Public Safety Minister Vic Toews was warned by his department about the risks of failing to tighten up surveillance of gun shows months before he announced a proposal to repeal long-delayed gun show regulations.
Toews announced in September the government would not be going ahead with the regulations, which were due to take effect at the end of November following years of delays.
"Repealing the unnecessary gun shows regulations shows our government is focused on protecting families and communities and not pushing administrative burdens on law-abiding gun owners," the minister said in the news release.
But in an undated briefing note, obtained by CBC News's Power & Politics through an access to information request for documents that were sent in February 2012, the department's deputy minister issued Toews a warning.
"The CFO (Chief Firearms Officer) community has noted unsafe display of firearms across the country. CFOs have also noted incidents where exhibitors were criminally charged in relation to the trafficking and unauthorized possession of firearms at gun shows."
Such an incident occurred at the Brandon Gun and Hobby Show on Dec. 12, 2010. Two men were arrested for selling spring-loaded knives and improperly registered guns. Police searched their homes and found about 150 weapons, and what was described in media reports as an "undisclosed amount of cash."
The briefing note points out that such incidents are rare, but said, "this could change in the future and, should a significant incident occur, there could be criticism that the regulations were not implemented."
The regulations, first created in 1998, would have given chief firearms officers across the country the power to license gun shows and keep close tabs on the 300 to 400 shows that take place every year. They would also have required organizers to ensure firearms are securely stored and that the individuals selling the firearms ensure that they are stored safely.
"We're mindful that criminals are aware that gun shows are taking place," provincial police Supt. Chris Wyatt, Ontario's chief firearms officer, said during an interview with Power & Politics. "It might be a tempting target in terms of theft or robbery, because there are a lot of handguns out there. I think it's a good thing that local law-enforcement knows in advance when a gun show is taking place.
"Most law enforcement agencies, if they know it's coming and they know the types of firearms that are going to be there, especially if there are a lot of handguns, they might assign some officers to do some patrol around the gun show," said Wyatt.
The Firearms Act requires exhibitors to display the weapons they're trying to sell at gun shows. The big issue for Wyatt and other CFOs across the country was the ability to license the gun shows themselves. As one CFO told CBC News, if a gun show wanted to deny a CFO entry, theoretically it could legally do so.
Worries over lack of oversight
The regulations have been on the books since 1998, but Liberal governments kept deferring them, citing the need to give gun shows time to adjust to the new rules. The Conservatives followed suit when they came to power.
The briefing note explains that "firearms advocates have expressed concern that the regulation of gun shows is unnecessary as the majority of gun show sponsors and exhibitors generally meet safety requirements." The note adds, "Firearms advocates are also concerned that the CFO's discretionary powers under the regulations are too broad."
That concern puzzles Wyatt.
"We wouldn't withhold approvals of a gun show just because we don't like gun shows," said Wyatt. "If they meet all the requirements, go ahead and have your gun show."
Wyatt is also concerned that with little oversight from firearms officers, gun shows could become increasingly attractive venues for the sale of illegal guns — a greater possibility now that the government has destroyed the long-gun registry, he told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon.
That view is echoed by Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa-based lawyer who teaches drug policy in the University of Ottawa's criminology department.
Canada could go down the road of the United States, he said, where gun shows have become primary targets for drug traffickers to obtain and sell guns.
"I'm talking here for the need for an abundance of caution," he said in an interview with CBC News.
"If you look at the extent of drug-related violence, we're one of the safest countries in the world. But a significant per cent of murders in Canada are linked to the drug trade, and firearms are used in that. So they have to get the firearms from somewhere," Oscapella said.
"And if a lack of oversight over these arms shows facilitates the leakage of weapons into the illegal drug trade, then that should be a concern."
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