Gun groups worried about government’s ability to trace guns to owners

The groups say new marking regulations could be the “final piece” needed to trace every non-restricted gun in the country.

Local and national firearms advocacy groups are sounding the alarm over what they perceive as an attempt by the federal government to effectively recreate the long-gun registry, which was scrapped in 2012 amid huge cost overruns.

While the federal Liberals have vowed not to resurrect the registry, firearms groups fear that a plan to rewrite controversial gun marking rules will be the “final piece” in the puzzle that connects every gun in the country to its owner.

Those regulations, which have been deferred eight times by four successive federal governments, most recently last month, are now being modernized, according to Ottawa. The federal government now expects them to come into force in late 2020.

Ottawa says it is “premature to speculate” about what the rewritten regulations will include, but gun rights advocacy groups are worried about a suggestion published late last month that they will be aimed at identifying gun owners.

According to the Canada Gazette, “the requirements of the existing regulations are not sufficient to uniquely identify the (original) legal owner of the firearm in order to facilitate tracing” because they don’t link the owner to information such as a serial number.

The Saskatoon Wildlife Federation (SWF), the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association (CSAAA) and the Canadian Coalitions for Firearms Rights (CCFR) all take issue with that suggestion.

“They want to make it so the UN marking somehow manages to associate an individual firearm to an individual person. That sounds exactly like the gun registry they promised they wouldn’t bring back,” said CSSA executive director Tony Bernardo.

“The wording in this (proposal) is not in keeping with not having a registry,” SWF President Robert Freberg agreed, referring to Ottawa’s suggestion that the long-deferred marking regulations do not go far enough to realize the “efficiencies” of tracing guns.

The groups’ fears hinge on how the new marking regime might interact with rules in the Liberals’ new gun-control bill, C-71, requiring retailers to keep records of sales and marking each non-restricted firearm transaction with a unique reference number.

Non-restricted guns include most rifles and shotguns. Handguns and most semi-automatic rifles, excluding .22-calibre rifles, are classified as restricted, meaning they are already registered to a specific owner and subject to more stringent rules.

The groups say the combination of markings linking an individual firearm to its original owner combined with reference numbers defining all subsequent sales of that firearm will establish who owns every non-restricted firearm in the country at any given time.

“It’s a registry. The difference is the government doesn’t want to own the data,” said CSAAA Managing Director Alison De Groot.

A request to interview Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was declined.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Goodale, said “properly designed markings” could assist with police investigations and are necessary because manufacturers outside North America are not always responsive to requests from police.

Bill C-71 will help police trace so-called “crime guns” by standardizing business practices among retailers to ensure adequate records of sales and inventories are kept, Bardsley wrote in an emailed statement.

“That is clearly not a gun registry. The records will be the private property of the business, not accessible to governments. Police may be able to gain access as part of a criminal investigation, if they have reasonable grounds and with judicial authorization.”

While most of the groups acknowledge that the data will be held by industry rather than government and remain inaccessible except with a search warrant, they are nevertheless worried about the possibility of government linking guns and their owners.

“I think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s a mistake,” said CCFR vice-president Tracey Wilson, adding that simply requiring firearms to be stamped with a serial number will allow police to trace them back to their manufacturer or importer.

De Groot said her organization — which represents around 4,500 firearms-related businesses — also believes the “correct” solution is to mandate that the receiver of every firearm be stamped with its make, model and serial number.

“As long as the government can make industry keep the registry, they feel like their hands are clean. We hate it. We don’t want it. They’re asking us to do their job at our expense … but it’s better in our hands than it is in government hands,” she said.

Bardsley noted the government included an amendment to C-71 proposed by the Conservatives that states, “For greater certainty, nothing in this act shall be construed so as to permit or require the registration of non-restricted firearms.”