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Guns... or Not?

Canadians Resisting Tough
New Gun Law

By Colin Nickerson
The Boston Globe
Published Wednesday, January 10, 2001, in the Miami Herald

MONTREAL — When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

As if to put the dusty old gun lover's saw to the test, Canada last week created a huge new caste of criminals as North America's toughest gun law went into effect.

After two years of court battles and political brawls, a sweeping federal gun control measure became the law of the north Jan. 1, turning hundreds of thousands of gun owners into instant outlaws.

The government and gun control advocates are already calling the law a grand success and moral example for the United States, claiming that roughly 80 percent of the country's estimated 2.2 million gun owners met the deadline for applying for a federal firearms license.

But opponents of the law say the government claim that nearly 1.8 million gun owners have actually applied for licenses is inflated.

Even if accurate, they say, it means that more than 400,000 men and women have chosen the path of civil disobedience by failing to sign on.

``At the very least, hundreds of thousands of people have said, `To hell with it,' '' said Jim Hinter, president of the National Firearms Association. ``That speaks pretty loudly about the depth of opposition to this law.''




Handgun ownership has been virtually illegal for years. Now, under the toughest gun control measure ever seen on this continent, Ottawa is imposing stringent licensing and registration rules for all shotguns and hunting rifles. Every gun owner must acquire a federal photo ID to possess a firearm or even buy a bullet. Much more controversially, all must submit detailed information on their weapons and their reasons for owning a gun to a new national firearms agency.

Violators risk a five-year jail sentence as well as confiscation of their weapons. Nearly all rifles and shotguns in Canada are used by hunters or by ranchers defending livestock.

Compared to their American cousins, Canadian gun owners are traditionally a pretty passive bunch. There's no Second Amendment in the national Constitution, and the notion that citizens have an inherent ``right'' to bear arms has never held much sway.

But even the federal government concedes that a minimum of 400,000 of the country's estimated 2.2 million gun owners have refused to comply -- a shocking figure in a society where respect for the law is second nature. And the real tally of noncompliers may be much higher: Gun groups count six million privately owned rifles and shotguns in Canada, meaning that millions of citizens may be defying the law.




The big question is whether the refusal to register marks an extraordinary act of mass civil disobedience -- as pro-gun groups like to suggest -- or simply reflects widespread confusion over a complicated law that has already cost $300 million to implement, three times the projected amount.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Firearms Center, the new federal bureaucracy, acknowledged that paperwork is so backlogged that it may be months before the government even knows how many gun owners complied with the law. The registry has approved only 600,000 licenses and is not certain of the exact number of applications sitting in mailbags. ``But the applications have been coming in a strong, steady volume,'' said Janet Long. ``We feel most gun owners want to obey.''

Under the two-phase law, enacted in 1998, all owners of firearms must have submitted paperwork and photo for a federal license to possess a gun or purchase ammunition by Jan. 1.

By 2002, gun owners must provide detailed information on the weapons they own, everything from serial numbers to where and under what security precautions each firearm is stored. Gun owners must also supply information on ``personal circumstances,'' such as pending divorces or health problems. And enforcement agents have the right to inspect homes to ensure that every gun is kept unloaded and safely locked away.

For the first time in the country's history, Canadian gun owners ranging from Eskimos in the High Arctic to ranchers in the western provinces appear to be forming a common front, saying the law will do nothing to deter crime. Guns are employed in a third of the 600 or so homicides that occur in Canada in an average year, but the weapons are usually illegal handguns, not hunting arms.

``I am not a criminal, and I refuse to be treated like one,'' said Bruce Hutton, a retired Alberta police officer. ``I am not registering. I am not licensing. If government wants to put me in jail, have at 'er.''




Opposition to the law is not well-organized, at least by the U.S. standards. There are no well-heeled lobbying groups, no equivalent of the National Rifle Association and certainly no national public relations campaigns financed by gun manufacturers.

Still, what were once meek peeps of protest are turning into howls of outrage.

``Law-abiding gun owners hate, detest and despise this law,'' said Edward Hudson, a Saskatchewan veterinarian and president of the fledgling Law-abiding Unregistered Firearms Association. ``Many, especially in western Canada, will simply not comply with it.''

Police in Alberta, where the provincial government has opposed the federal gun registry, say they will make no special effort to enforce the new law. And even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police say they have no plan for cracking down on gun owners who refuse to register, and will investigate only those violations they come across during the course of normal operations.

The new law was passed in the emotional aftermath of the massacre of 14 women by a deranged gunman at a Montreal University a decade ago, the worst such slaughter ever to occur in Canada. And sentiment among residents of the two most heavily populated and urbanized provinces, Ontario and Quebec, is overwhelmingly in favor of harsh restrictions on gun ownership.

``The law doesn't say you can't have guns, but if you want a gun you are going to have to make an effort,'' said Wendy Cukier, head of the Coalition for Gun Control, which championed the law.

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