Canadian provinces threaten to resist new gun law

The Supreme Court of Canada has spoken: Ottawa's new requirements for firearms licensing and registration are constitutional.

Western Canada is not happy.

Provincial government officials have openly announced their intention not to enforce the law. "We will leave it to federal prosecutors to enforce this federal gun registry," says Chris Axworthy, Saskatchewan's justice minister.

Saskatchewan was one of several provinces and territories challenging the new federal Firearms Act. In court, they argued that it infringes on provincial jurisdiction over regulation of property rights.

The high court disagreed.

"Guns are dangerous and pose a threat to public safety," the court said in its June 15 ruling. "The regulation of guns as dangerous products is a valid purpose within the criminal law power." The high court dismissed the infringement on provincial prerogatives in this case as "incidental."

"[The court] said that ... guns are inherently dangerous," says Mr. Axworthy, "but this is an insensitive definition.... In this part of the world, guns are not regarded as inherently dangerous. They are things you use to protect your chickens."

Indeed, out here under the big skies of the prairies, firearms safety training is a rite of passage for 12-year-olds.

The law the high court ruled on was a statute establishing new licensing requirements for gun owners and a new federal registry of all guns, including, for the first time, hunting rifles. Canadians - including gun owners - accept a high level of regulation of guns. But the new law requires many who grew up with firearms, especially in the west and in the rural regions of the Atlantic provinces, to be licensed for the first time.

The deadline for individual licenses is New Year's Day, 2001. Guns are to be registered by Jan 1, 2003.

"In our view, a registry of long guns will not in any way increase safety or security," Axworthy says.

"It's unworkable," says a woman behind the counter at one of Saskatoon's gun shops. "It won't make us one iota safer. The wife who was going to be shot with a gun is still going to be shot."

The threat not to enforce the registry isn't exactly what it may appear to be, however. In Canada, criminal-code enforcement is delegated to the provinces, while some federal laws, typically those with some regulatory aspect, are generally enforced by the federal government. In some cases federal and provincial authorities work together. But here, Axworthy and his counterparts in other jurisdictions are signaling, the feds will be on their own. He stressed, though, "At no time have I or anyone else [in government] urged people not to comply with the law."

Some hunting organizations are also calling for a measure of civil disobedience.

"We are counseling our members to hold off applying for their licenses until the deadline," says Lorne Scott, executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation. The group hopes that such delaying tactics will force an extension of the deadline - perhaps until after a new federal election - which may take place as early as this fall, and that a new government may be persuaded to scrap the registry.

But no way will the deadline be extended, says Ottawa. "An extension of the deadline would require Parliament to meet and change the legislation," says David Austin, deputy director of communications for the Canadian Firearms Centre in Ottawa. "There's no prospect on the horizon of this happening."

The resistance to the registry is too strong to be disregarded, says Mr. Scott. The provincial challenge was led by Alberta, often a conservative maverick, and joined by Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, as well as Saskatchewan.

Many observers expect aboriginal groups, such as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, to challenge the law on grounds that it interferes with their traditional hunting rights.

Responses to the court ruling reflects some significant differences between the shooting community in Canada and firearms advocates in the US.

"Out here the right to 'bare' arms means that you can roll your shirt-sleeves up if it gets hot," one Saskatchewan hunter quips. His pun is a sign of how much less absolutist Canadians are in their defense of gun rights than their American counterparts.

Scott says, "The money that they're going to spend on this registry would be better used for social spending, more shelters for women." On the Canadian prairies, gun ownership does not necessarily correlate with antistate fiscal conservatism, as it tends to do in the US.

Charlton Heston, movie star and president of the National Rifle Association, drew a warm welcome from a group of hunters he addressed in Prince George, British Columbia, in April. But he chided them for caving in to restrictions on the "God-given right" to bear arms. "It will be a sad day on Jan. 1, 2003, when every gun in Canada has to be registered."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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