bedrooms of the nation.” (as cited in Wikipedia) In 1977, just as the state had no business in bedrooms of the nation, neither did the state have any business in the basements and gun cabinets of the nation.
My first gun was a beautiful Browning double barreled shotgun, over and under, with 26″ barrels, choked skeet and skeet. It was manufactured in Belgium at the Fabrique Nationale, a skeet gun. I used some of my summer earnings from working on a farm to pay for it. I purchased it from a neighbour who had received it as a gift, but never used it as he was not that interested in shooting. I offered him $400.00 for it, thinking he would laugh at my offer (the gun was worth approximately $800 retail at the time), but he said no, he would sell it to me for $200, provided my father approved. My father duly approved of the purchase and saw that I received a bill of sale from the vendor. I was thrilled to say the least. As a local outdoor writer told me when I showed him the gun and told him what I had paid for it, he quipped “you stole this gun for $200.” I still have this gun in my collection and it has served me very well over the years as a fine upland hunting gun.
While I was basking in my good fortune in acquiring this fine shotgun, the Solicitor-General, Warren Allmand and Minister of Justice Otto Lang in the Liberal government led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, introduced Bill C-51, which imposed certification on Canadian gun owners. There was talk of imposing gun registration, but the Solicitor-General put paid to this in stating, “for the 10 million long guns in Canada, I believe a registration scheme would be unworkable and impractical in comparison to its potential benefits.” (as cited in LUFA) Bill C-51 became law in 1978 and thereafter to lawfully purchase (but not to own) a firearm in Canada you were required to apply for and be issued a Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC). All that was required in getting an FAC was to complete the application form, pay the small fee and pass the cursory criminal background check that was carried out. My understanding of the rationale behind this legislation is that it was intended to insulate peaceful and law abiding gun owners from the elements of Canadian society that would misuse guns. Interestingly, when Bill C-51 was voted on in parliament, the Progressive Conservative Party serving as the Opposition, led by Joe Clark, voted against the Bill. My father and I, and most likely just about every gun owner in Canada, were none to pleased with this turn of events, but tried to take it in stride.
I applied for and received my first FAC in 1984 and found it was not an especially cumbersome process. When I bought a gun from a retailer, the retailer would make a record of the sale which included the make, model, caliber or gauge of the gun, its serial numbers, my FAC number, full name and address. Similarly if I bought or sold a gun in a private sale, I would make certain to keep a record of the transaction. This was, in my opinion, a tolerable level of regulation over the trade in guns in Canada. What precipitated the draconian changes to Canadian gun laws was an isolated act of insanity at the end of the year in 1989. A homicidal maniac went on a killing spree in an engineering school in Montreal, killing fourteen women, before killing himself. He used a semi-automatic rifle and because of delays in the police response carried out his killing spree unabated. In the aftermath of this tragedy, an array of prohibitionists started a scurrilous hue and cry over the evil of gun ownership in Canadian society and gun owners were vilified at every turn in the press.
In spite of this hue and cry, the Minister of Justice Doug Lewis in the Progressive Conservative government led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wisely observed, “we can’t legislate against insanity” (as cited in Crime Library) However, despite the reassuring words from the Minister of Justice, the Progressive Conservative government felt compelled to do something and when Kim Campbell succeeded Doug Lewis as Minister of Justice, she proceeded to enact Bill C-17 in 1991. Looking back, Bill C-17 does not look so bad. At the time, prohibitionists were demanding, among other things, the prohibition of semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, pistols, the registration of all guns and that gun owners surrender their guns to the federal government for safekeeping in armouries (the idea was the owner could “borrow” his guns for trips to the target range or for use during hunting seasons). As these proposals were just silly, extreme and would fail to pass muster in the most basic feasibility study, they were rejected to the chagrin of the prohibitionists who dreamed them up.
The most notable changes this legislation brought about were “increased penalties for firearm-related crimes; new Criminal Code offences; new definitions for prohibited and restricted weapons; new regulations for firearms dealers; clearly defined regulations for the safe storage, handling and transportation of firearms; and a requirement that firearm regulations be drafted for review by Parliamentary committee before being made by Governor-in-Council.” (RCMP) The most contentious aspect of Bill C-17 was the enabling legislation which allows for the introduction of new firearm regulations, including the reclassification of firearms, through Order in Council (OIC). The requirement that new and revised regulations be put for review by a parliamentary committee was included “in order to make the regulation-making process as transparent as possible and to ensure that the interests and expertise of firearms owners are duly taken into account when regulations are both made and amended.” (Library of Parliament)
The Liberal Party of Canada won the general election in 1993 and formed a new government. Allan Rock, the Minister of Justice in the Liberal government led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, set the tone in what followed for gun owners in Canada when he made the following statement: “I came to Ottawa with the firm belief that the only people in this country who should have guns are police officers and soldiers.” (as cited in Canadian Firearm Quotes) While a general prohibition on civilian ownership of firearms never came to pass, a cumbersome and oppressive licensing regime was put in place of the certification process. The FAC was replaced with Possession Only and Possession and Acquisition Licenses. In addition, mandatory registration of long guns was imposed in 1995 in the passage into law of the Canadian Firearms Act. The mandatory registration of long guns was the most hated portion of the act and was resisted vehemently from its inception. It was repealed in 2012 with the passage of Bill C -19 the motion to abolish the long gun registry by the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
I purchased my latest gun, a .50 caliber rifle, this past week. It is a T/C Impact muzzle loader, purchased in a private sale from its previous owner who was in lawful possession of it before selling it to me. As the T/C Impact muzzle loader is in the non-restricted class of firearms in current Canadian law, the transaction was simple. There was no cumbersome paperwork or the state directly involved in the transaction, as was the case when the hated registry was in effect. This purchase made me recall the purchase of my first gun back in 1977, back in the good old days. However, now, just as then, my elation was tempered by the very recent goings on in the federal government concerning gun laws. This time it is the recent release of revised regulations concerning the Firearms Reference Table (FRT), maintained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), through Order in Council. In the revised FRT the Swiss Arms and the CZ858 rifles are now classed as prohibited, despite having been lawful to own in Canada since 2001 and 2007 respectively.
The release of these revised regulations seemingly took the Harper government by surprise in spite of the fact that the firearms regulation-making process is supposed to be as transparent as possible and to ensure that the interests and expertise of firearms owners are duly taken into account when regulations are both made and amended. The Minister of Public Safety, Steven Blaney, responded quickly, promising owners of these newly prohibited rifles “I will bring forward an amnesty to ensure that individuals in possession of these firearms can continue to possess their property without threat of criminal charges. The Conservative government will continue to make our country one of the safest in the world without penalizing law-abiding citizens.” (as cited in the National Post) This is welcome news to the owners of the these newly prohibited rifles and to every law abiding gun owner in Canada, but the Harper government has to do more than offer a piecemeal remedy every time the RCMP sees fit to issue new and revised regulations concerning the FRT.
Really, what is needed is a repeal of the Canadian Firearms Act (in its present form), a return to the process of certification, rather than licensing, of those who want to lawfully acquire and use firearms and the return of the classification system for firearms (non restricted, restricted and prohibited) to the purview of parliament and with the addition of new or revised regulations subject to a full public review. Gun ownership is a privilege afforded to me and every other law abiding gun owner in Canada, a privilege I have enjoyed my whole life and not abused. My father taught me how to safely handle guns when I was eight years old. I can only hope the Harper government finds the fortitude to act decisively in this matter as gun ownership in Canada for past-times such as hunting and sport shooting remain an integral part of Canadian culture and are well worth preserving for succeeding generations.
Posted by Geoffrey