In 1991, the Minister of Justice, Kim Campbell introduced Bill C-17, which improves the process for obtaining the Acquisition Licence of firearms by adding a mandatory training on the safe handling, a detailed questionnaire, references, a photo and a 28-day waiting period. The Act amended the age limit for obtaining this licence was settle to 18 years with provisions for minors’ licences. The Act also strengthened the power of the RCMP to refuse to issue a licence – if it was not in the best interest of the safety of the applicant or any other person – by removing the burden of proof in case on an appeal. Thus, the Act required from the applicant to prove that the RCMP was wrong in its assertions when it refused to issue a licence. This law also defined safe storage, banned semi-automatic versions of military assault weapons that could be converted to automatic weapons, as well as large-capacity magazines (that is to say that there were provisions allowing the provinces to be exempted).
However, the Act of 1991 does not address the concerns of organizations working to improve public safety and several groups that had encouraged the Government to improve controls on rifles and shotguns as a result of the killing at Polytechnique on December 6, 1989; where 14 students in engineering program were killed: the Licence of Authorisation to Acquisition of firearms Certificate was required to acquire but not own and possess firearms. Furthermore, only a third of gun owners in held this valid type of licence.
The police testimony before the parliamentary committees brought forward the fact that without gun registration, it was hard to in force the law on the acquisition licence or safe storage. They asked for renewable possession licence and the registration of all weapons owned in order to improve accountability and to reduce the hijacking to unqualified individuals. Under the system, a person could buy an unlimited number of weapons with little to no liability because there was no record linking the weapon to its owner. These weaknesses have created huge potential for acquisition via nominee and illegal trade. There was also little motivation for owners to report the theft of their weapons.
Consequently, an extraordinary alliance of over 350 organizations including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, Victims of Violence International, YWCA Canada and others have encouraged the government to pass a Bill to strengthen controls on firearms. In addition, a series of public inquiries had recommended the issuance of licences for all gun owners and the registration of all weapons.
The Firearms Act was adopted on December, 5, 1995 and contains the following:
- All firearms must be registered since 2003
- All firearm owners must have a licence since 2001 (renewable every five years)
- A national registry
- A rigorous evaluation, background check and verification process
- A ban on military assault weapons and semi-automatic short-barrelled handguns
- Controls on the sale of ammunition
- Tougher penalties for misuse of firearms
In response to the Vernon massacre (1997) where Mark Chahal killed his ex-wife, eight members of his family and then himself with his weapon legally acquired, the notification of the spouse was introduced into the licence to possess a firearm application process (PAL). The current spouse and former spouses (last 2 years) are warned that their ex-spouse wishes to obtain a firearm’s licence (Possession and Acquisition Licence). Even though the spouse consent is not required, if a spouse has doubts, it will trigger a second revision of the request. The reports of crimes including domestic violence will also trigger a review of a PAL application.
The Province of Alberta with other Provinces and pro-gun organizations have challenged the constitutionality of the law in front of the Court of Appeal of Alberta. Their challenge was based on the fact that the federal government, through its legislation on acquisition and possession of weapons and the registration of those weapons was a violation of a provincial jurisdiction to extend these laws that were reserved for long guns (rifles and shotguns). In October 1998, the Alberta Appeal Court voted in a proportion of 3 against 2 in favour of the federal position that the firearms legislation was essentially a public safety issue, which is therefore part of the rights of the federal government’s criminal Law. The Court of Appeal then rejected the claim that a provincial legislation long gun was basically and essentially an intrusion by the federal government to enter into the area of provincial jurisdiction over civil rights.
Police associations, victims of gun violence associations, health associations and organizations against domestic violence have fought against the challenge in the Supreme Court of Canada. With a unanimous decision in June 2000, the Court rejected the appeal of the province of Alberta stating: “the law on the control of firearms involves the jurisdiction of Parliament, over the law criminal. The law is directed to enhance public safety by controlling access to weapons bans and penalties and is issued under the authority of the federal Criminal Code. Although the law has regulatory aspects, these aspects are secondary to the primary purpose of the Criminal Code. The intrusion of the law into provincial jurisdiction over property and civil rights is not excessive in the balance of federalism.”
In its decision the Court also confirmed that licensing couldn’t be separated from the registration: “The licensing provisions can not be separated from the rest of the law. The provisions for the licensing require anyone who owns a gun to be licensed; the registration provisions require all guns to be registered. These portions of the Firearms Act are both closely related to the legislature’s goal of promoting safety by reducing the misuse of all weapons. The two categories are linked and necessary in the process.”