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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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.