How the HarperCons silenced Canadas gun lobby on C-51

Canadas gun lobby has never had a more sympathetic ear in Ottawa, but public concern over the Parliament Hill shooting.


Canadas gun lobby has never had a more sympathetic ear in Ottawa, but public concern over the Parliament Hill shooting threatened their plans to further loosen gun laws under Bill C-42. Documentary filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza spent two years following the gun industrys top lobbyist, Tony Bernardo. With access to Parliaments backrooms, Pequeneza captures how Bernardo was able to stickhandle the changes through as the clock was ticking toward an election. The result is Up In Arms: How The Gun Lobby Is Changing Canada.

Many people might not know that Parliament Hill shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was under a criminal prohibition from possessing firearms, yet he was able to get hold of a gun. Why did you feel it was important to include this segment in the context of Canadas current gun laws?

The Parliament Hill shooting occurred while we were filming the documentary, and attracted international attention. It also impacted the films characters. Each made the point that the current legislation did nothing to stop Zehaf-Bibeau from obtaining a firearm. But to date, due to the destruction of the long-gun registry, police have been unable to identify who owned the gun used by Zehaf–Bibeau and whether it was stolen or given to him. I find it ironic that the gun lobby -denounced the long-gun registry as an invasion of privacy but didnt oppose the anti-terrorism Bill C-51 [drafted in response to the shooting], which is a far greater threat to Canadians rights and freedoms. Many gun owners were opposed to Bill C-51.

Why arent we hearing more about that or the fact that the Harper government moved just before the election to give the minister of public safety veto power over RCMP firearm classification decisions under C-42, the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act?

Most Canadians arent directly impacted by gun violence. Only when there are public shootings like at the Danzig block party or in the Eaton Centre food court does the issue grab our attention. The people most affected by gun violence are overwhelmingly marginalized, disenfranchised communities, and very few of them even know how the guns are coming into their neighbourhood.

You spent a good deal of time with Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), probably Canadas best-known gun lobbyist. You capture some candid moments, particularly at the celebration of the passing of C-42, where he was given a signed copy of the act by Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney. Just how chummy is he with Harpers cabinet?

It appears that Tony Bernardo has very good relations with Minister Blaney and the Harper cabinet. He also claims to have good relations with Liberal and NDP politicians. Bernardo recognized the importance of getting Bill C-42 passed before the coming federal election, while a friendly government was in power.

Right, otherwise the bill would have died at the call of the election. Since the Conservatives have been in power, 11 different pieces of legislation and regulations have been changed to suit gun owners. Where do we stand compared to the U.S. when it comes to firearms safeguards?

What is unique about Canada is that we are one of the few countries in the world to repeal gun control legislation. The repeal of Canadas long-gun registry was seen by the international gun lobby as a major coup. I think most Canadians are unaware that C-42 also takes away provincial powers to issue transport permits for firearms, which Chief Firearms Officer Chris Wyatt [of the OPP] says frustrates the polices ability to know whether transport regulations are being followed.

You describe the evangelical zeal with which the gun lobby guards the right to bear firearms. Are we talking a fairly small but vocal group?

The CSSA has only 20,000 members out of 2 million licensed gun owners in Canada. Canadian gun policy is far too important to leave to the influence of such a small group. Canadian gun owners and non-gun owners alike need to be more involved in the shaping of Canadas gun laws.

John Evers, regional director of the CSSA, equates the gun -lobbys struggles to gay rights and says eventually zero -controls on firearms will be normalized. Is he just blowing smoke or does he know something we dont?

He believes the only reason Canadians support gun control is because they dont understand gun culture, and that gun regulations are an assault on our basic rights and freedoms. So far, the CSSA is doing a good job of winning over politicians.

To hear Evers tell it, Sandy Hook hasnt changed anything for the gun lobby. Are incidents like Sandy Hook part of the cost to be paid for living in a free society, as Evers suggests?

In the U.S., the gun lobbys response to gun violence is typically a call for more guns. But Sandy Hook has also had a galvanizing effect on the gun control lobby in the U.S. Since that event, Everytown for Gun Safety has successfully lobbied for mandatory background checks on private gun sales in Washington and Oregon. The group also released a poll showing that the majority of NRA members support background checks, in contrast to the organizations official position.

Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair features prominently in your film. He talks about gun regulations encouraging responsible gun ownership that have helped keep our streets safer. But even with those, there are straw purchases by people with firearms acquisition certificates who buy guns legally and sell them on the street. How prevalent is this practice?

More guns [used in the commission of crimes] are being sourced here either stolen or legally bought and then sold on the black market. Both Ontario and BC have convicted straw purchasers in the last two years. Its difficult to tell exactly how widespread the practice is. In the U.S., where straw purchases account for 30 per cent of guns used in crimes, the process of tracing a gun back to the legal purchaser is much more difficult. The development of straw purchasing in Canada speaks to the need for Canadian policy to regulate not only supply, but also demand for guns. Without a strategy to reduce the demand for illegal guns in Canada, it is impossible to reduce gun violence.

In your film, Alex, a young woman who grew up in Regent Park, describes having a gun when she was 13 or 14. Why did you feel it was important to tell the stories of those affected by gun violence?

The gun lobbys mantra is Guns dont cause crime, which is true. But without looking at the impact gun regulations have on criminals access to guns, we cannot begin to tackle gun violence. There is a steady flow of smuggled guns from the 10 U.S. states with the most lax regulations all of which do not require background checks or registration for private sales. There is a direct connection between lax gun laws and gun trafficking. I thought it was critical to include the experience of Alex, and that of gun traffickers like Riccardo Tolliver, because it makes the important connection between gun laws, gun accessibility and gun violence. If we want to tackle difficult issues like gun violence, we have to understand each others perspectives before we can look for solutions.

Nadine Pequenezas film Up In Arms: How The Gun Lobby Is Changing Canada premieres on TVO tonight, Wednesday, September 23. It will be viewable at TVO.org after that. It will also be aired later on the Knowledge Network in BC and RDI in Quebec.

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