Prime Minister Stephen Harper's statement last week that gun ownership in rural areas provides "a certain level of security when you're a ways from immediate police assistance" can be qualified as many things. One of them, though, is not a call to vigilantism, as numerous critics have claimed. That is an overreaction.
On a number of issues over the past few weeks – see niqabs and citizenship – the PM's words have been exceptionally clear and clearly wrong. On guns, however, it was the opposite, with so many people reading so much into his few words, precisely because they were so hard to read. Mr. Harper offered a little clarity on Tuesday when he said "gun owners in Canada are not allowed to take the law into their own hands." He also reaffirmed that "gun ownership in Canada is a responsibility – unlike the United States" where "gun ownership is a right." In other words, he wasn't suggesting we succumb to America's "stand your ground" dementia.
So what was he saying, exactly? Probably the truth. That, to some degree, rural Canadians living far from the nearest police station may like knowing that they've got a legal firearm at hand, as an added measure of security. If the presence of a working rifle nearby helps a person sleep better, there is no law against that.
But Mr. Harper never makes a statement without a calculation behind it. What he has done, quite deliberately, is stir up the gun-control debate and remind rural gun owners which side the Conservative Party is on.
His government is currently hurrying a bill through Parliament that answers the prayers of many gun owners, as well as those of their vocal advocates, such as the National Firearms Association.
The Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, as the Harper government has inevitably called the bill, will ease the restrictions on transporting a restricted firearm such as a handgun between the owner's home and another location.
More controversially, the proposed act will also give the minister of public safety the final say on the classification of weapons. Under the current law, if the RCMP wants a restricted weapon reclassified as prohibited, the minister has to sign off on it. That became a sore point for the government last year when it had to declare that two popular makes of semi-automatic rifle were suddenly prohibited. The government saved face by granting a two-year amnesty to the thousands of erstwhile legal owners, but it has no intention of going through the experience twice. If the bill is passed, the public safety minister will be able to ignore the RCMP.
There is more to the bill, some of which is uncontroversial. For instance, people convicted of domestic abuse will be banned from legal gun ownership. But at the heart of it lie changes that ease Canadian gun laws – a centrepiece of Conservative policy. No one was talking about it before last week. Now they are.
The following story has been corrected to clarify the requirement for transporting a restricted firearm and changes the minister of public security to minister of public safety