Dawson Shooting Re-opens Gun Registry Debate

Saturday, September 23, 2006

  • © CBC, 2006

    © CBC, 2006

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

As Parliament is starting to find its feet after the summer hiatus, it is coming face to face with the extended political fallout from last week’s Dawson College shootings. Bill C-21, which would modify the gun registry created by the Chrétien Liberals, is expected to be voted on in a few weeks time, and the Montreal shooting is already polarizing positions on the vote, with Quebec Premier Jean Charest warning Stephen Harper “to expect a tense debate” on the issue.

Proposed Conservative amendments to the registry most notably include the complete elimination of the long-gun registry. This measure is wildly popular in rural areas in general and in Western Canada in particular, which, not surprisingly, is where the Conservative Party gets most of its votes. According to the Criminal Code, a long gun is defined as either having a barrel longer that 18.5 inches or a total size longer than 26 inches, so hunting rifles fall squarely within this category. Last spring, the federal government announced that it would no longer be prosecuting long gun owners who choose not to register their weapons, even though the law still technically requires them to do so.

The Liberals and the NDP will seize the chance given by Quebec’s strong opposition to Bill C-21 to hand Harper’s minority government its first resounding defeat in parliament. Liberal leader Bill Graham has announced a whipped vote, to try to keep all of his MPs in line, while an NDP MP told the National Post that, “after what happened at Dawson College,” he anticipated a “significant majority” against the government.

The issue is undoubtedly a controversial one. Quebec has consistently favoured gun control ever since the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, and already families of the victims in the Dawson shooting have been calling for Harper to revise his stance on the long-gun registry.

The registry itself is no less controversial. Law enforcement agencies and individuals have argued both for and against the registry, but its fate seems to have been sealed by the Auditor-General. In her 2002 report, Sheila Fraser denounced that the costs of the program were spiralling out of control, reaching 10 times its initial projections in 2004. As of 2006, the CBC believes that the program has cost taxpayers over $2 billion, or about $1.9 billion over the initial cost estimates. In subsequent reports, the Auditor-General has slammed Liberal governments for hiding the costs of the program. More importantly, her findings have led her to question the objective effectiveness of the registry as a whole.

However, all of this controversy misses the point entirely: the Dawson shooter did not own or use a single long gun. Neither the now infamous Beretta semi-automatic nor his other two weapons of choice qualified as long guns; they were bought and registered with scrupulous respect for Canadian law, so the existence or disappearance of the long-gun registry has absolutely no bearing on the Dawson College shooting. The government has not yet announced formal plans to scrap the registry entirely (including hand guns and semi-automatics), but the fact that such a disturbed individual as the Dawson shooter could so easily get his hands on such deadly weapons has led the Prime Minister to openly question the effectiveness of the entire registry, beyond long guns.

The Dawson shooting will most likely spark a bout of virulent parliamentary discussion when Bill C-21 goes through the House of Commons in upcoming weeks. In addition to the province’s sad history regarding shooting rampages, Quebec nationalists have taken up “textbook left” issues such as climate change, anti-war and, as the case may be, gun control, to try to resist the encroaching advances of the Conservatives in the province. However, Harper’s much-touted hopes for a majority government rely on wooing increasing numbers of Quebec voters. Under these conditions, it remains to be seen whether the Dawson shooting will translate into constructive discussion about Canada’s issues regarding gun crimes.

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