The 1995 passage of Bill C68 radically changed firearms legislation in Canada. The Justice Minister who authored the bill claimed strong public backing for the tough measures and cited opinion polls to this effect. However, support for this law has been surprisingly modest. Indeed, it was dominated by a very few special groups such as the Chiefs of Police and the Coalition for Gun Control. In contrast, opposition to C68 was characterized by a large number of grass roots groups. These included provincial wildlife organizations and firearm-owner groups which sprang up in every province and territory in the country. The bulk of letters written to MP's and Senators came from opponents of C68. Likewise, all of the rallies on the issue were organized by opponents. None were specifically sponsored by groups supporting the bill. How, then, can the appearance of public opinion differ so much from reality?
Surveys of public opinion on gun control have been superficial. Media polls were limited to one or two questions - which cannot adequately assess public opinion. Issues of public policy such as gun control, the Constitution, abortion, or immigration are necessarily complex and involve a number of interrelated issues. Individuals will differ in the extent of their knowledge, and support for a bill is less meaningful if they do not know what the present laws are, nor understand the implications of the proposals. More importantly, individuals whose sole involvement in the issue of gun control was a verbal response during a telephone interview, probably had not have thought much about the issue, and therefore may have no strong commitment to their opinions. Gun owners, who have a personal stake in the outcome of C68, are more likely to act upon their beliefs.
To examine patterns of support for C68, the most comprehensive study of attitudes towards gun control that has ever been done in Canada was conducted. An extensive series of questions was administered by professional interviewers at Canadian Facts to a sample of over 1,500 Canadian adults. Interviews were conducted in all provinces in Canada between January 18 and 23, 1995. The survey was funded by the Langley Symposium of Responsible Firearms Owners. In contrast to superficial media polls, the study does not show strong support for C68. Instead, it found that support for universal firearms registration, the keystone of this law, was astonishingly shallow and based upon widespread and profound ignorance about existing firearms legislation. Almost half of those who said they favoured registration changed their minds when informed of its possible costs. Another finding was that the public did not view gun control to be the solution to criminal violence. Instead, they suggested a variety of changes in the justice system to solve the problem.
The survey's results showed that few Canadians were familiar with the existing state of gun control prior to the passage of C-68. Regulations in place since C-51 passed in 1978 were unknown to many people. Opinions about the effectiveness of further gun control legislation were based almost entirely upon wishful thinking.
Perhaps the most important finding was that Canadians are profoundly divided over the principles that underlay C68. The meaning of symbols, like beauty, is to be found in the eye of the beholder. While firearms symbolize violence to some; for many others, they represent self reliance and freedom. The survey shows that opinions about C68 stem from deeply held cultural values. Many urban residents do not favour legal firearms ownership in Canada and supported C-68 in an attempt to reduce the number of Canadian firearms owners. Opposition to the bill was rooted in rural and suburban Canada. The moral campaign against guns is reminiscent of the campaign to prohibit alcohol earlier in this century. Alcohol prohibition was an attempt to impose rural values upon urban dwellers; C68 reflects a crusade by urbanites to impose their values upon rural Canada.
The introduction of draconian legislation needlessly exacerbates deep divisions within Canadian society and can undermine support for the police and possibly even law and order itself. C68 is draconian. Its provision for universal firearms registration, for example, requires a bureaucratic system of staggering complexity. The law has other contentious points - sweeping powers for police searches and harsher penalties for violating rules on gun ownership than for actually using a firearm in the commission of a violent offence are two examples. Universal firearms registration has never worked any place in world where it has been tried. New Zealand abandoned registration a decade ago and, based upon the experience of the State of Victoria, the Australian government rejected a plan to introduce nationwide firearms registration in 1995.
The government claims that additional gun control is needed because there is a public health problem with firearms. However, it was unable to document this claim. In 1991, Ottawa brought in C17 to make sweeping changes to Canadian firearms laws. C68 was introduced before these changes could even be evaluated. This lead to a widespread suspicion that this law is largely motivated by partisan political concerns.
It is crucial to examine how firearms owners and their families view this legislation. These are the very people who must cooperate with the police if the legislation is to work. No law can be enforced if those principally affected by it do not support it. Unfortunately, the Justice Minister seemingly made no real effort to consult with Canadian firearms owners. Moreover, C-68 was rammed through Parliament with little sign of respect for traditions of compromise or for the concerns raised in caucus or by other parties. This is not propitious. C68 provoked unprecedented opposition. In contrast, C-51 and C17 had supporters in the firearms community, but firearms owners almost universally view C68 as a partisan ploy which will be ineffective in fighting crime. Voluntary cooperation with the registration scheme may very well be problematic.
Our results show that many firearms owners will not register their firearms. This is consistent with the experience in other Commonwealth countries. The police in Australia, Great Britain, and New Zealand estimated that between 25% and 60% of the firearms in their countries remain unregistered. If a large number of Canadian firearm owners did not register their firearms, there would be serious implications. First, the 'gray' and black markets of firearms will increase as previously lawabiding firearms owners decide not to bother with the newlyimposed procedures. Second, the decision not to register a firearm will only make these otherwise law-abiding gun owners vulnerable to prosecution. Third, as a large number of firearms will remain outside the registration system, C-68 will not deliver its promised benefits.
Most importantly, the withdrawal of support for the authority of the police by a significant number of gun owners will undermine the present highlevel of support for legally constituted authority in Canada. Rejection of the firearms law, coupled with widespread growth of tax evasion techniques by many Canadians, may significantly undermine the basis of law and order in Canada among those who are currently its staunchest supporters.
Firearms laws in Canada have become increasing restrictive over the past century. Permits were first required for carrying handguns outside of one's house in 1892. Carry permits for handguns grew restrictive until 1934 when handguns were registered. Since that time, handgun registration became increasingly centralized. In 1977, Parliament passed C51 which, among other things, prohibited a number of firearms and introduced the Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC). For the first time Canadians had to submit to police scrutiny before they could purchase any firearm.
In 1991, Parliament passed C17, an omnibus firearms law. The government justified this legislation by the brutal murder of 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique by Marc Lepine. Among other things, C-17 prohibited a number of semiautomatic firearms and restricted a number of other firearms. It prohibited "high capacity" magazines, spawned bureaucratic rules for safe handling and safe storage, introduced "reverse onus" provisions for firearms applicants and a centralized training program for prospective firearms owners. Concomitant to C17, the Minister of Justice tightened up many procedures for dealing with firearms owners, including a lengthy new application form for the FAC.
Despite the 1992 introduction of C17, the new
Liberal Justice Minister vowed to introduce still more
restrictive firearms laws after the 1993 federal elections. In
November 1994, he introduced an outline of his planned
legislation, and in February 1995, over the objections of many
Liberal MP's, he introduced C68. Rushing this law through the
House Justice Committee, the Justice Minister vowed he would not
accept any amendments to his law. Thus, he rejected input from
the Reform Party, the Bloc Québécois and even his own party.
Despite the largest protest ever mounted in the history of
Canada, the law was passed by the House of Commons on June 13,
1995. It was passed through the Senate on November 22, 1995, and
was proclaimed on December 5, 1995 in time for the sixth
anniversary of the Montreal murders.