Canadians Take Aim At Registering All Guns

Though safe compared to US, Canada backs tougher gun laws

CANADA'S plans to ban sales of hundreds of handguns and assault-style rifles and register all firearms in one computer system make recently passed US gun-control laws look a BB gun by comparison.

For years, it has taken from four to seven months for Canadians to buy handguns. Spouses, friends, and neighbors are routinely interviewed regarding a prospective owner's stability and stress levels.

But the United States Congress, a year ago, struggled to pass legislation requiring only a five-day waiting period and criminal background check for buying a handgun.

And under Canada's new plan, announced in Parliament Wednesday, the onus on gun owners is raised several notches more. Every gun in the country - rifle, shotgun, and handgun - must be registered. Currently only handguns and certain restricted weapons are registered.

Affecting 60 percent of registered owners, those who own newly banned guns will be allowed to keep them until they die, but not sell or give them away. The government will eventually confiscate and destroy the guns.

Canadian handgun owners will also have to prove that they are either a collector or regular target shooter and re-register every five years - or turn in their guns.

Dramatic catalyst

A 1989 massacre of 14 college women in Quebec by a gunman prompted the national soul-searching that has laid the foundation for strident gun control. But a weapons restriction bid by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced then, failed.

Highly publicized shootings this year in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa have propelled anew tough measures from the popular government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, despite resistance from Canada's gun lobby.

``Canadians do not want to live in a society where they feel they need to own a gun for protection,'' said Minister of Justice Allan Rock, who introduced the proposals. Legislation to implement the plan is expected to be introduced to Parliament in February.

There are an estimated 7 million guns and 3 million gun owners in Canada, according to the government. Currently, 1.2 million weapons are restricted - including about 950,000 handguns registered to 560,000 individuals. The new ban on small caliber handguns with barrels under four inches will apply to 558,000 handguns or 58 percent of those now registered. The US is thought to harbor tens of millions of unregistered guns.

Calls for gun crackdown

Last year there were 1,400 firearm deaths in Canada, 1,100 of them suicides. Though statistics show Canada has much less gun violence than the US, polls consistently show more than 70 percent of the Canadian public supports tougher gun laws. Key elements of the new proposal next year include:

* Setting up a national computerized registration system. Gun owners will be required to register guns during 1996 to 2003. Total cost of the system is put at $200 million, though gun lobbyists claim the cost will be higher.

* Banning the sale and importation of all replicas of firearms.

* Banning the sale and importation of 21 types of assault rifles, including more than 200 individual models.

While firearms supporters have responded, their efforts - unlike the gun lobby in the US - have been fragmented. With the plan's specifics now clear, opponents predict more unity behind opposition to the legislation.

``We're taking it as a declaration of war on the recreational firearms community by the Liberal Party [of Prime Minister Chretien,]'' says David Tomlinson, president of the National Firearms Association.

While optimistic about the government plan, Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, doesn't like the long phase-in period for gun owners. ``The gun lobby still may rally,'' she warns.

But Chretien has already vowed that the gun lobby will not dilute these proposals. ``I pledge to the people of Canada that we will not let that happen. People here ... don't want their communities to become combat zones like some American cities.''

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