MONTREAL — CANADA'S House of Commons passed controversial gun-control legislation Tuesday that will require Canadians to register all unregistered guns in the country or risk criminal penalties.
The bill, which was strongly opposed by Canada's gun lobby, was passed despite the unusual dissension of nine members of Prime Minister Jean Chretien's majority Liberal Party (LP). The bill passed 192 to 63, with all but three members of the western-based Reform Party also opposed.
Despite the opposition, proponents of the bill, which will affect 7 million guns, cited broad support for the measure among Canadians increasingly concerned about growing crime.
"We stand with the victims of violence who have lost family members to crime," said Justice Minister Alan Rock, who was the guiding force behind the bill. "Mandatory universal registration of all firearms is no more than common sense."
Handguns have long been tightly regulated in Canada. But under the bill, all rifles and shotguns would also have to be registered. The bill also bans the sale of most types of semi-automatic weapons.
The bill now moves on to the Senate, and some observers predict its swift passage there. But others say the Senate, a majority of whose members are Progressive Conservatives, could delay or amend the bill, slowing it on its way to becoming law, probably this fall.
Native groups and gun owners, mostly in rural areas and the West, have protested the estimated $62-million cost of the program, which would create a national computer database to keep track of the registered weapons.
Those with unregistered guns would be given until the year 2003 to finally register their weapons, with low costs for doing so in the early years and higher costs later on.
To satisfy critics, Mr. Rock last month softened police search-and-seizure provisions in the bill and reduced penalties. The amendments mean police will need a warrant to be able to enter the home of someone who owns fewer than 10 shotguns and rifles.
Still, it irks gun owners that they could be convicted of a criminal - not merely regulatory - offense. A first-time failure to register a gun could result in a fine of up to $1,500 and six months in jail.
Gun lobbyists predicted a legal battle questioning its constitutionality once the bill becomes law. Property rights in Canada fall under provincial jurisdiction, and gun advocates say the criminal code should not be amended by the federal government to include guns.
"We've been preparing for a legal battle for years," says David Tomlinson, president of the National Firearms Association, Canada's version of the National Rifle Association. "We know a lot more about the legal rights of gun owners than the government does."
Mr. Tomlinson also predicts political disaster for the LP in the next federal election and intense opposition to the gun bill in the usually accommodating Senate.
"Conservative senators may be buoyed by the victory of a conservative in Ontario's recent election," says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political consultant. "They could feel that stalling the bill would be an excellent way to steal thunder from the Reform Party and win back support in the West."