Who’s Calling the Shots in Canada?

The Harper government is discovering that its relationship with gun owners isn’t bulletproof

by Antonia Zerbisias –

parliament shooter

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau during rampage with rifle on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill

Right now in Canada, political guns are drawn … over gun owners.

On one side, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government – in its vote-getting sights, the hunters and sports shooters who are in possession of some 2,000,000 gun licences in a country where, in contrast to its neighbour to the south, shooting deaths are so rare that every single one makes the headlines.

Facing Harper down are the opposition New Democratic (NDP) and Liberal parties which target Canadians who demand stricter gun control.

Surprisingly though, the Harper government is discovering that its relationship with gun owners isn’t bulletproof, that the gun lobby’s support should not be taken for granted when Canadians vote in October’s federal elections.

Gun ownership

“I would say firearms owners right now aren’t really feeling the love,” Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association (NFA), told the CBC last December after the Conservatives seemed to be backing away from legislation that would loosen gun ownership restrictions even further than Harper had just three years ago.

As Clare told the Globe and Mail newspaper: “The Conservative bill really isn’t a problem-solving bill. It’s a pre-election, you know, ‘we’re trying to tinker with this and give us some money’ bill.”

Bill C-42, officially known as the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, has had an unusual trajectory, at least for a pro-gun bill from a majority Conservative government.

It was formally introduced to parliament last October, only to stall two weeks later when a gunman stormed Parliament Hill, killing the unarmed Corporal Nathan Cirillo and sending Harper into a closet to hide. In the aftermath, the nation was in no mood for hearing about potential terrorists getting easier access to automatic weapons.

Then C-42 was revived in late November – on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the mass murder of 14 young women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. Once more, doubtlessly because of the visuals, the government stood down.

C-42 would, among other things, make it easier for owners of restricted weapons such as semi-automatic rifles to transport them from place to place, streamline the licensing system and introduce a six-month amnesty for gun owners whose licenses have lapsed. The single obvious nod to public safety is a proposed lifetime ban on gun ownership for anyone found guilty of a domestic-violence charge.

Montreal massacre aftermath

All this is on the heels of Harper’s 2012 shooting down of the long-gun registry, created in the aftermath of the Montreal massacre. For nearly two decades, the registry had bedevilled gun owners with paperwork and what they deemed intolerable invasions of privacy while placating most Canadians, who believed that the massacre would never have occurred had a registry been in place.

In protest, the province of Quebec immediately launched a Supreme Court challenge to preserve its portion of the registry records. But, in a 5-4 decision last week, Quebec lost – and Harper declared victory.

As he told reporters after learning that the entire registry could now be wiped: “We have made a commitment to the people across Canada, but particularly in rural areas … and we intend to respect our promise.”

That rural vote, particularly in the west, is where much of the Conservative base lies. Which could explain why, earlier in March, Harper, while speaking to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, suggested that guns were necessary not just for keeping the coyotes away from the cattle.

“My wife’s from a rural area,” he said. “Gun ownership wasn’t just for the farm. It was also for a certain level of security when you’re a ways from immediate police assistance.”

Many observers, including NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, interpreted that as a call for vigilante justice, a charge Harper dismissed as “patently ridiculous”.

But Harper rarely misfires even when he appears to misspeak.

“The other parties are clearly anti-gun owners, they’ve made that very clear, so obviously this is an issue,” he shot back.

But, still no word on Bill C-42 as the clock kept ticking on the current session of parliament.

Then a curious thing happened.

Creeping police state

The NFA, which had denounced Harper’s Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism legislation, as “a sort of creeping police state bill” teamed with a coalition of civil liberties and labour groups against the proposed law. Clare was even to make an appearance at the parliamentary hearings on the bill, alongside the spokesperson for the coalition.

What’s more, in an ominous interview with the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, he expressed frustration with the government’s delays on firearm laws, adding: “Far be it from me to tell people how to vote, but I think people are looking very closely at who their friends are and who their friends are not and those who claim to be their friends.”

It seemed Clare had the Harper government over a barrel. Just four days later, Clare suddenly bailed from his parliament appearance, with no explanation. And just as suddenly, Bill C-42 was back on track. Second reading resumed on Wednesday. It looks like it’s a lock for passage before the election.

All of which makes many Canadians wonder just who is calling the shots here, and to what aim.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.