One is a spokesman for the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, while another is a police officer who helped found a sports shooting club in southern Ontario. A third is a former Olympian with a gold medal in pistol shooting under her belt.
All of them know a great deal about firearms, many through personal experience as sports shooters or hunters. Together, they make up a little-known 12-person committee to which Ottawa turns for advice on Canada’s firearms policies.
Now, the federal government says it’s time to take another look at the controversial advisory committee, which critics say has helped nudge Ottawa down a path towards loosening Canada’s gun laws in recent years.
The move comes as U.S. President Barack Obama struggles to break through a long-standing impasse in his country’s debate over gun control after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Tony Bernardo, a member of the Canadian advisory committee, says the elimination of the long-gun registry was a common-sense move aimed at keeping legitimate gun owners from being targeted as criminals. But gun-control advocates say the registry’s demise is part of a broader set of policy changes that will make it easier for firearms to fall into the wrong hands.
“We’re one of the only industrialized countries that has relaxed rather than strengthened its laws in the last decade,” said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. “I think we’ve gone in the wrong direction.”
Last March, the firearms advisory committee submitted recommendations to Mr. Toews, including the controversial suggestion that the government consider eliminating the “prohibited” category of gun ownership, a change that would have loosened restrictions on who is allowed to own fully automatic weapons. The group also proposed extending the period for gun license renewals from five years to 10, among other recommendations.
After the recommendations were made public through an access to information request filed by Ms. Cukier’s organization, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that the committee’s advice did not reflect the government’s position – and suggested its composition should be re-assessed.
On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Toews confirmed that the department planned to take another look at the committee.
“The Prime Minister’s comments on this matter have been clear – the positions in this report do not reflect the positions of the government, …” Julie Carmichael wrote in an e-mail. “The committee does need some re-examination in that light.”
The committee’s membership is a far cry from what it was a decade ago, when it included a suicide prevention specialist and a domestic violence expert.
The current advisory body was formed in 2006 by then-public safety minister Stockwell Day. In a letter to a prospective member, he said the changes to the committee’s membership were part of a “new approach” the Conservative government planned to take on gun control. Mr. Day wrote that the government would endeavour to “target the criminal misuse of firearms and reduce the burdens on law-abiding gun owners.”
The letter, which was previously released under the Access to Information Act, is posted on the website for the National Firearms Association.
In the years since the new committee took shape, the federal government eliminated the long-gun registry and repealed a law that would have required gun-show organizers to notify police and the provincial chief firearms officer of upcoming events. It also prevented provincial firearms officers from requiring store owners to keep records of the guns they sell, according to Ontario’s chief firearms officer, Chris Wyatt.
Several of the reforms mirror recommendations the committee made in March. At that time, the group suggested that gun show rules be repealed, saying, “They serve no demonstrable purpose not served by the present system.” (Mr. Bernardo, the spokesman for the shooting sports association, told The Globe and Mail that gun-show organizers already let police know about their events, but he said other administrative rules would be too cumbersome.)
The committee also suggested cancelling plans to add special markings on newly imported firearms. The rules would have required importers to add the letters CA and the last two digits of the year the gun was imported to make them easier for police to trace. The group called the changes “unworkable.” They were later deferred.
Reached on Thursday in Red Deer, Alta., the committee’s co-chair, Linda Baggaley, said she had not heard anything from the Public Safety Department to suggest the group’s membership will change. Ms. Baggaley, who runs a gun auction company, said that she thinks the committee is well-balanced in its current form.
“I feel the committee’s structured very well,” she said, adding, “The people I work with on that committee have the best interests for all Canadians.”
The committee also includes former Olympian Linda Thom and Niagara-area police officer John Gayder.