Canada was once viewed as a driving force behind global efforts to combat the illegal gun trade, reflecting our dual concern over its role in other illegal activities such as drugs and human trafficking and in feeding lethal violence worldwide , as well as the fuel it provides to gun violence in Canada. Under Bill C-19, Canada will face significant gaps in its ability to meet its international obligations under the UN treaties it has signed. Furthermore, our influence in multilateral small arms forums will be weakened, as state partners conclude that our support for strong regional and global action on firearms trafficking and the misuse of small arms has been discarded.
The government itself has linked their domestic goal of eliminating the registry with a new push to weaken agreements internationally. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s spokesman stated “It does not make sense to abolish the registry at home only to support one internationally.”
Bill C-19 goes much further that simply stopping the registration of long-guns. It will also:
- Eliminate recording non-restricted gun sales which have been in place since 1977. Without this information there is no way for police to investigate the source of rifles and shotguns recovered from crime scenes or seized from suspects. Several international treaties require that countries maintain firearm sales records for the purpose of tracing.
- Erase data on 7.1 million registered non-restricted firearms, despite the fact that this data could be useful as an investigative tool for police officers.
- Eliminate mandatory licence checks to purchase firearms, which will increase the chance unlicensed individuals will be sold rifles and shotguns.
- Allow a licensed individual to acquire an unlimited number of guns without any flags being raised, including powerful semi-automatics and some sniper rifles. There will also be no means to know who owns these powerful guns, nor how many are owned.
- Destroy a tool used by police officers to remove guns from dangerous people, enforce prohibition orders and take preventive actions.
Bill C-19’s provisions are inconsistent with international treaties to keep records for the purpose of tracing and will make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet our international obligations under at least four international treaties :
- The 2001 Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) was signed but has not yet been ratified. The PoA requires measures to ensure accurate records are kept for as long as possible on the manufacture, holding and transfer of small arms and light weapons. The elimination of registration requirements for non-restricted firearms by Bill C-19 will mean that Canada cannot meet this commitment and others.
- Canada signed the Firearms Protocol of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition [UN Firearms Protocol] in 2002, which sets out a legally binding instrument that specifies comprehensive procedures for the identification, import, export, and transit of commercial shipments of firearms, their parts and components, as well as ammunition. However, the Government has repeatedly delayed introducing the regulations needed to implement the Firearms Protocol and has not ratified it. Article 7 of the Firearms Protocol specifies: “Each State Party shall ensure the maintenance, for not less than ten years, of information in relation to firearms and, where appropriate and feasible, their parts and components and ammunition that is necessary to trace and identify those firearms and, where appropriate and feasible, their parts and components and ammunition which are illicitly manufactured or trafficked and to prevent and detect such activities.” The provisions of Bill C-19 will further weaken our ability to meet the requirements of the protocol, likely keeping Canada outside of it for some time.
- The OAS Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms (CIFTA) was signed in 1997, but Canada is one of the 4 countries among the 35 signatories that have yet to implement it, along with Jamaica, St. Vincent & Grenadines and the US. CIFTA’s Article XI on Recordkeeping specifies: “States Parties shall assure the maintenance for a reasonable time of the information necessary to trace and identify illicitly manufactured and illicitly trafficked firearms to enable them to comply with their obligations under Articles XIII and XVII.”
- Canada signed the 2005 UN International Tracing Instrument (ITI) that commits states to ensure 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.”
The Canadian Press reported on July 9th, 2012 that it had obtained an official memo showing that the government ignored warnings by officials that ending the long gun registry would violate international obligations and require Canada “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.” While part of the government memo was blacked off, it is believed that non-registry options would be business record keeping combined with an import registry or a more robust marking of firearms. The government has postponed marking regulations since 2007 and has now forbidden provinces from requiring mandatory business record keeping.
In addition to the above formal treaties, Prime Minister Harper committed at the October 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to “combating proliferation and trafficking of illicit small arms and light weapons,” and to “comply with all obligations arising under international law and urged all countries to become parties to and implement the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and the Protocols” — Protocols which include the Firearms Protocol. If Canada intends to conform to its international commitments and ratify the Firearms Protocol as well as CIFTA, it would have to repeal Bill C-19 and develop alternative mechanisms that will be more costly and not as effective or comprehensive as the current long-gun registry.
Our changing actions relating to the next arms treaty we are likely to sign is perhaps the most telling in terms of both Canada’s change in policy and what it may signal for our policies in the future. Negotiations for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) began in 2006 to respond to concerns about the absence of globally agreed rules on arms transfers. A conference to elaborate a legally binding instrument will be held in July 2012. While Canada has previously supported a strong and effective ATT, it attempted to dilute its scope at the July 2011 Preparatory Committee meeting by adding to the preamble the language “that small arms have certain legitimate civilian uses” and attempted “to exclude sporting and hunting firearms for recreational use from the treaty”. It also lobbied to make treaty implementation a matter for national discretion, thereby undermining the international consensus. This was a reversal of previous positions, for example, in 2007 we stated “Canada also believes that an instrument must cover all conventional weapons, including small arms and light weapons.” Mexico, Uruguay, and South Africa promptly raised their opposition to Canada’s position on the basis that recreational weapons can easily be converted and used in serious gun violence and crime.
This erosion of Canada’s leadership reflects the strong influence of the gun lobby on government policy at both the domestic and international. At the last three UN meetings to discuss strategies to combat the illicit gun trade, the Canadian government brought a gun lobby member as the sole representative of Canadian civil society on the delegation, the president of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), Steven Torino. Previously, both anti-violence NGOs and gun owners associations were represented on Canadian delegations.