5. The Politics of Panic - A History of Canadian Firearms Control


Paul Yewchuk (Athabasca): "...Since this bill [C-51] has been brought forward, it has become quite clear that no other legislation that has been introduced into this House recently has raised so much objection among the public at large as this. Other measures which raised a lot of objection were the abolition of capital punishment and the change to the abortion law. Those are the only two I can remember which have aroused the public as much as this one."

(Hansard, 1977, p.7607)

Only eight years after the Trudeau government introduced Bill C-150, "gun control" was once again pushed into the forefront of the legislative agenda. This time, however, gun control would be prompted by the politics of convenience and not the politics of crisis.

In 1974, two shooting incidents occurred which involved young men with rifles who had run amok in schools. The public demanded execution (Kopel, 1990, p.142). While capital punishment remained in the statute books, no criminal in Canada had been hanged since the early 1960s. Death sentences were routinely commuted by the government.

In 1976, Ron Basford, Minister of Justice in the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, introduced Bill C-83. It was their first attempt to amend the 1969 firearm legislation (Ramsay, 1994, p.7)

Bill C-83 required that prospective firearm purchasers first obtain a police permit and supply police with two character references (Kopel, 1990, p.142; Ramsay, 1990, p.7). Firearm owners opposed the bill with vigour. It was allowed to "die on the order paper" in July of 1976 (Ramsay, 1994, p.7).

Mauser (1992, p.4) indicated that the Liberal's firearm controls, wrapped in the convenient cloth of an "anti-crime" package, were part of a log rolling deal in exchange for the support of Members of Parliament in abolishing the death penalty 26 .

In 1977, the government tabled revised firearm control proposals in Bill C-51, the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

Automatic firearms were prohibited (with grandfathering). The definition of a restricted firearm was expanded to include any firearm with a barrel length under 47cm (18.5in) or an overall length of 66cm (26in) or less. Prospective firearm purchasers were required to obtain a Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC) 27 from their local police, who could reject any undesirable applicants. Gun owners who did not store their firearms securly were made liable to criminal prosecution. Retailers of non-restricted firearms were now required to register all purchases of rifles and shotguns (Kopel, 1990, p.143).

Bill C-51 eliminated the protection of property as a reason for allowing a citizen to obtain a restricted firearm. This amendment was approved with only a slim majority, and not without a spirited and emotional debate:

Doug Neil (Moose Jaw): "...The Criminal Code at present covers the protection of life or property, so I wonder why this bill has excluded the protection of property. I appreciate that this refers to a restricted weapon but as far as I know, the system has worked well over the years. There has been no problem as far as registration of restricted weapons is concerned. It seems to me that in many cases it is as important to protect property as to protect life."

(Hansard, 1977, p.7600)

Ron Basford: "I would ask the hon. member to study this provision rather carefully. It related only to sidearms and has nothing to do with shotguns or rifles. If one is protecting property or crops I think that the long gun is the more desirable weapon."

"...people who think they are going to protect themselves in their homes with a sidearm are foolish. They are better off being protected by the police. If they insist on having some arms they are better off with a long gun 28 . "

(Hansard, 1977, p.7601)

Eldon Woolliams (Calgary North): "Many crimes has been committed in Calgary that I assume are duplicated in other cities, where a housewife is home alone,...and someone breaks in and the housewife is not only raped but in many cases loses her life. Does she have a chance to get the police? Are the police in the front room while she is in the bathroom?"

(Hansard, 1977, p.7601)

Neil: "...There have been no real problems with respect to restricted weapons. What we ask for here is simply to leave the principal as it exists at present to allow a person to obtain a registration certificate if it is required to protect his life, or as the old code says, 'or property'".

"...It seems to me that what is attempted here is a gradual restriction of the ownership and use of firearms. I can see the minister looking at me through the curtains. He seems to be moving in and out as he feels like it. When things get hot, he moves out. I suggest there has been no problem at all with restricted weapons. The minister wants to make some problems with respect to the legislation. What I am saying is that the provisions as they stand right now are adequate. They will not prevent crimes from being committed. If a criminal wants to get a gun, he can get one, and no amount of gun legislation or restricted will prevent him from getting one."

(Hansard, 1977, p.7601)

Stan Schumacher (Palliser): "...If you can it a handgun to protect your profession or occupation, you should be able to use it to protect your property because, after all, what is the purpose of a profession or occupation except to earn income, and property certainly is also to earn income. Therefore it should be on the same basis and should be protected by the law."

(Hansard, 1977, p.7601-7602)

Leonard Jones (Moncton): "It seems to me that our lives and our property are part and parcel of our possessions in this world...by doing this we are taking away a great deal from people who are licensed and who have certified firearms. I say this because of very cruel and desperate experiences. The police stayed in my house month after month to protect my wife and daughter, and all three of us were trained in the use of firearms. The Minister of Justice (Mr. Basford) has the audacity to say that no member of any police department in this country would recommend that. Policemen in my own constituency recommended it, and policemen from other cities told me that they would as well. I would like to hear someone in this House honestly say to the policemen in my city and in my constituency that they are wrong in doing this."

(Hansard, 1977, p.7603)

Woolliams: "...It was assumed in committee that there are between six and 11 million guns in existence in Canada, and two and a half million owners...Does anyone believe for a moment that this bill will control murder and other crimes? It is straight window dressing to bluff the Canadian people that the government is doing something about crime."

Yewchuk: "...It seems to me that one of two possibilities exist so far as the minister is concerned. Either he is grossly misinformed about the use of guns, or he is trying to bamboozle the people of Canada into believing that somehow this legislation will reduce the number of crimes committed with guns. If indeed he believes that, then I am very anxious to hear from him how he thinks this bill will achieve that objective."

"...I cannot comprehend how the minister comes to the conclusion that by requiring a person to buy a license to own a gun he will reduce the crime rate in this country, or the number of crimes committed with the use of a gun. We know there is no real evidence that this result will ever be achieved. We can conclude that the minister is being pressured by those in his urban constituency and he feels he has to appear to be doing something in this regard."

(Hansard, 1977, p.7707-7708)

Parliament passed Bill C-61 by a vote of 95 to 40. Over one-half of all Members of Parliament did not vote at all (Kopel, 1990, p.142).

In the federal election fo June, 1979, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau was defeated by the Conservatives under Charles Joseph Clark.