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Senator Don Plett - Extending background checks for firearms licences will negatively impact public safety


Hon. Donald Neil Plett: 

Let me take a few minutes to speak to this. I know there is probably little point. There are probably those who are sitting there thinking that if there is a little point, sit down. I won’t do that. I will speak for a few minutes and hopefully some people will take note and maybe consider the relevance of this good amendment that Senator Tkachuk brought forward.

Senator Pratte talked about a poll. I talked about that poll earlier this week. It’s strange how two people can look at the same poll and come to absolutely differing opinions. Since I used it the other day, I won’t use it again.

I support Senator Tkachuk’s amendment. Just last weekend, I was speaking at an event in Calgary about Bill C-71 and the government’s agenda on gun control. There were a lot of people there; young, middle age, old, grandmothers, grandfathers, kids, gun enthusiasts, hunters, gun collectors.

One person I had the opportunity to chat with for quite some time told me how much he enjoyed being an avid sport shooter, gun collector and hunter. What made it such a rewarding experience was the fact that he was able to enjoy these sports with his wife and his son. His wife was there as well and agreed with that. This gentleman is an amazing, upstanding citizen working in the construction industry in Alberta.

Yet, due to an unfortunate event in his past, he would have never qualified for a gun licence if lifetime background checks were required and he was the honest person that I certainly deem him to be.

Colleagues, the intention behind extending a five-year background check to cover a lifetime is a noble one. No one wants to be issued a firearms licence if doing so would pose a threat to public safety. Let’s settle the discussion that no one is debating that point. The question is how, with limited resources, do you most effectively achieve that goal?

I would propose to you that increasing the current five-year window to cover a lifetime is not the right approach. In fact, until we are satisfied that we are doing a good job with the current five-year window, it would be foolish to expand it to a larger time frame.

I’m sure everyone in this room knows the name Alexandre Bissonnette. On January 29, 2017, he opened fire at a Quebec City mosque, killing 6 and wounding 19. He was a licensed gun owner. In September 2014, having completed the Canadian firearms safety course, Mr. Bissonnette applied for his Possession and Acquisition Licence. Like all applicants, he was required to fill out a four-page form that includes the following question:

"During the past five (5) years, have you threatened or attempted suicide, or have you suffered from or been diagnosed or treated by a medical practitioner for: depression; alcohol, drug or substance abuse; behavioural problems; or emotional problems?"

The response is yes or no.

Mr. Bissonnette answered, “no.” The problem was that he was lying. Under the existing background screening, he should have never been granted a licence. Three times over a period of two years, Mr. Bissonnette had sought treatment for panic attacks, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts and depression. He was on two different medications in order to treat these issues, but as reported last year by Le Devoir an applicant’s answers to these questions are not verified by the RCMP. Not verified by the RCMP. If they tick the box that says “no,” that’s as far as it goes.

Each applicant is also required to provide two references that the RCMP can contact in order to verify information included on the application form. Once again, as reported by Le Devoir, these references are not checked unless there is a clear reason to do so. This situation isn’t new.

In 2014 “Global News” reported that, according to RCMP Sgt. Greg Cox:

"Personal references are contacted on a case-by-case basis, with priority normally given to first-time applications for licences with restricted privileges."

In other words, the so-called background checks involve very little checking.

These shortcomings are compounded by the fact that the ongoing eligibility of a licence holder is continuously assessed while the individual is a licence holder, and every five years when the individual applies to renew their licence.

In February 2018, the RCMP released a report which examined the effectiveness of this ongoing eligibility screening. The report found that there were significant delays into investigations about whether a gun licence should be revoked due to violent incidents or mental illness. The report noted these delays could have a negative impact on public safety.

To understand the scope of what the RCMP is being asked to do in conducting background checks, it is important to note that as of December 31, 2017, there were 2,109,531 licence holders in Canada. In 2017 alone, the RCMP issued 401,884 individual licences, including 270,067 renewals.

Colleagues, even with a five-year window for background checks, this is a mammoth task. It is difficult to see how extending the time frame to cover a lifetime will do anything but decrease public safety by stretching an already limited resource. I would argue that Canadians would be better served by doing a better job of background checks under the existing five-year time frame rather than increasing it and diminishing the quality of the checks even further. Expanding the window to cover a lifetime may be well-intentioned, but it is the perfect example of trying to run a marathon before you can crawl across the room.

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