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Bill C-71 (Firearms) - Second Reading

*Please note that I have acknowledged in recent correspondence I did make an error in my statement when talking about methods of suicide. Firearms rank third among the major causes of suicide, following asphyxiation and poisonings. If car exhaust fumes and drug related deaths are considered separately from poisonings, firearms related suicides involving firearms would be ranked second.

According to Statistics Canada, 77 per cent of all gun deaths were suicide, 2 per cent higher than referenced in my speech. Statistics Canada also reports an average of 597 firearm suicides per year between 2014 and 2016. These are numbers, alongside other harms statistics cited in my statement, that I find alarming.

I rise to speak to Bill C-71, and in doing so I thank my colleague, the Honourable Senator Pratte, for taking on the sponsorship of this piece of legislation. Today I would like to talk about the broader context in which this legislation is being established, that of regulation in Canada.

Regulation, as you all know, has a long history in this country. It is part of the democratic fabric of our society, and its goal is preventing risk of harm. Gun regulation sits comfortably in that tradition. We regulate across a sweep of our social and economic lives in this country in terms of finance, commerce, transport, the environment, water safety, food safety, et cetera.

Our approach to regulation has changed over time. From one that used to be predominantly one size fits all, it has been modernized over the last two or three decades and now the focus is pretty squarely on risk of harm. It is calibrated to risk.

For example, the flying of kites is more lightly regulated than the operation of nuclear power plants. It doesn’t mean that kites are not regulated. If we fly them close to high tension power lines or proximate to an airport, we can expect there to be some regulation and some degree of enforcement. That is an indicator of the spectrum of regulation we have in this country and in other jurisdictions.

We can also consider regulation from across jurisdictional perspectives. If I’m living in the U.K. and I take a look at Canada’s gun regulations, frankly they look kind of light and fluffy, perhaps, alarmingly to some, loose. If I’m living in Florida and I’m looking at Canada’s gun regulations, I’m asking, “What are they doing up there? This is so conservative. How do they ever get a gun?”

It’s interesting that risk and harm statistics vary wildly from the U.K. to Florida, possibly based on decisions made about regulatory intervention.

In my own experience as a gun owner, I acquired a Possession and Acquisition Licence in 2010 under the old gun registry. I did my training, a day and half, and I passed my test. I acquired a Possession and Acquisition Licence, or PAL, and it arrived in the mail two or three months later.

I have to say that not previously owning a gun or maybe not having considered owning a gun, I found that process surprisingly lax. Given what I was able to purchase, I found the rules of entry set pretty low on the bar.

Perhaps like Wayne in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World, who was gifted a gun rack and observed that he didn’t know what to do with a gun, I don’t even possess one gun let alone the number of guns that would necessitate a gun rack. However, I indeed found myself with a gun rack. Part of that was because of access and part was because I was given a gun by a relative, a rather powerful shotgun, and that relative wanted to see my PAL. He called the RCMP office and checked that this PAL was still valid. The RCMP told him it was valid and allowed him to transfer the gun — this was all by telephone, all in my house — and the gun certificate over to me. That was a relatively easy transfer.

It’s interesting that the requirement for PAL verification is being reintroduced by Bill C-71. I wonder aloud why I’m receiving so many letters of concern about it, having gone through that process. From my own perspective, it was relatively easy and straightforward.

Let’s look at the data associated with risk of harm. Our approach to regulation driven by risk of harm in any sector is generally data-driven, as it should be.

What do we know, first of all, about the risks associated with firearms going in? They are potentially lethal weapons. They are designed to be lethal, historically. That was their purpose. Gun manufacturers have fine-tuned this to a remarkable extent in terms of the weight of weapons, the calibre, the fire power and the degree to which they do damage. In Canada their regulation is calibrated, in a way, by risk of harm. We have a non-restricted category of firearms, a restricted category and a prohibited category.

I will share numbers with you. In doing this I will purposely not go into the area of guns and gangs data, which is a predominantly urban phenomenon and a terrible situation we have learned so much about in recent months.

I will keep this close to home and share some statistics that relate directly to gun owners themselves and their families, the people who are most proximate to them.

Here is what we see, partly from data I have learned and partly from data shared by my colleague Senator Miville-Dechêne last week.

Between 2014 and 2016 there was an average of 600 suicides per year in Canada by gun. It turns out to be the most common way to commit suicide in Canada, representing 75 per cent of gun deaths annually.*

An average of 240 Canadians are hospitalized each year due to accidental discharge of firearms. Those shootings categorized as accidental kill an average of 13 Canadians each year. Senator Miville-Dechêne told us that the presence of firearms in a home is one of the key factors predicting mortality in the case of spousal violence. Think about that in the context of a risk-of-harm framework. We know from 2016 StatsCan data that nearly 600 women were victims of spousal abuse involving firearms. Think about that, again, in the context of risk of harm.

Senator Miville-Dechêne also reminded us of the prevalence of firearms offences in rural Canada, shifting the focus from Toronto and other urban centres to the particular aspects and culture of gun ownership and use in rural Canada. She reminded us of the prevalence of firearms offences, again focusing on the risk of harm to women, police officers and others, in a rural context.

Where am I going with this data and harms? Simply this: The facts are separate and apart from what is happening in the guns and gangs world. I understand a little about that because I sat, in the wake of the Jane Creba shooting in the Toronto Eaton Centre, on the Gun and Gang Task Force with then-police chief Bill Blair.

Separate and apart from urban violence, we know, and it has been demonstrated, that guns are not benign. They can and do kill people, sometimes inadvertently, more often purposely, and they are very efficient in doing that.

In this respect, we have a relatively light-touch approach to regulation in this country set against that backdrop. To go back to Florida and the U.K., we are kind of in the middle, aren’t we? We are not the U.K. by a long shot, and we are a hell of a long way from Florida. Maybe that’s where we are comfortable being.

From my reading of this legislation, if passed as it is — and I’m not sure that it should be; I’ve got much to learn — it would keep us squarely in the middle. There is nothing in this legislation that will take us toward the U.K. We may have been nudged a little towards Florida, but it might take us back. So that’s kind of important.

I will finish by speaking about a couple of the Bill C-71 provisions. One is that where weapons are being transferred from one person to another, there would be the requirement of verification that the receiving party have a valid Possession and Acquisition Licence, just as my brother-in-law did when he transferred a shotgun to me several years ago. I suspect most Canadians would expect that already and that they would find relatively acceptable.

There will be enhanced background checks for Possession and Acquisition Licence applicants that would look beyond the past five years, the current framework, to lifetime history, with a focus on criminal and mental health issues and, in particular, on violent offences, firearms offences, criminal harassment and drug trafficking. I suspect most Canadians anticipate this is something that happens already.

Parliament will continue to determine the classes of firearms that exist in Canada — non-restricted, restricted, prohibited — but the decision about whether a particular weapon falls within each of those categories will be moved from the purview of cabinet — and I have no idea how it got there in the first place — to specialist firearms officers in the RCMP. It is not the norm that cabinet makes decisions on regulations of that sort, which is quite different from what correspondents are suggesting to me, and we are all getting lots of correspondence on this, and it would depoliticize decision making as a result. For the life of me, I fail to see why this is being considered or would be considered an attack on law-abiding gun owners.

In summary, the 20-year requirement for keeping records, which in very limited circumstances, with a warrant under a criminal investigation, would be released. It is not taking us back to a gun registry, again something that I think most Canadians would expect.

In each of these cases, a key question for us as we move forward is the degree to which the proposed requirements are calibrated against the degree of risk associated with high-powered, potentially and actually, lethal weapons. On the face of it, given the known damage every year caused by firearms, often accidentally, in many cases likely as the result of mental health problems, and even outside of the context of gang-related activities, these proposals don’t appear to be unreasonable.

I wish to emphasize that, for me, these are early days. I’m here to learn and listen. I’ll make my mind up as I learn and move through the process, and I look forward to doing that. In that sense, I hope we can move this bill to committee sooner rather than later so that we can start to absorb the evidence of experts and those who know much more about guns and gun regulation than I do.