RCMP Letter Fuels Battle Over Gun Records

CBC  |  Posted: Updated: 05/15/2012 7:38 am

RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson has instructed chief firearms officers to ensure that any conditions they impose on gun store owners do not facilitate the creation of a long-gun registry.

In a letter sent Thursday, Paulson doesn't explicitly tell the CFOs that gun store owners should not keep ledgers that record the names and licence numbers of customers, but he carefully reminds them that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews doesn't want any records kept.

Paulson tells the CFOs that the passage of C-19, the bill that abolished the requirement for unrestricted long guns to be registered, "leaves no doubt that Parliament has sought to eliminate any form of a long-gun registry."

Toews sent a letter to Paulson and the CFOs on May 8 that said the Firearms Act should not be interpreted in such a way that CFOs think they can require licensing conditions that could recreate "some semblance" of a long-gun registry.

Section 58(1) of the Firearms Act gives CFOs the authority to attach conditions to licences, but Paulson says in his letter that when exercising that authority related to records kept by businesses, they must consider the will of Parliament and directions from the minister.

"Accordingly, as the commissioner of firearms, and pursuant to the direction issued by the minister of public safety on May 8, 2012, I instruct all chief firearms officers to ensure that the licensing conditions you impose on business records pursuant to the Firearms Act do not facilitate the creation of long-gun registries in your jurisdictions," Paulson writes.

The letter adds to a boiling debate between some provinces and the federal government, and groups such as the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), that has emerged in the wake of the law scrapping the long-gun registry.

Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner, parliamentary secretary to Toews, said in an interview on Power & Politics Friday that she is pleased with Paulson's letter.

"The RCMP commissioner is expecting that CFOs will comply with C-19, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law in terms of ending the long gun registry," she told host Rosemary Barton.

Any person who purchases firearms in Canada must hold a valid firearms licence, a requirement that didn't change with the passage of C-19, and gun vendors for years have maintained ledgers of the weapons they sell. The ledgers list the make, model and serial number of the gun sold, as well as the name and firearms licence number of the purchaser.

Hoeppner said the ledgers amount to "back-door" registries and that government has put an end to the requirement for both businesses and individuals to register long guns. If store owners want to keep a ledger voluntarily, they are free to do so, but neither the government, nor CFOs, can force them, Hoeppner said.

And if a prospective buyer doesn't want to give a store owner their information, they don't have to buy the weapon there, she said.

She said she expects CFOs to listen to Paulson's instructions and comply with his wishes.

The RCMP manages a national database that keeps registration records for restricted and prohibited guns, but the portion dedicated to unrestricted long guns is now being dismantled.

Ontario wants ledgers kept

When C-19 amended the Firearms Act to scrap the long-gun registry, it did not reinstate an old requirement for store ledgers to be kept, but some CFOs have attempted to impose the rule using the authority given to them under the act to carry out their duties, and many store owners support their use.

Ontario's CFO, Ontario Provincial Police Supt. Chris Wyatt, recently wrote a letter to gun vendors outlining their responsibility to collect information about legal gun sales in the ledgers, a practice he says has been followed for decades and that is not affected by the ending of the long-gun registry.

Wyatt says he has received legal advice that Toews can't direct CFOs how to exercise the discretion that is afforded them under Section 58(1) of the act, and that he requires that ledgers be kept as a condition of the gun store owner's business licence.

Hoeppner, however, said CFOs can't use that provision "to try and circumvent the will of Parliament and what an actual act in its entire context reads."

Wyatt responded on Friday that Hoeppner's view is "not accurate."

"I can put reasonable conditions on a business license and ledgers are a reasonable condition," he told CBC News.

He also disagrees that ledgers are back-door registries and noted the Conservatives never called them that before and they've been around for years.

"The long gun registry and the business ledgers have different purposes," said Wyatt. "The business ledgers, the purpose is to prevent unlicencees, criminals and prohibited persons from acquiring firearms."

"Here you have these two separate systems. One is computerized, network, it's got lots of search capability and is accessible instantaneously to police. The ledgers aren't that at all."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Friday his province has no intention of creating a new registry, but it does want stores to keep records of who buys guns, despite federal objections.

McGuinty said stores have been collecting the information since the 1970s and if the federal government wants them to stop, it must be clear about that.

John Evers, president of the East Elgin Sportsmen's Association and a regional director of the CSSA, called the practice illegal in reaction to Wyatt's letter to store owners last week. He said he would lobby the government to stop any practice of collecting personal information about legal gun owners.

A few days later, Toews issued his letter to Paulson and the CFOs. It said the officers "are attempting to collect point of sale data that they are no longer authorized to collect pursuant to Bill C-19."

"To be clear, the Firearms Act neither authorizes this activity, nor any other measures that could facilitate the creation of a provincial long-gun registry," Toews wrote in the letter.

He asked the RCMP to notify him "immediately" if they learn that chief firearms officers are engaged in "unauthorized data collection."

Quebec has mounted a legal challenge preventing the destruction of federal long-gun registry records.

Related on HuffPost:

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  • What does this new bill on the gun registry do?

    We keep hearing about scrapping the long-gun registry, but really what we're talking about is scrapping the requirement for people to register their rifles and shotguns - that's what Bill C-19 aims to do by making amendments to the Criminal Code and Firearms Act. Once passed, people will not have to register their non-restricted or non-prohibited firearms. It also provides for the destruction of existing records in the Canadian Firearms Registry for those firearms. <em>With files from CBC</em>

  • What exactly is the registry?

    It's a centralized database overseen by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that links firearms with their licensed owners. It contains information about all three types of guns that must be registered - non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. (All firearms must be registered.) To register a firearm, you have to have a licence to possess it.

  • Does the bill make any changes to licensing requirements?

    No. Canadian residents need a licence in order to possess and register a firearm or ammunition and that won't change. There are a couple of different kinds of licences because of various changes to laws and regulations over the years.

  • What are long guns?

    There are three types of guns under Canadian law: non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. Most common long guns - rifles and shotguns - are non-restricted but there are a few exceptions. A sawed-off shotgun, for example, is a prohibited firearm. A handgun is an example of a restricted firearm. Different regulations apply to different classifications of firearms.

  • How many guns are we talking about?

    As of September 2011, there were about 7.8 million registered guns. Of those, 7.1 million are non-restricted firearms.

  • Why does the government want to get rid of the long-gun registry?

    The government says it is wasteful and ineffective at reducing crime and targets law-abiding gun owners instead of criminals, who don't register their firearms.

  • Who wants to keep it?

    Police and victims' groups are big supporters of the registry. Police say the database helps them evaluate a potential safety threat when they pull a vehicle over or are called to a residence. They also say it helps support police investigations because the registry can help determine if a gun was stolen, illegally imported, acquired or manufactured. This year, the RCMP says police agencies accessed it on average more than 17,000 times a day.

  • When will the registry cease to exist?

    The government has passed the legislation and the registry no longer exists. Except for in Quebec, where an ongoing court challenge means the owners must still register their guns in the province.

  • Why does the government want to destroy the records?

    The government is doing this to ensure that no future non-Conservative government can recreate the registry. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has also made it clear that if any province wants to set up its own registry it would get no help from the federal government. The Conservatives are so fundamentally opposed to the existence of the records, because they say they focus on law-abiding citizens instead of criminals, that they don't want them available for anyone to use.

  • How much does the registry cost?

    The registry cost more than $1 billion to set up in 1995 and the cost was the source of much controversy. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said on Oct. 25 that the government's best estimate is that it costs about $22 million a year to operate. That's the entire registry, not just the long-gun portion, but he noted most of the guns in the registry are long guns. He said he didn't know how much money scrapping the requirement to register long guns would save the government. Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner says there are also "hidden costs" that are borne by provincial and municipal police agencies to enforce the registry.


Filed by Michael Bolen  |