02/21/2014 05:29 EST | Updated 02/21/2014 06:59 EST

Could Liberal Convention Proposals Make Trudeau Look Soft On Crime?


UPDATE: The resolution on gun control was soundly defeated by delegates Friday evening.

After the vote, one delegate said: "Wow. The Liberal party has come a long way."

However the resolution on justice system reform passed and could make its way to the floor of the convention for further debate this Sunday.

MONTREAL — Two controversial policy proposals at the Liberal convention this weekend are sounding alarms among some party members that the Grits are opening themselves up to attacks that they're soft on crime.

One of the policies proposes reversing several of the Conservative party's "tough on crime" measures, such as mandatory minimum sentences. And several delegates are worried that another policy proposing a buy-back program for long guns could hurt the party's chances of forming a government in 2015 by eliminating any momentum in rural and Western Canada.

The firearms resolution is sponsored by the Young Liberals of Canada and calls for a reduction in the number of guns in this country. It urges a future Liberal government to adopt Australia's firearms policy, which included a large buy-back program and a ban on semi-automatic firearms and some shotguns.

But even the group's executive vice-president is wary of the proposal.

"I think it plays into the Conservatives' attacks and I don't think we should take guns away from law-abiding citizens," said Kaisha Thompson of Meaford, Ont.

The Young Liberals' vice-president of policy Joel Tallerico told HuffPost the proposal has been in the works for two years. He knows it is controversial and will generate a lot of debate, but thinks the time has come for the party to adopt it.

"For sure, this is something that we feel Liberals should pursue and Liberals should champion."

James Gorin, the policy chair of the federal Liberal party in Saskatchewan, vehemently disagrees.

Gorin said he doesn't have a problem with a voluntary buy-back problem. But he warns against forcing people to get rid of their guns.

"When we get to a point where the government is able to tell people what to do, we are no longer living in a free and democratic society," Gorin said.

"You're just going to anger people in Western Canada with a policy like that."

The proposal has garnered the attention of a few of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's advisors. One person, insisting on anonymity, said Canada’s current national gun control laws are ineffective: "We need to take a close look at it, because the Tories have turned a blind eye to the proliferation of guns in our cities."

Philip Alpers is a professor of public health at the University of Sydney who tracks gun statistics around the world, and he's watching this debate closely.

Reducing the number of guns reduces gun deaths, Alpers said, adding Canada and the United States are the only two countries in the world not moving to tighten firearms regulation.

He said that most gun deaths are related to domestic violence, so reducing the number of guns reduces the chance that someone might act out only because a gun is available.

"In Canada, long guns are the ones that kill the most people. They are the ones that are used most in domestic [violence] and in suicides."

There is no doubt that there is a problem with handguns too, he said.

"A rush of smuggled and stolen handguns is causing you just as many problems as it is causing in Brazil and Australia, and that's because they are criminals' firearms of choice," Alpers said.

"But the reality is when you look at the homicide statistics for the year, you'll see it is actually long guns that do the most damage and long-gun owners who are the most in denial."

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Australia's tough gun laws were adopted following a 1996 massacre in Port Arthur that killed 35 people. Then-prime minister John Howard was successful in changing the law only because he did so quickly -- within 12 days -- and did not give the gun lobby time to organize, Alpers said.

The professor does not think Canada needs to have a similar tragedy to move the federal government into action. But he does believe that the public must demand that gun laws change, or the gun lobby won't let it happen.

"It's more than political will. It's about grassroots pressure," he said.

Conservative MP Blaine Calkins recently promised in the House of Commons that the Tories would never confiscate firearms from law-abiding Canadians.

"If the Liberal leader wants my guns, he can pry them from my cold, dead hands," he said.

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, who is attending the Liberal convention, told HuffPost that the Conservative government believes law-abiding Canadians should be able to safely own legal firearms.

"Liberal elites have always opposed the rights of farmers, hunters and rural Canadians to lawfully and safely own firearms," he said.

Saskatchewan Liberal MP and deputy leader Ralph Goodale said the Liberals have no plans to bring back the long-gun registry and that this proposal is an entirely different concept.

"We'll obviously be listening very closely to what western delegates have to say and what rural delegates have to say," he said.

"This is a policy convention, this is not a platform-drafting meeting," he added.

Another policy coming from Goodale's own province paves the way for a future Liberal government to reverse several of the Conservative party's "tough on crime" measures.

Resolution 20, dubbed "Sensible Justice System", was brought forward by the riding association of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar. It calls on the party to support an evidence-based approach to the justice system that reflects the falling crime rate.

Trudeau tweeted last fall that he was prepared to end several mandatory minimum sentences.

"I (and the Liberal party) trust the Judiciary to do their jobs well, so yes," Trudeau tweeted after being asked if his government would reconsider the slew of mandatory minimum sentences recently rolled out by the Conservative government.

Several judges over the past year have ruled that the Conservatives' minimum sentences for gun crimes are grossly out of sync with the crimes committed and ignored them. One Ontario judge said sending a first-time offender to prison for three years for illegally possessing a loaded gun was "cruel and unusual punishment."

A Manitoba judge decided against a four-year-minimum sentence for one offender who recklessly used a firearm but harmed no one.

Last November, the Ontario Court Appeal ruled that the measures were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to hear a challenge against mandatory minimum sentences.

The measures, introduced by the Conservatives in 2007, passed the Commons with the help of the Liberals and became law in 2008. The Senate Liberals mostly abstained or voted against the proposal and Trudeau did not vote, as he was not yet elected to Parliament.

At the time, the Conservatives suggested the Grits were soft on crime. This time, Saskatchewan's Gorin said he is not concerned if the Tories attack.

"I think our opponents confuse being smart on crime with being soft on crime. I would say that the Tory 'tough on crime' agenda is, in a lot of regards, being dumb on crime," he said.

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, believes many of the changes the federal government have enacted have created "a mess." As examples, she pointed to increased mandatory minimum sentences, fewer resources to help rehabilitate prisoners and overcrowding within prisons.

"The current problems in the justice system are a misperception that tougher penalties will bring your community safety," Latimer said.

More convicts are leaving prisons without parole supervision and more of them are re-offending, she said.

"Is this approach leading to a reduction of crime at the end of the day? Or are they in effect creating more victims because you have more people who are more angry, less physically and mentally well and with fewer social skills leaving prison than when they went in?"

Joe Wamback is a victim's rights advocate who founded the Canadian Crime Victim Foundation after his son was brutally beaten by a group of teenagers. He said people pick and choose statistics to fit the point they are trying to make.

He doesn't believe the crime rate is dropping, but rather that many crimes -- particularly youth crimes -- are not being reported. He said young people keeping silent because they are "absolutely terrified of retribution."

"My only wish is that anybody who debates these issues will debate them with a level head and not in a partisan political manner," he said.

Wamback believes that Canadians too often follow the party line rather than what's important to them or their families.

Goodale again cautioned that the Liberals don't want to throw out all of the crime legislation enacted by the Harper government. Some measures could be toughened, he said, and others watered down because they don't currently attain their objectives.

"We'll see how the debate goes, because all of these are just proposals, ideas for debate."

Jeremy Broadhurst, the Liberals' national director, told HuffPost that considering controversial policies is just what policy conventions are for.

He said the Grits have a lengthy record of debating proposals, such as legalizing same-sex marriage or legalizing marijuana, that eventually lead the way on issues.

"You don't know what's going to come out of these [policy conventions]," he said. "It's cliché to talk about grassroots movements sometimes, but this has really worked and it has moved the party in many cases."

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