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Senator Don Plett: Parliament must retain oversight of the classification of firearms

"If you sift down through the frustration and exasperation, you find that the problems primarily come down to this: The current system of firearms classification is a blunt instrument, which often results in arbitrary decisions." - Senator Don Plett

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: 

Honourable senators, I will speak very briefly to this amendment and I would like to thank Senator Dagenais for bringing it forward. It is a good amendment, for all the reasons that Senator Dagenais mentioned and I would like to add a few thoughts.

At committee, we heard from quite a few witnesses about problems and concerns with the current system of firearms classification. If you sift down through the frustration and exasperation, you find that the problems primarily come down to this: The current system of firearms classification is a blunt instrument, which often results in arbitrary decisions.

I will read a quote from a publication of one of the groups that appeared before our committee:

"The main problem with the current system is that the criteria do not reflect the risks to public safety in a systematic or coherent way. In fact . . . classification based on physical characteristics such as the length of the weapon or the barrel often appears arbitrary."

Senators, this quote is from a 2017 publication of Poly Remembers, a group of students and graduates from Polytechnique who advocate for greater gun control.

The arbitrary nature of the classification system creates frustration for everyone — gun owners and gun control advocates alike — and needs to be overhauled.

In their 2015 election platform, the Liberals stated that they wanted to, “put decision making about weapons restrictions back in the hands of police and not politicians.” This sounds good and it gets repeated quite often in this Liberal government echo chamber, but it’s basically nonsense. And you don’t have to believe me on this. I will quote from Poly Remembers once again:

"...the RCMP doesn’t actually “decide” what classification to give a gun; they are bound by the definitions contained in the Criminal Code. In other words, their role is limited to interpreting the law."

Colleagues, it is very poor public policy to give the RCMP the responsibility to interpret the law while removing the accountability of parliamentary oversight.

It is a fundamental management principle that if you extend responsibility you must accompany it with accountability. You should never separate the two. And yet, in the case of firearms classifications, this is exactly what is being proposed by this Liberal government.

The RCMP have given the responsibility of classifying firearms by interpreting the law, but the government wants to remove oversight of that process from the parliamentarians who created the law, by eliminating the ability of the Governor-in-Council to intervene in reclassification decisions.

The government is advocating that the RCMP have responsibility without corresponding accountability. This is never a good idea, but especially under a system which is known to be arbitrary.

Colleagues, the arbitrary nature of reclassification impacts not only firearms owners but also firearms businesses. Alison de Groot, Director, Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, told the committee the following:

"We’re suggesting . . .that there be a structured framework to that classification process . . . I’ll use the 10/22 magazine as an example: Without discussing the merits of the change to the classification, no notice to industry was given on that change. The first we found out about it as business owners was to have a shipment seized by CBSA at the border. When product is seized by CBSA, you pay exorbitant secure storage fees, so our importer had to pay those fees. We were left stranded with unsold inventory in Canada . . . tens of thousands of dollars of inventory in small retailers that is now unsellable inventory. These are not products we are allowed to send back to the manufacturer . . .we’re asking that the government require the RCMP to develop a structured framework for that process, both for new products and changes to current products in the market, and that industry be allowed the opportunity to address our supply chain with respect to products that are being reclassified or facing changes to classification."

Robert Henderson, owner of Access Heritage, also spoke to the committee about the dysfunctional nature of RCMP reclassification. This is what he said:

"In the last 18 years, I have been importing non-firing flintlocks from India. By removing a small connecting flash hole in the design, the technology was deemed deactivated and the flintlocks were allowed by customs . . . . last December, at the very height of the retail season, a key shipment was stopped by the CBSA. At that time, they arbitrarily decided to revisit allowing deactivated flintlocks without any forewarning to me and without any relevant change in legislation. The Canadian Firearms Program was asked to investigate. The new decision was that the products were not non-firing enough and that the short flintlocks were restricted devices."

Firearms owners and business people such as Robert Henderson and Alison de Groot are not asking for something unreasonable. Neither is Senator Dagenais in his amendment. Agreeing with this amendment will ensure that proper parliamentary oversight of firearm classifications is retained, ensuring both accountability and transparency.

Thank you.

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