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Canada postpones firearms marking regulations necessary to fulfilling our international obligations

While there has been no official announcement, according to members of the gun lobby, the Canadian government is expected to announce that it has postponed for at least a year the implementation of the firearms marking regulation  required as under both the UN Firearms Protocol and the OAS Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms (CIFTA) that Canada has signed and were scheduled to take effect December 1, 2012. This is the fourth time that the government has delayed the implementation of this regulation.

The federal government is once again ignoring internal warnings from officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade that the changes to Canadian gun control over the past year would put the country in breach of its commitments under several international agreements to stop illicit gun trafficking. Weakening our ability to meet our international commitments could have serious repercussions for Canadians and for those in countries made more dangerous by the illegal trade in small arms. It could also affect Canada’s relations with other countries and harm the ability of Canadian law enforcement to work with their international partners.

Internationally, our partner countries are working at strengthening efforts to combat illicit firearms trafficking and at bringing themselves in line with international agreements, while Canada is instead taking numerous steps back, a fact not lost on the government or it allies in the gun lobby. According to the Canadian Press, the Canadian Sports Shooting Association, when celebrating the destruction of gun registry data on November 1st, issued a statement telling its members to “rest assured, we are the envy of international firearms advocates everywhere because Canada is almost alone internationally in rolling back gun control laws.”

Canada is in breach of international agreements such as the UN Firearms Protocol, CIFTA, the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA)  and the UN International Tracing Instrument (ITI)  in two important ways:

1. Marking obligations

In October, Minister Toews proposed a revised regulation that completely dropped the UN requirements, removing the obligation to have import markings and asking instead for only a simple serial number. The government justified opting out of the UN marking requirements as the legislative changes it introduced over the past year, such as eliminating the registration of non-restricted firearms, have already severely limited the ability to trace firearms used in crime. Furthermore, the regulation to require serial numbers would have no penalty for non-compliance and the government would not be verifying that weapons were in fact marked. The proposed regulation was never tabled in the House of Commons.

In the Canada Gazette notice published on October 13th, the government acknowledged that the original marking regulations would have filled a gap in Canadian law and that law enforcement agencies expressed support for them for public safety and national security reasons. Most countries have strict marking regulations in place and by not implementing our own requirements, Canada will be relying on the firearms industry and other countries to address a recognized gap in its public safety and national security policies.

Past statements have demonstrated the government’s awareness of the importance of markings to fulfilling our international obligations. Talking points from 2010 on the issue revealed in an ATIP request say “It is important that we have further examination to arrive at a marking scheme that contributes to public safety, meets international requirements, assist law enforcement to trace efficiently and addresses the concerns of the firearms industry.” Their importance for compliance with the Protocol in particular was noted in a speech prepared for Minister Toews in response to a House of Commons question on the issue in 2010.

2. Record keeping obligations

In addition to record keeping requirements under the treaties above, Canada also signed the 2005 UN International Tracing Instrument (ITI) that commits states to ensuring accurate and comprehensive records are established for all small arms and light weapons within their territory, either by the state or by individuals engaged in manufacturing and trade.  Canada noted in its 2009-2010 report on the progress of the implementation of the ITI that, “Its legislation requires each firearm to be registered against the manufacturer’s inventory at the time of production or the importer’s inventory at the time of importation and at every subsequent transfer, allowing for a quick, electronic registration query to determine the last legal owner of a firearm at any given point in time.”

Despite warnings from DFAIT officials that the elimination of the long-gun registry would put Canada in breach of several international commitments and would require us “to adopt an alternative record-keeping scheme, with a minimum retention period of 10 years, to continue to meet the record-keeping obligations under the UN Firearms Protocol,” the government went ahead with these legislative changes while claiming publicly that there would be no affect on our commitments. Records of sales were identified by officials as a possible alternative measure to comply with our internationals obligations, but ignoring these warnings yet again and in spite pleas by police and victims, the government passed regulations forbidding provinces from requiring gun dealers to maintain sales records in July.  No other system has been proposed to comply with our commitments.

Alone Internationally

While Canada is knowingly weakening our compliance with international agreements to fight the illegal arms trade, other countries have implemented or strengthened record-keeping and marking and tracing measures. For example, the EU and its member states have taken several steps to fully implement the provisions of the UN Firearms Protocol. Switzerland is making improvements to firearms markings for tracing purpose.  And St. Vincent and Grenadine’s recently ratified CIFTA.

The US 2011 Transnational Organized Crime Strategy includes explicit reference to the UN Firearms Protocol as a tool to combat transnational organized crime and President Obama has committed to work towards ratifying both the UN Firearms Protocol and CIFTA. When the marking regulations were last deferred in 2009, DFAIT officials raised concerns in an official memo of how that action could be negatively perceived in Washington.

In September, a coalition of Canadian women’s safety experts and violence against women service providers wrote the European Union Ambassador to Canada calling for the suspension of firearm exports to the country until it has taken meaningful steps to better address gender-based gun violence and to mitigate the damage caused by the weakening of Canada’s protections over the past year.

Many allies objected to Canadian positions in the lead up to the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations for focusing only on protecting the rights of gun owners and making no effort to build consensus among countries. Canada’s influence in multilateral small arms forums will continue to weaken, as state partners conclude that our support for international action on firearms trafficking has been discarded.

The erosion of Canada’s leadership internationally reflects the strong influence of the Canadian gun lobby (who work closely with the American National Rifle Association) on firearms policy both internationally and domestically. As has been standard practice in recent years for any international conference where arms are discussed, the only civil society representative allowed as part of the Canadian delegation to the UN Conference on the Convention against Trans-National Organized Crime in October in Vienna was a member of the gun lobby representing the Canadian Shooting Sports Association.

After eliminating both registration and records of sales, Canada appears poised to eliminate yet another tracing mechanism for firearms and with it, will be leaving police with fewer and fewer effective ways to trace guns found in crime and fight illegal gun trafficking. 

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