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opinion

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair

Bill Blair, President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Chief of the Toronto Police Service, visited The Globe and Mail editorial board on Thursday; the main topics of conversation were the federal gun registry and policing during the June G20 summit. Following are excerpts from that conversation:

On the gun registry

[The gun registry]creates an accountability for firearms ownership. If you buy a gun, and that gun is registered to you, then you have a responsibility for that firearm. You're responsible for its safe storage, you're responsible for its appropriate use, you're responsible that it be disposed of appropriately. And responsibility, accountability in firearms ownership is not unlike accountability in automobile ownership. If you have a car registered to you, and it's parked illegally, then you're held accountable for that vehicle … The overwhelming majority of firearms owners are responsible.

For us, the registration of firearms and the licensing of firearms owners … it's not a symbolic thing; it's a tool we use virtually every day.

There's a bit of an argument that's sometimes made that licensing is sufficient. But knowing somebody has a license, but not having any means to ascertain how many firearms they possess, is hugely problematic from a regulatory or enforcement standpoint. If that license is revoked, we have no way of determining how many weapons that individual has. When you're going into a dangerous situation, a domestic violence where a person is emotionally disturbed or mentally ill, knowing they have a license gives you a starting point. But knowing what weapons they actually have registered to them really advances our response and investigations.

Leaving aside the politics of it, what do you think of what you know about the Jack Layton proposal [to reform the gun registry]

We have advocated, not just in response to any political positions that have been put forward - when we say we have to reach out to rural Canadians, we understand there are aspects of the registration system which cause a lot of concern in those communities. We need to look for ways to make the system work better for everybody.

We've taken the position right from the outset that decriminalizing the failure to register - the fact is we don't charge people with that anyway. We seized probably 1,500 or so long guns two years ago that were unregistered, and we didn't charge a single person for failing to register those long guns; the only person we charged was [someone]who sawed off the barrel of a shotgun.

There should be consequences for failing to register a firearm, but we shouldn't criminalize that behaviour.

If the politicians cancel the registry, and they're your boss, would you support a ban on handguns?

I support what I think works. I think banning handguns, in as much as a large proportion of the guns that we're encountering on the streets of Toronto are being smuggled across the country - I support resources and legislation that empowers us to keep those guns out of the country. We live next to the largest hand gun arsenal in the world … 70 per cent [of guns here]is what is represents … What I advocate for is a balance, a balance between the rights of citizens and public safety.

On the G20 summit

The situation changed rather significantly on the Friday. The demonstration that began in Allan Gardens … there was a very large group of protesters embedded within that group that was committed not to peaceful protest, but to … so-called black-bloc tactics. They were masked, they were garbed, they were armed to engage in criminal behaviour, surrounded by others, certainly many of whom only had an intent to engage in peaceful protest … But we managed to get through that particular event peacefully and disperse that crowd and contain it …

Saturday: we now have a demonstration involving in excess of 10,000 people; it's the labour demonstration. Of those 10,000, easily 9,000 have come to be heard, not to engage in criminality. And so we're policing that event. But another large group of 700 or 800 people joins that group, and their intent is entirely different. You can't police a mob in the same way that you would police a lawful peaceful protest. We were trying to do both on Saturday. It was extremely difficult.

Once the mob engages in riotous behaviour … we still had to walk the 10,000 people back to Queen's Park, because you don't know what other threats exist in that crowd, while trying to contain the group that goes off to burn and smash.

The questions that Torontonians have … are legitimate questions, and they deserve answers. And that's one of the reasons I've got this after-action review going on …

Can we see that when it's done?

Some of it, yes … There are some tactics, some intelligence gathering things, if I reveal it, I compromise it. But that will be reported out as appropriate before my board first … I have civilian oversight. And certainly, the answers I believe Torontonians need, we're going to provide those to them …

[Are you]expressing some regret for what happened Sunday night at Queen [Street]and Spadina [Avenue]

I believe that that situation changed, and it took us some time to respond to it. And when we did, you know - not just citizens, but police officers, everybody got pretty wet. It's one of the things we learn from that situation. You've got to make rapid decisions in response to an evolving situation. Sometimes things take more time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.