Bill C-21: Targeting Guns

The Honourable Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety, recently tabled firearms-control Bill C-21, which proposes:

  1. To combat intimate partner and gender-based violence and self-harm involving firearms  (so-called “Red-flag” and “Yellow-Flag” provisions);
  2. To fight gun smuggling and trafficking;
  3. To help municipalities create safer communities  (municipal bylaws can impose additional storage and transportation restrictions for handguns);
  4. To give young people the opportunities and resources they need to avoid lives of crime  (“guns & gangs” measures);
  5. To protect Canadians from gun violence;  and
  6. To subject owners of firearms prohibited on May 1, 2020 to non-permissive storage requirements, should they choose not to participate in the buy-back program.  (This provision in the bill in fact is a weakening of the original prohibition.)

I get mail.  After the introduction of Bill C-21 I get a lot of mail;  from angry gun-owners, mainly.

The principal outrage in these complaints is the notion that since  “criminals won’t obey these laws, anyway,”  only law-abiding people will be affected by them — so we’re really “just targeting legal owners!”  and  “Why don’t we go after criminals, instead?”

It’s a strange argument.  In the face of it one wonders why we have laws against, say, bank-robbing? — since criminals won’t obey such laws, anyway, and will still rob banks — so, really, they only prevent law-abiding citizens from doing so?  How dare we target law-abiding citizens in this way!  It’s absurd, of course.

It is indeed true that such laws will not stop criminals from breaking them, whether we’re talking about prohibiting weapons or robbing banks.  That’s not the point.  That’s never the point.

Laws draw a line between what is acceptable in our society, and what is not.  Once that line is drawn we can then hold people accountable for crossing it.  In criminal matters, people who operate on the wrong side of that line, are, by definition, criminals.  That’s the point, and we will hold those people to account.

To prevent law-abiding citizens from being caught on the wrong-side of the line when it shifts, there is usually  (as in this case)  a reasonable moratorium and/or a notice period before the new measures go into effect so that law-abiding citizens have time to adapt, and to abide-by the law.

It must be remembered, first of all, that there are many important aspects to the proposed legislation, such as the noted  “red-flag”  and  “yellow-flag”  provisions to deal with situations of domestic and gender-based violence and abuse, combating smuggling, and guns & gangs, and notably, provisions to enable a  “buy-back”  of newly-prohibited weapons to fairly compensate those who lawfully acquired them;  as well as provisions for municipalities to enact measures to amplify requirements or the storage and transport of hand-guns within their own jurisdictions.

But let’s talk for a minute about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.  Minister Blair, a former long-time Toronto City police officer and Chief of Police, has many times underscored that there are three main sources of firearms involved in criminal activity:

  1. Illegal importations  (smuggling);
  2. Diversion of firearms from legal owners by theft;  and
  3. Diversion of firearms from legal owners through so-called  “straw”  purchases — where firearms are legally bought and acquired, but then illegally sold onward.

Which of these sources is prevalent in any given place varies depending on urban vs suburban vs rural, large city vs small, and in the different regions of the country.

In some cases the predominant source is smuggling, and we have substantially ramped-up funding and personnel to combat this.  In other cases, the main problems are diversions through thefts or through straw-purchases.  In relation to diversions through theft, we propose much stricter storage and transportation regulations.

I want to talk now, though, about straw purchasers.  The gun lobby seems generally to discount this whole “straw purchase”  idea.  But let me draw your attention to a recent article in the TriCity News,  “39 guns still missing after Coquitlam ‘straw purchaser’ pleads guilty to weapons trafficking,”  (2021-03-05)

Note that all of the firearms that this individual was convicted of trafficking were legally purchased by him and legally owned by him.  The article notes further that:

“Over the last year, investigators have noticed an increase in domestic straw purchasers, propping up ‘the distribution of legal firearms for a criminal purpose’ with ‘these guns potentially ending up in the hands of those people who pose the greatest risks to public safety,’ wrote CFSEU-BC’s Sgt. Winpenny in a press release.”

And do please take further note, per the article, that there are an additional 39 firearms out there apparently illegally sold onward by this particular individual and that are apparently still unaccounted-for.  It really is a real problem.

Targeting Guns

© PRESSLAB / Shutterstock

The firearms prohibition of last May took aim, specifically, at firearms and components explicitly designed for military use — firearms designed to be weapons of war, to kill large numbers of people most quickly and efficiently — putting such firearms on the unacceptable-side of that line for civil society. 

Upon the prohibition last May, these firearms cannot now be legally bought, sold, given, imported, or bequeathed.  It also established a two-year moratorium to give time for people to adapt to the new rules, and time for the buy-back program to be established, and allowed narrowly-limited use during that time.  In due course, most such firearms now in the community will be turned-in for the buy-back, and this will substantially reduce the opportunity for them to be diverted to criminal purpose.

The new legislation, Bill C-21, however, allows owners actually to keep their firearms, to choose NOT to avail themselves of the buy-back! — albeit subject to much more strict storage and transport restrictions.  As prohibited firearms, however, they must be registered, and they still cannot be bought, sold, given, imported, or bequeathed.  And, after the moratorium, they cannot be used at all anywhere in Canada.

The more rigorous storage, transport, and registration requirements will inhibit the diversion of such firearms by theft.  If they do turn up diverted into criminal hands this offers the ability to track them back to their registered owners.  As their registered owners pass-on, since these firearms cannot be bequeathed, their estates will have to turn them in to be destroyed.

Straw-transactions involving any such firearms that do remain in the community and end up being diverted — that’s already criminal activity, of course, but these firearms being now prohibited, the penalties become more severe.  Any transactions involving new importations or sales are no-longer straw-purchases — they’re criminal all the way through.

Ultimately, we will have fewer and fewer of these firearms in the community to be diverted into criminal hands or to be misused.  And, if law-enforcement personnel do encounter such a prohibited firearm, the onus falls on the possessor to show that they lawfully acquired it, registered it, and that they took all the appropriate and requisite care with it.

The target here really is on criminals.

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