There has been considerable debate recently in Canada over the issue of gun control. The Canadian parliament enacted the Firearms Act to enforce gun control by requiring gun owners to register their firearms. Just recently, the government of Alberta lead in a charge, including five other provinces and numerous pro-gun groups, complaining that the law is unconstitutional and intrudes on provincial jurisdiction. They also claim that the act infringes on property and civil rights that are guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Parliament contends that the government of Canada is within its rights to protect public safety. Pro-gun control organizations, police chiefs and the City of Toronto also back the Firearms Act. The enacting of the Firearms Act by the government of Canada is legitimately constitutional and is within the jurisdiction of Parliament as it only seeks to protect the well being of Canadians. Furthermore, this legislation does not intrude on provincial jurisdiction because it is a representation of all Canadian’s rights.
The Canadian law that requires the licensing and registration of handguns has been around since the 1930’s. The new statute, enacted in 1995 is currently under heated debate, the act extends the licensing and registration requirements to shotguns and rifles. Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control says, “More Canadians are killed with rifles and shotguns every year than with handguns”. The ultimate purpose of the Act according to the government is to reduce firearm offences and violent crimes including murder. Moreover, Cukier believes the real issue is saving lives, as licensing and registration help make gun owners more accountable. She also points out a list of kids killed with firearms- a boy shot at a birthday party, a Grade 3 student shot as his twin played with a rifle. Gun control advocates may also highlight some other incidents involving firearms including the 1989 massacre at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique that claimed the lives of fourteen women and the recent school shooting that killed a fifteen-year old student. Ironically, the shooting occurred at a Taber, Alberta high school, the same province that is leading a fight to strike down the Firearms Act as unconstitutional.
On February 21 and 22 of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada was asked to rule whether the toughest gun control laws ever passed in Canada was unconstitutional. The previously mentioned incidents involving firearms were used to boost the case for gun control advocates, including police chiefs, health and victims’ groups and the City of Toronto. Lawyers for the provinces involved and several pro-gun organizations claimed that “federal legislation does nothing to make Canadians safer”. Furthermore, they denounced the law as “an intrusion on provincial jurisdiction”. On the other hand, Graham Garton, lawyer for the federal government, told the hearing that anti-gun control talk “makes for good provincial politics”. He says, “I think it’s clear that Alberta and the challengers have come forward with a political argument dressed up as a legal argument and the clothes just don’t fit.” Roderick McLennan, lawyer for the Alberta government, countered that statement saying, “I don’t think we’re putting forward a political argument at all.”
The provinces against the legislation argue that the 1995 statute invades provincial jurisdiction over property and civil rights. The government of Alberta claims that:
“Only Canada, the Women’s Shelters and the Coalition (for gun control) argue that the Firearms Act and related provisions under the Criminal Code are, in their entirety, within the constitutional power of Parliament. All of the other interveners, with the exception of Ontario, support Alberta’s position that the licensing and registration provisions infringe on the province’s jurisdiction in relation to “property and civil rights” [under s.92 (13) of the Constitution Act, 1867] to the extent that they relate to “ordinary firearms”. They argue that the impugned licensing and regulation provisions are, in their essence, about regulation of property “simpliciter” and not about public safety or crime prevention.
The government counters that it can use its criminal law powers to try to protect the safety of Canadians. The comparison between firearms and motor vehicles can further illustrate this point. Like firearms, motor vehicles are registered and licensed to owners to protect the private property of the owners and others. Moreover, owning and using a firearm is a privilege, as is driving a motor vehicle. If the owner can prove his or her car is registered and he or she is licensed, the individual has nothing to hide since it can be proven that the vehicle is not stolen or was ever used to commit a crime.
However, Bruce Hutton, president of the 15,000-member Law Abiding Unregistered Firearms Association says, “The government is saying to me, in essence, you have the potential to be a criminal, therefore you have to register your gun. I resent that.” He goes on to say, “There’s no question that registration is the first step towards confiscation” and “registration means a huge, expensive bureaucracy and does not improve public safety because it won’t stop criminals from getting guns.” On the other hand, to gun control advocates, Hutton seems to be seeking only his self -interests and not the interests of the entire population. Even the name of the organization Hutton belongs to seems to contradict itself. If the members of this organization were actually law-abiding, then they would have their firearms registered and thus, would earn the right to be called the “Law Abiding Registered Firearms Association.” Registering and licensing a firearm does not automatically incriminate a person, but merely protects the owner from being accused of a firearm offence and protects registered owners if the gun is stolen.
The government of Alberta argued that, “Firearms have a different value, meaning and role based on your way of life, where you live in Canada and whether you come from a rural or urban setting.” They go on to say, “Someone living in rural Alberta or a remote village in the Northwest Territories will generally have far different experiences with firearms than residents of Metro Toronto or Montreal.” The Province adds, “These differences should be respected.” These attitudes opposing the Firearms Act seem to be blinded by the fact that the real issue of the Statute is saving lives and not preserving a gun culture of a particular region regardless of any traditional way of life. Furthermore, firearms have the potential to kill; therefore, they should be considered as special property whereby registry will be part of the law.
The gun control debate is undoubtedly a controversial issue. On one side, gun control advocates, victim’s groups, police chiefs, and the City of Toronto believe that the regulation and licensing of firearms is necessary in order to maintain a peaceful society. The other side, however, including several provinces lead by Alberta, believe that the Firearms Act is unconstitutional because the registration and licensing provisions infringe on their property and civil rights. Those who are pro-gun further believe that their culture traditionally used firearms and that the government should not interfere with their “way of life”. Honourable Chief Justice Fraser of the Alberta Court of Appeal explains the paradox of this debate and why it is so controversial:
“Guns preserve lives; guns employ people; guns are used for legitimate recreational pursuits; and guns are the tools of some trades. At the same time, guns intimidate; guns maim; and guns kill. It is precisely because of this paradox that guns are used for good as well as evil- that controversy surrounds government efforts at gun control.”
It is clear that the new firearms legislation is looking out only for the best interests of the citizens of Canada. Public safety and well-being undoubtedly takes precedence to a traditional gun culture. The argument by pro-gun advocates that licensing and registering firearms will turn them into criminals is invalid since guns have the potential to seriously injure and kill people and thus, should be treated with caution and special care.
The Firearms Act enacted by the government of Canada should be considered as a positive notion and not as a law that invades on property and civil rights. The reason why Canada is a safe country is all due to our strict gun control laws. Moreover, if this statute was struck down as unconstitutional, there is no doubt in my mind that Canada would head towards a gun culture society that would inevitably lead to more violent crime and murders involving firearms.