OTTAWA - Canada's recreational firearms lobby is telling the Harper government to avoid signing a landmark United Nations arms trade treaty, arguing it could lead to an insidious return of the federal long-gun registry.
That's the message Canada's National Firearms Association and the Canadian Shooting Sports Association are delivering to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird as he weighs whether Canada should follow the United States in signing the Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to regulate the multibillion-dollar global arms trade.
Proponents of the treaty, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who signed it last week on behalf of the U.S., say it would have no impact on domestic gun owners.
Not so, says Canada's sports shooting lobby, which has been consulting with the government.
"We think that it has the potential to raise prices on firearms, firearms accessories, parts and ammunition," Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association, said in an interview.
"We rely heavily on imports."
Clare said he doesn't think Canada will follow the U.S. and sign the treaty, suggesting that the Conservatives realize such a move could impact their ballot-box fortunes in 2015.
"I think they also recognize there would be some significant ramifications in their voting base were they to approve this."
The Harper government came to power in 2006 in part on a promise to scrap the long-gun registry, which was reviled by recreational shooting enthusiasts and rural gun owners. The registry was voted out existence in February 2012.
During that time, recreational firearms users have had greater access to weapons and accessories than in the previous years.
An analysis of Industry Canada data by The Canadian Press shows that imports of revolvers, pistols, rifles, shotguns, accessories and ammunition into Canada totalled $2.84 million between 2006 and 2012.
That's almost double the nearly $1.56 million in similar imports to Canada during the previous seven years when the Liberal government was in power, from 1999 to 2005.
Total imports reached an all-time high at just over $507,000 in 2011 but then fell to $445,000 in 2012.
Tony Bernardo, head of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, said he's been working hard to oppose UN gun control efforts since the mid 1990s.
He said the treaty could impose a burdensome bureaucracy on Canada not unlike the now-defunct gun registry.
"I think there's lots of potential links to the gun registry," said Bernardo.
"The problems we've had with the gun registry — unaccountability, the incredible cost, complete ineffective uselessness — those things are not only a potential scenario, they're a likelihood" if Canada were to sign the treaty.
The groups say that if the federal government signs the treaty it will have to create a new bureaucracy of regulations, one that could potentially be less strict than the current rules that govern the arms imports and exports.
Bernardo said he didn't think Baird was likely to follow the U.S. lead on the treaty any time soon.
"Minister Baird has been very thoughtful and intelligent on the Arms Trade Treaty right from Day 1," said Bernardo.
"At the beginning of the process he asked the United Nations to remove civilian firearms from scope of the treaty. He's seen the writing on the wall. He's not a dumb man."
Baird has said there is a potential link between signing on to the treaty and Canada's now-abolished long gun registry. Baird's spokesman said the government will take its time, and do its "homework" to ensure that the interests of Canadians are protected before deciding whether to sign on to the treaty.
"If properly done, an Arms Trade Treaty can help limit the worldwide trade in illicit arms," said spokesman Rick Roth in an email.
"At the same time, it is important that such a treaty not affect lawful and responsible firearms owners nor discourage the transfer of firearms for recreational uses such as sport shooting and hunting."
Baird's office wouldn't release the names of the individuals it is consulting.
According to an internal memo obtained by The Canadian Press, Clare and Bernardo are among 14 stakeholders that Foreign Affairs has consulted on the issue.
Four of those consulted are from the groups Oxfam, Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International, and have publicly urged Canada to follow the U.S. and more than 90 other countries and sign the treaty. They argue the pact would lead to a decline in violence against innocent civilians, including crimes against humanity.
But at least seven more on the list are from arms and ammunition suppliers, manufacturers, or the defence industry.
NDP foreign affair critic Paul Dewar accused the government of giving special interest groups preferential treatment in their consultations.
"It's clear that the Conservatives are continuing to favour their friends in the gun lobby over good policy that will save lives," Dewar said.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau urged Baird to sign the treaty, noting he has "eloquently" deplored violent acts such as the recent attack on a Kenyan shopping mall by the Somali militant group al-Shabab.
"The arms they used were obtained through the murky underworld of arms dealers," said Garneau. "This is moment that Canada can show that it does care about the greater good of mankind."