OTTAWA - New Conservative legislation that changes the gun licensing system cleared a House of Commons committee last week and is on track to become law before the summer recess — and a likely fall election.
Bill C-42, dubbed the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, has drawn sharp criticism even within the sport-shooting community but nonetheless remains grist for Conservative get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in rural Canada.
Ian Avery, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters, said that while "the rhetoric has died down quite a bit" around the gun control issue since the long-gun registry was abolished in 2012, it remains a top concern for the firearms community.
"It is still a vote-mover and it is still a vote-getter for the Conservative party," said Avery.
The latest legislation has had a somewhat rocky ride.
Introduced last Oct. 7, it was set to be debated in the Commons the day after a lone gunman shot dead a ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial and then stormed Parliament Hill, where he died in a hail of bullets.
Needless to say, it was not an opportune time for a government bill that relaxes some gun licensing measures.
The legislation was quietly resurrected late last month and rushed through committee, from which it emerged with only a single, minor housekeeping amendment on Wednesday.
The Conservative House leader's office says it expects the bill to become law before the summer recess, currently scheduled to begin June 24. An anticipated Oct. 19 election means any unpassed bills this spring will die on the order paper.
MP Robert Sopuck, the chair of the Conservative hunting and angling caucus, said he's heard the mixed reviews from gun owners but calls C-42 "a very good bill."
"I think this helps the hunters out a lot," Sopuck said from his farm just south of Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
The bill removes some of the paperwork and penalties for gun licensing and transportation, provides a six-month grace period for lapsed licenses, gives cabinet decision-making power over how guns are classified, makes mandatory gun prohibitions for violent offenders and domestic assaults, and makes it compulsory to pass a firearms course in order to be licensed.
The mixed bag of new measures has Sheldon Clare of the National Firearms Association concerned that the bill, in his words, in some sense increases gun control.
Gun control advocates, meanwhile, argue exactly the opposite, and are especially concerned about relaxed rules governing the transport of firearms and the ability of politicians to override the RCMP on decisions about which weapons should be restricted or prohibited.
"It's very small, picayune changes to the legislation, but they could have major impacts," said Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control.
"The fact that it's being pushed through so quickly without consultation from experts should be really troubling to Canadians."
Greg Farrant, manager of government affairs and policy for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, said there's huge interest in the firearms community over C-42, which he cautiously characterizes as the next step after killing the gun registry data.
"There's still a huge segment of the firearms community that thinks the government needs to go further," said Farrant, although his organization is not among them.
"Does it have the same cachet as the long-gun registry? Perhaps not. But there's still a very large undercurrent of firearms interest across the country in what's going on at the federal level."
Opposition MPs who vetted the bill say it is a naked political move by the Conservative government to put something fresh in the window for its gun-friendly constituency before going to the polls in October.
"They seem determined to jam it through before we rise," said NDP MP Randall Garrison. "They're clearly using it for political purposes."
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