Bill to Amend Certain Acts and Regulations in Relation to Firearms

Third Reading--Debate Continued

May 9, 2019

Honourable senators, in adding my voice to the debate on Bill C-71, I would like to first acknowledge the work of our colleague, Senator Pratte, the sponsor of this legislation. He and his staff have worked tirelessly in the study of this bill. Within weeks of being appointed to the Senate last June, I started being copied, as we all were, on Senator Pratte’s very clear and respectful personal responses clarifying the effects of Bill C-71 to all those who wrote to him expressing concern.

His thoughtful and respectful voice brings so much to every debate. I would like to thank him very much for that fact.

I heartily agree with my honourable colleague when he repeatedly points out that, unquestionably, the overwhelming majority of gun owners — whether they own restricted weapons or only unrestricted rifles or shotguns — are good, law-abiding Canadians who we are all proud to call our friends, neighbours and colleagues.

Despite that fact, I’m firmly in the camp of those who believe that there should be a whole lot fewer restricted weapons in Canada, and that the remainder should be much more strictly regulated. Ultimately, my preference would be to prohibit handguns and semi-automatic weapons from Canada.

I look at this issue through the lens of airport security. In the early 1970s we lived in a world where there were two or three hijackings in a month and that was commonplace. Today there might be one, somewhere in the world, in an entire year. There has been a 30-fold decline in hijackings over a period where airline travel has grown by about 10 fold.

What has led to this remarkable drop in hijackings? Mandatory screenings were introduced. Airport security protocols were steadily strengthened and intensified significantly post 9/11. We all take it for granted and know to allow another 15 or 30 minutes at security every time we fly just in case more time is needed. We accommodate the frustration and delays of airport security because without it, a minuscule fraction of the population could cause catastrophic harm within minutes. This is despite the fact that virtually no one in the context of our entire flying public would ever consider hijacking a plane or harming their fellow travellers.

It’s for this very same reason I believe we need to increasingly restrict access to handguns and weapons that have been designed to fire multiple large calibre, high velocity bullets every second, either in the gun’s original or modified form.

I find it worrisome that there’s been a steady rise in the number of these restricted handguns and semi-automatic assault weapons in Canada. In 2017, our Commissioner of Firearms said that there were more than 900,000 registered restricted firearms in Canada. This means that there are 250,000 more restricted weapons in Canada today than there were in 2014. I believe that something needs to be done to reverse this rapid growth in the number of restricted firearms.

Following the horrific shootings in the New Zealand mosques last month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered on her promise to quickly enact legislation that would outlaw most automatic and semi-automatic weapons, as well as ban components for modifying those weapons. She said earlier this month, at third reading of that historic bill:

I could not fathom how weapons that could cause such destruction and large-scale death could have been obtained legally in this country.

To be clear, the weapons that were used in those horrific shootings were illegally modified — but they were easily modified. She questioned the need for these types of military-style semi-automatic firearms and reached the conclusion that it was in the best interest of her country to ban them. I cannot fault her reasoning. She spoke these words in the house:

I have to reflect that when I visited the hospitals and the victims, none of them had just one gunshot wound. I struggle to recall any single gunshot wounds. In every case they spoke of multiple injuries — multiple debilitating injuries that deemed it impossible for them to recover in weeks, let alone days. They will carry disabilities for a lifetime, and that’s before you consider the psychological impact.

Clearly, there are those who are vocal opponents to any form of gun control. Opponents of Bill C-71 frequently tell me it won’t stop criminals. I don’t necessarily disagree with them when they say that. Bill C-71 alone will not put an end to gun violence in this country; however, that doesn’t mean it’s not an important part of the solution.

Seatbelts don’t prevent car accidents. They certainly do, however, help to mitigate the harm that is done when accidents occur. I certainly recall there being countless vocal opponents of their mandatory use in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, some owners of restricted firearms feel there is already too much of an administrative burden. I respect their concern but feel it’s a small price to pay if we can help to diminish the frequency and brutality of gun crimes in this country.

I participated in one of the first National Security and Defence Committee meetings on Bill C-71, and this view was effectively presented by Dr. Najma Ahmed. At the time of her testimony, she was perhaps best known for being one of the many surgeons in Toronto hospitals who worked to save lives on the night of the Danforth shooting. Dr. Ahmed is also one of the executive team members of the grassroots organization Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns.

Following her testimony before our Senate committee, Dr. Ahmed became the target of a litany of attacks online, both via Twitter and email. Gun rights supporters filed more than 70 formal complaints against her with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, arguing that her advocacy is an “abuse” of her position as a doctor.

Honourable senators, this was an attempt to weaponize the college’s complaints process, which is specifically designed to deal with serious clinical care or ethical questions affecting medical patients. It’s deplorable, in my mind, that those who disagreed with Dr. Ahmed’s message chose to question her professional conduct and rights. The college ruled these complaints as frivolous and vexatious and that they did not warrant any further investigation.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Out of courtesy to Senator C. Deacon, could we keep the chatting to a lower volume or take the conversation outside of the chamber, please? It would be more polite.

Thank you, Your Honour.

However, this issue currently remains in the appeals period.

I am far from alone in my belief that these complaints were made entirely in bad faith and with the intention to silence Dr. Ahmed rather than debate her. Rather than responding to her arguments, these gun rights groups questioned her very right to speak. I was appalled to see these NRA-style tactics being used in Canada.

Let me be clear: I agree with Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns. This is their lane. According to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, there is a long-standing expectation that physicians be health advocates in this country and “contribute their expertise and influence as they work with communities or patient populations to improve health.” Death by firearms is unquestionably a serious public safety risk and public health concern. I am grateful to physicians like Dr. Ahmed that they share their expertise and refuse to be deterred by shameful bullies.

Dr. Ahmed told our Senate committee exactly why this is an issue for doctors:

Physicians have had a long history of informing public health policy. We know that primary prevention is the most effective tool to improve the health of populations. This is true for asbestos, nicotine and vaccinations. It is also true that decreasing the proliferation of and access to guns will decrease harm, injury and death from guns.

This is another argument that is frequently spread by the gun lobby: that a reduction in the number of guns will not necessarily correspond to a reduction in crime. I cannot and do not agree with this assertion.

A year ago, the World Economic Forum reported on the link between gun ownership and gun death rates across the 50 U.S. states. They found that those states with the lowest rates of gun ownership had the fewest gun deaths, and those with the highest levels of gun ownership had the most gun deaths.

In 1996, 16 schoolchildren and one teacher were shot and killed in Dunblane, Scotland. The U.K. enacted stricter firearms legislation less than a year later. That was the last school shooting in the United Kingdom. After Dunblane, 20 years ago last month, the United States suffered the infamous Columbine school shooting. No legislation was passed in its wake, nor following any of the other high-profile and brutal shootings since — not even one that took the lives of 20 first graders and six teachers because a young man had access to a weapon designed to fire multiple large-calibre, high-velocity bullets every second.

We are fortunate not to be in the same position as our neighbours to the south. However, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent. Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns notes that we rank third in the G7 and eighth in the G20 for age-adjusted, standardized gun-related mortality. Dr. Ahmed told the committee:

A 2018 study compared gun fatality rates in 195 countries over a 15-year period. In 2016, our gun fatality rate was about five to six times lower than in the U.S. This is not the whole story. Compared to the U.K., Netherlands, Japan and Australia, our gun fatality rate is eight times greater than those peer nations. While Canada has stronger gun laws than those in the U.S., it is notable that these peer nations have stronger gun safety legislation than we do.

In their testimony to our Senate committee, StatsCan officials described 2013 as an inflection point in terms of firearm deaths in Canada. They clearly said that 2013 was not a statistical anomaly as others have stated or implied. Since 2013, there has been a steady rise in firearm deaths in Canada to the highest levels in a generation, and the restricted firearms covered under Bill C-71 — specifically, handguns — were used in the majority of these gun deaths.

I looked at the numbers again the other night. In 1991, there were 271 deaths by firearms; in 2013, that was down to less than half, at 134; and by 2017, it was back up to 266 gun deaths. You can see why they’re saying it is an inflection point.

It may not be coincidental that, in 2012, Canada reversed a generation-long effort to increasingly restrict firearm ownership through changes to the Criminal Code and the Firearms Act.

Regardless, what cannot be ignored is the fact that about one fifth of our increasing number of gun deaths result from gang-related activity. Clearly, Bill C-71 isn’t the sole solution — much more needs to be done. However, as many witnesses told the Senate committee, Bill C-71 represents an important first step.

As I mentioned at the outset, we must all accommodate the frustration of airport security because, without it, a minuscule fraction of our population could cause catastrophic harm within minutes. The 2017 Commissioner of Firearms Report told us there were just over 2.1 million Canadians licensed to use or own a firearm. That represents just under 6 per cent of our population. Certainly, with Bill C-71, we’re asking those 6 per cent — and the even smaller number of those who own restricted firearms — to do a bit more, but it is as part of a broader effort to further protect our entire population.

I know I am not the only senator to have received a significant amount of correspondence on this issue. Clearly, those gun owners who oppose Bill C-71 have made their voices heard. However, even if they represent all of the 6 per cent of Canadians who own guns — and, based on the conversations I have had, I feel certain that they do not — I am still not convinced that defeating this bill is in our country’s best interest, and neither are Canadians.

In fact, as Senator Pratte told us yesterday, a recent Leger poll showed a majority of Canadians support Bill C-71 and its various elements. Another question in that poll asked whether respondents were in favour of stricter gun control regardless of what is contained in this legislation, and 77 per cent responded affirmatively. Regardless of the specifics, Canadians support stronger gun control.

We know this is not the “silver bullet solution,” but it is an important step and we owe it to the 77 per cent to move forward.

The bill’s sponsor Senator Pratte has already reminded us there are literally lives at stake. I will be voting in favour of the passage of this legislation and I urge all honourable senators to do the same. Thank you.

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