OTTAWA - The Conservative government is proposing new legislation that would ease restrictions on transporting firearms, make firearms-safety courses mandatory for first-time gun owners and prevent people convicted of spousal assault from legally owning guns.
Under the government's proposed Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, gun owners who allow their weapon permits to lapse will be given a grace period to renew them.
While their permits are expired, firearms owners won't be allowed to buy new guns or ammunition, but would no longer face possible jail time as a result of the expiry.
"We will create a grace period at the end of the five-year licence to stop people from immediately becoming criminalized for paperwork errors," Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said as he announced the proposed overhaul at a shooting range in northern Ontario.
"The threat of prison time for something you were legally authorized to possess the previous day is not acceptable."
The length of the grace period has not yet been specified.
The government also plans to combine two licences currently needed to own and use firearms — the possession and acquisition licences.
Once the law is passed, there will be just one licence required, said Blaney.
"We are intending to announce the merging of those two licences so there's one single licence in this country for possession and acquisition of firearms," he said.
The proposed legislation would also see Ottawa to take on powers currently held by some provincial authorities.
Under the proposed law, gun owners would also be permitted to transport weapons as part of their firearms licence.
Currently, gun owners in Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I. have to apply to their provincial chief firearms officer when they want to transport a restricted or prohibited weapon.
Changes being proposed to the Criminal Code would also "strengthen firearms prohibitions for those who are convicted of domestic violence offences," said the minister.
The proposals were announced just hours after Statistics Canada released a reported showing a dramatic decline in the severity of crimes being committed, including firearms offences, over the past decade.
Opposition critics voiced skepticism about the lack of detailed proposals, and whether the legislation would actually be brought forward this fall.
"This is exactly what happened last summer with the Victims Bill of Rights where they held photo opportunities and then it was months before we saw what they were actually intending to do," said NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison.
"The Conservatives are playing to their base here."
Blaney also announced Wednesday his department is extending the amnesty for owners of Swiss Arms and CZ 858 rifles until March 14, 2016. The Mounties prohibited the rifles earlier this year, an action that Blaney said turned law-abiding citizens into criminals overnight.
Garrison said he found that troubling.
"Clearly the Conservatives are interfering with the decision of the RCMP," said Garrison. "What we have is firearms experts who have made a judgement, based on public safety consideration, and the Conservatives are now reversing that based on political considerations."
A group that advocates for responsible gun ownership welcomed the proposals.
"This is a good sign for trustworthy Canadian gun owners," said Pyper Unitt, co-founder and vice chair of the Canadian Firearms Institute. "It means that the Conservative government is beginning to listen to our concerns and (the changes) can be viewed as a small step in the right direction."
Hunting and sport shooting organizations also commended the proposed legislation, saying public safety won't be compromised by cutting red tape.
But the Coalition for Gun Control said the government is moving in the wrong direction.
"Canada is one of the only countries in the world that is moving backwards: weakening its controls on firearms while other countries are introducing stronger laws to improve safety and combat the trafficking of firearms," the group said in a statement.