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Senator Plett: Bill C-71 utterly and tragically fails to do increase public safety and needs to be defeated


Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Colleagues, this bill was introduced in the other place just over a year ago on March 20. It came to this chamber last fall and has been the subject of much debate and discussion.

At second reading it was debated over 12 sittings by 18 senators who spoke to it and by many others who asked questions. At committee we sat for more than 30 hours and heard from 81 witnesses, including two cabinet ministers.

The report stage covered four more sittings, with four senators speaking to the report.

Today we find ourselves at what is expected to be the last third reading speech, having heard from 14 senators. I am being told there might be one more senator who will want to speak. I say this not only to commend all senators for their participation but to illustrate that we have covered a lot of ground with this bill and have heard arguments from many different perspectives.

Yet in spite of the participation and rigorous examination, I admit that I am concerned. I am concerned that we find ourselves exactly where we were before we began looking at this bill. I suspect that if we had voted on this bill when it arrived in this chamber, the outcome would have been exactly the same as it will be when we are finished here tonight.

After all the time, research, debate, testimony, letters, emails, phone calls, discussions, questions, answers and non-answers, we are finishing right where we began.

The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence did an outstanding job examining this bill and bringing in amendments to improve it. These were simply ignored by this chamber. When we sought to reintroduce these individually, they were again unceremoniously rejected without true consideration.

Colleagues, how is it possible that so many senators who claim to be independent consistently vote as a block in support of the Liberal Party, and despite the evidence? How is this nonpartisan?

If ISG senators were truly independent, we would at least see their votes proportionately reflect the views of Canadians — maybe not all the time but at least some of the time? Yet that is far from what is happening. Instead, we are repeatedly seeing a wholesale endorsement of the government’s agenda.

I understand there may be some concern amongst senators opposite that it is not the appropriate role of this chamber to challenge the elected house. I would remind you that amending legislation in this house in no way prevents the other place from rejecting those amendments. This has happened many times in this parliamentary session, and repeatedly throughout history.

Our job is to give sober second thought to the legislation that appears before us. At times, this includes challenging the very premise of what is being proposed. If we repeatedly fail to do this, it brings into question the usefulness of this chamber. We have a responsibility to look beyond the talking points, challenge assumptions, and require evidence-based policy.

This has not happened with Bill C-71.

Colleagues, as the bill now stands, no one is happy with it. Gun owners are not happy, and gun control advocates are not happy. On this side of the chamber, we have at least acknowledged that fact rather than making excuses for the government. On the other side, have you noticed how many times ISG senators claim to support this bill while at the same time making soft apologies for it? We have repeatedly heard things like: This is no silver bullet, or this is not a magic bullet. On the one hand, you’re endorsing it, and, on the other hand, you’re apologizing for it. Right now, you have an opportunity to make a difference, and you are not.

So let me ask you this: If Bill C-71 were a term paper, what grade would you give it?

I would give it an “F.” The student has completely failed to address the objective of the assignment, which was to increase public safety.

But if you are not prepared to give it an A-plus, then where are the corrections? Where are the amendments? Why are you about to send this terrible bill back to the other place, rubber-stamped and ready for implementation, if it’s broken or incomplete?

I’m not saying you must support our amendments if you don’t believe in them, but where are your amendments? I find it hard to believe that you cannot think of one way to make this bill better.

You’ve rejected all of our efforts to improve this bill, and yet you’ve made none of your own. What are Canadians supposed to make of this?

I know that every senator in this chamber supports measures that increase public safety. Yet, instead of taking action to do so — any action — you quietly fall in line behind your leader.

Let’s be clear; we all know what is going on here. Either through ignorance, intimidation or deference, you are acting like a government caucus. I’m sorry if it bothers you when I say that, but you are acting like a government caucus while protesting loudly that you are not. While claiming to be independent, your actions say the exact opposite.

Just last week, we saw Senator Woo telling The Hill Times that if no deal was reached on Bill C-69 at committee, then senators on the committee would have voted on each amendment “. . . along the lines of which group we belong to . . . .” How is that independent?

Some of you may not recognize this, but what Senator Woo is describing is how a whipped caucus works. You are acting like the very thing you tell us over and over again that you are not. While calling yourselves independents, you will stand tonight and vote as a bloc — with only a handful of exceptions — to send this bill back to the other place unamended.

Let there be no mistake; this is exactly what we are about to see. The ISG caucus has been summoned by their whip to be present in the chamber tonight — and I see it has worked — in force to pass the government’s legislation without amendment, and your whip is taking attendance.

Senators, I am the whip of the Conservative caucus in the Senate. I understand the role of a whip. When I see it, I recognize it. Well, my friends, for the record, you are being whipped.

Your voting patterns on this legislation and on proposed amendments have not been based on the evidence or the arguments. They have clearly been based only on your loyalty to the government and the direction of your whip.

Before I continue with my speech, let me read a letter that was slipped under my door:

Dear colleagues,

As you know, the vote on the amendment to Bill C-71 was deferred to Monday, May 27. Consequently, and as per a new agreement, the final third reading vote for the bill, which was scheduled for yesterday, will also take place that day.

In light of this, I wish to remind you all that it is critical that you be present in the Chamber that evening to vote on this important piece of legislation. I would ask colleagues to make every effort possible to be present for the sitting.

It is also very important that the Leadership and the Secretariat have an accurate account of how many ISG members will be in attendance. I therefore ask that you please confirm your presence for the Monday, May 27 sitting as soon as possible by responding to this email.

I thank you in advance for your cooperation and wish you a wonderful break week.

I never sent a letter like that out, and I’m the whip, and I admit it.

Your voting patterns on this legislation and on proposed amendments have not been based on the evidence or the arguments. They have clearly been based only on your loyalty to the government and the direction of your whip.

I am not standing here trying to change your minds. I know that is an effort in futility. I am standing here because there are millions of Canadians who care about this legislation. They care about what it was supposed to do. They care about dealing with gun and gang violence.

They may have believed the Liberal government’s campaign promises to do something about it. They deserve to know the truth about this legislation — that it is a sham and a farce, and it will do absolutely nothing to increase public safety.

I would like to review the Liberal Party’s election promise on the issue before us. What exactly did they promise, and does this bill fulfil that promise or even move us closer toward it?

In their platform, on page 54, the Liberal Party promised to do the following, on guns:

"We will take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets . . . We will take pragmatic action to make it harder for criminals to get, and use, handguns and assault weapons."

That was the promise. Yet, if you look at Bill C-71, it has nothing to do with gangs. It has nothing to do with getting handguns and assault weapons off our streets. And it has nothing to make it harder for criminals to get, and use, handguns and assault weapons.

Instead, this bill harasses law-abiding gun owners while giving gangs and criminals a pass. Rather than fulfilling campaign promises, this bill breaks them.

Colleagues, no one is denying that there are very real concerns about gun violence in Canada. But suggesting that we are going to deal with these concerns by developing policies that target licensed gun owners is nothing short of fantasy.

If the government wants to live in a make-believe world, there is little we can do to stop it, this side of the election. But I urge you, colleagues, not to play their game.

From the very beginning of this debate, the Trudeau government’s insincerity has been evident. They have repeatedly claimed that this bill “prioritizes public safety and effective police work.” Yet when you scratch the surface, you quickly find out that it does neither.

It reminds me of an old proverb which says: Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts never given.

Justin Trudeau talks like he’s serious about dealing with gangs and crime, but his actions are little more than empty, fluffy promises that deliver nothing.

When Bill C-71 was introduced in the other place, Minister Goodale began by painting a grim picture. He said:

While crime rates generally in Canada have been on the decline for decades . . . However, offences involving firearms are bucking the positive trend.

Minister Goodale repeated this assertion both at the House of Commons committee and the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, when he insisted that:

While crime rates generally have been steadily falling in Canada for decades, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of criminal incidents involving firearms.

Colleagues, the evidence says this assertion is nonsense. No matter which metric you look at — overall crime rates, the violent crime rate or the crime severity index — the last 20 years of statistics clearly show that gun crime and overall crime rates follow the exact same arc: When crime goes up, gun crime goes up with it; and when crime goes down, gun crime goes down as well. The suggestion that gun crime is rising while overall crime is dropping is simply not true.

However, as I said earlier, this does not mean we don’t have a problem. We do. But if you look at the evidence, you will find that it has nothing to do with making sure law-abiding gun owners get special permission to take their restricted firearms to the gunsmith. It has nothing to do with taking away their only real avenue of appeal when their firearms get reclassified and are rendered valueless. It has nothing to do with the fact that background checks currently cover five years instead of a lifetime.

It has nothing to do with any of these things. Bill C-71 is chock full of feel-good, aspirational notions that are designed to leave the impression of taking action, while accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Colleagues, I encourage you to take a closer look at Statistics Canada’s reports on homicide by firearms. If you do, you will see that at least three things stand out. Number one, there has been a failure to enforce our existing gun laws; number two, there is a disproportionate homicide rate by Indigenous persons; and number three, we are suffering from rising gang violence. Yet Bill C-71 completely ignores every single one of these.

Consider the following: Between 2014 and 2017, 66 per cent of homicides by firearms were committed by people with criminal records. This tells us that up to two thirds of gun homicides could be the consequence of a failure to properly enforce our current gun laws. Because in many cases, it is already illegal for someone with a criminal record to possess a firearm.

In every case where a gun homicide was committed by a person who was ineligible to possess that firearm, more regulation would have done nothing to save these lives. The problem was a lack of enforcement from our existing gun laws.

Second, over the same period — 2014 to 2017 — 68 per cent of all homicides were committed with a restricted or prohibited weapon, and yet restricted and prohibited firearms are already registered and tightly controlled.

This should be a red flag for anyone who is paying attention. If gun control measures for restricted firearms are not working, what makes us think that more regulations for non-restricted firearms will suddenly be effective?

Third, according to Statistics Canada, 38 per cent of all homicides in 2017 were committed by Indigenous persons. In the vast majority of these homicides, the victims were Indigenous as well.

When you consider this in context of the size of the Indigenous population, it means that across Canada, an Indigenous person is 12 times more likely to commit homicide than a non-Indigenous person. Broken down by province, it works out to 11 times more likely in Alberta, 13 times more in my province of Manitoba, and 43 times in Saskatchewan.

Minister Goodale has gone out of his way to point out that the problems with firearms violence is not just because of gangs in Toronto, noting that it’s also found in rural areas — especially in Prairie provinces like Manitoba and Saskatchewan. What he didn’t bother to tell you is that, in Manitoba, 67 per cent of homicides with a firearm in rural areas are committed by Indigenous persons. In Saskatchewan that number is 77 per cent.

Colleagues, if you haven’t looked at the evidence, then these numbers might shock you. But don’t misunderstand me. I am not blaming Indigenous people for firearms violence.

What I am doing is pointing out that there is a tragedy unfolding in slow motion in Indigenous communities and families right before our eyes. Yet the Liberal government is ignoring this tragedy, pretending to be oblivious to the fact that there are much deeper societal issues at play here that will not be addressed by simply piling on more gun laws.

Frankly, I am at a bit of a loss as to how my honourable colleagues from Manitoba believe this bill addresses any of the root issues behind these tragic numbers. Why are all Indigenous senators opposite not opposing this bill and demanding real action and real answers that would actually help to reduce firearms crime and the resulting victimization? And if you’re not going to oppose it, then where are the amendments? Where are the improvements?

Honourable senators, the other thing we learned from Statistics Canada is that between 1991 and 2017, 90 per cent of homicides were solved, but only if gangs were not involved. When homicides are gang-related, the solve rate drops to 44 per cent.

If we look at the years 2014 to 2017 again, this means that with an average of 206 homicides committed with a firearm each year, about 70 were left unsolved each and every year. Approximately 57 of those 70 unsolved homicides would have been gang-related. In other words, between 2014 and 2017, approximately 280 murderers have been left to roam free on our streets and the majority of these — 228 — are gang members. You might want to let that sink in.

If the government was serious about preventing homicides by firearms and prioritizing public safety, getting known murderers off our streets, would that be their top priority? But it is not. This bill will have zero impact on gangs and criminals. Instead, Minister Goodale is busy making scapegoats out of law-abiding gun owners, saddling them with more paperwork, more hoops to jump and more threats of criminal charges, all the while pretending that this will get criminals off our streets.

The assertion is absurd and gun owners are tired of the charade. Instead of taking substantive action to deal with real issues, the Liberal government is splashing around in the shallow end, pretending to do something important. This is not the time to be playing politics. This is a time to understand what is really going on and to take meaningful action to change the current trajectory and actually save lives.

Colleagues, facts, research and statistics matter, but the problem we have seen in this debate is that it is too easy to simply quote a study that supports your position. This is true on many subjects, but it is particularly true when it comes to the question of the effectiveness of gun control. One person will hold up a study that says gun control works. The next person will hold up a study that says it doesn’t. People pick the one that best aligns with their view and use that to endorse their position. So how do you know what the truth is?

In 2016, the B.C. Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research did something different. Rather than simply producing another study on the matter, they undertook an extensive literature review of all the existing studies. These studies examined,

"...the various strategies and processes that have been tried in Canada and internationally to reduce or remove illegal firearms from circulation, particularly from offenders.” The focus of the review was on “research published in English that evaluates legislative attempts, police-led, and community-led programs, tactics, or interdictions designed to address the issue of illegal firearm possession and use."

So instead of just producing one more study, in order to review their findings, the centre took a step back and looked at all studies that had already been published. You cannot easily dismiss such an approach if you’re interested in the facts.

At the end of the review, they concluded the following:

"...the lack of reliable empirical data on firearms and violence, including suicides, makes it virtually impossible to undertake comparative analysis or the ability to develop more effective responses. In sum, the current evidence is generally inconclusive and suffers from a range of methodological challenges and limitations."

If you’re one of those who likes to argue for more gun control based on an isolated study here and there, this will not come as good news. But these are the facts: "the current evidence is generally inconclusive."

The good news is that something can be done about gun violence. The review found the following:

"The research literature... demonstrates that gun violence can be reduced by the police when they engage in sustained, strategic, and intelligence-led enforcement practices that targets prolific offenders and gangs, and prolific locations where gun violence occurs."

Colleagues, this is exactly what a Conservative government would do. Instead of fiddling on the margins with ineffective measures based on evidence that has been found to be “generally inconclusive,” a Conservative government would take clear and decisive action to deal with gangs, illegal guns and criminals. Contrast with this Justin Trudeau, who has softened Canada’s approach to tackling gang crime by reducing its penalties to as little as an administrative fine.

A Conservative government would end automatic bail for known gang members, making them prove to a court that they should be eligible for bail. It would deliver tougher sentences for ordering gang crime and new sentences for violent gang crime.

This is the kind of leadership Canadians need. Instead, here’s where we find ourselves today: In just a few minutes we’re going to have a vote on Bill C-71. And in spite of the fact that this bill is not supported by the facts, the evidence or the research, the majority of senators in this chamber will vote in favour of it. In spite of the fact that it ignores the real problems, fails to listen to either the gun owners or the victims of gun violence, this chamber will send it back to the other place unamended.

This is a tragedy, colleagues, because it is not only law-abiding firearms owners who are not being heard; it’s also the communities being rocked by crime; it’s the families that have been torn apart; and it’s the moms and dads, sisters and brothers, friends and acquaintances of victims of gun crime.

Honourable senators, you and this government are failing them by passing this legislation, because although the Liberal promise was a good one — “we will take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets” — this bill does not take even one tiny baby step toward fulfilling that promise.

If that was not bad enough, it gets worse. This bill implements a back-door gun registry. Now I know there is a little clause in the bill that says it’s not introducing a registry, but this, quite frankly, means nothing. In the words of committee witness Dr. Teri Bryant, “Is a duck a duck if you don’t call it a duck?” Colleagues, this is a duck.

On June 29, 2012, the Conservative government registered a regulation that stated the following:

"A person cannot be required, as a condition of a licence that is issued under the Firearms Act, (a) to collect information with respect to the transfer of a non-restricted firearm; (b) if they collect such information, to keep a record of it; or (c) if they keep such a record to keep it in a form that combines information that identifies the transferee with information that identifies an individual firearm, links such information, or enables such information to be combined or linked."

At the time, then-Justice Minister Vic Toews appeared before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to explain why this regulation was necessary to ensure that such information should not be collected. This is what he said:

"The real purpose of this regulation is simply to clarify the effect of Bill C-19, that is, to prevent the establishment of another long-gun registry through other means, whether it is through information collected through CFOs or otherwise."

Bill C-71 is specifically designed to override this regulation.

So how is it that Minister Toews could clearly see that collecting information about the transfer of non-restricted firearms creates a long-gun registry by other means, and yet Minister Goodale claims to be oblivious to this fact?

Colleagues, this legislation fails on not one but two counts: First, it completely fails to implement the government’s promise to “take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets.” Second, it cynically breaks the government’s promise to not create a new national gun registry.

There is only one appropriate response for this chamber to take in such a situation. This bill should be defeated.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with this thought: Gun control advocates often — and we heard it here in this chamber — like to use the expression, “If it saves one life then it’s worth it.” What they fail to recognize is that if the same amount of effort and money utilized in a different manner would save 10 lives, then refusing to do so and saving only one is criminal.

Yet this government has repeatedly refused to acknowledge what gentlemen all know to be true. Public resources are limited, and the budget will not balance itself. Tax dollars should be allocated in the most efficient, effective manner possible in order to achieve the greatest possible impact and the best public policy outcome.

Colleagues, it is indisputable that Bill C-71 utterly and tragically fails to do this. It needs to be defeated.

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