Both sides shoot it out in propaganda war as Senate debates Bill C-68
By Leslie J. Furlong
Now that the Liberal gun control bill has passed third reading, lobbyists for and against the bill are swarming to Ottawa in an effort to win over the Conservative-dominated Senate.
Among these wasps and bees is Wendy Cukier, a Ryerson professor and one of the key figures in the Coalition for Gun Control (CGC). The organization’s push for stricter gun laws have made Cukier both loved and despised, a target of abuse and a recipient of praise.
Like most Canadians, Cukier was shocked when gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, using legally-owned firearms.
What stunned Cukier even more were the existing gun laws, which she says were less restrictive than the laws governing automobiles. The apparent inconsistency inspired Cukier to become a driving force for tighter gun control in Canada.
Though the Dec. 6, 1989 massacre is seen by many as an aberration in the Canadian way of life, it provided a focal point for a movement to prevent Canada’s annual 1,400 firearms-related deaths.
“Most Canadians support gun control,” Cukier says. “But our opponents are far more motivated, have more resources, and are (dealing with a) single issue.” She says that the silent majority of Canadians will be shocked by any delays of the gun control bill in the Senate.
The CGC wants gun owners to register all firearms. They also want stricter laws on ammunition sales. Both measures are included in Bill C-68.
Also included in the new bill is a ban on several types of military weapons and “Saturday night specials”—cheap, easily concealed handguns.
Under the proposed legislation, those who currently own these types of firearms would be permitted to keep them until they die. After that, the guns must be turned over to the police.
The new measures do not sit well with Larry Whitmore, executive manager of the Ontario Handgun Association (OHA). Whitmore owns a $3,000 .32-calibre Walther GSP target pistol. The gun falls under Bill C-68’s definition of Saturday night special because of the calibre of bullet it uses. Whitmore says the market value of his gun has dropped dramatically because of the pending government restrictions on the gun’s ownership.
He says the present restrictions on handguns are strong enough without any additional measures.
As the law now stands, gun owners must obtain a permit from the police each time a handgun is transported from one location to another. All gun owners must hold a Firearms Acquisition Certificate.
To obtain the certificate, applicants must pass a police background check, pass a safety examination on the safe use, handling and storage of firearms, and pay a $50 application fee.
The application process takes four to six months. Once issued, the certificate is valid for five years.
“If you joined a handgun club in Toronto it would take nine months to get your gun into your home, after the probationary period and training,” Whitmore says.
But what is truth and what is fiction is difficult to determine from listening to either side in the debate.
Cukier, who says she has been around firearms all of her life and has shot guns for recreation in the past, thinks Bill C-68 is reasonable.
But she says the gun lobby uses misinformation to promote their position. She says the gun lobby tells people it will cost $100 to register each gun and that the bill gives the police special search and seizure powers.
Whitmore says it will cost $60 to register a gun. He adds that the bill is “rife with constitutional and civil liberties violations” and gives the justice minister more power than the War Measures Act.
Whitmore says his organization is not the only one against the new bill. He says a number of organizations, including the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), have serious problems with it.
But Michael Dearden of the CBA says the sections of the bill that concerned the association – involving mandatory sentences and search and seizure powers – were modified in the bill’s present form. The bar now supports the proposed legislation.
Whitmore says the OHA supports the crime control sections of the bill, but want the gun control measures reviewed by a non-partisan committee.
The widespread confusion and disagreement over what the bill says and what it should say doesn’t end with debate. Cukier receives threats over the telephone and is reviled on some Internet newsgroups.
And some gun owners in New Brunswick and British Columbia organized a “Bricks for Wendy” campaign to harass Cukier.
The campaigners sent heavy packages to Cukier with postage due in an effort to drain the CGC’s funds.
But what started as a prank turned ugly as packages containing manure and men’s underwear made it to her mailbox.
One parcel containing underwear was accompanied by a note that read, “Eat my shorts.”
At first, the packages concerned and frightened Cukier, but when it was discovered more than one person was responsible, she became less anxious. Canada Post now screens her mail to avoid further problems.
“Extreme behaviour of the fringe elements in the gun lobby hurts their cause more than it helps it,” Cukier says. “It does not reinforce their image as being responsible gun owners.”
Whitmore, whose organization did not take part in the stunt, says the “Bricks for Wendy” campaign will not sway opinion one way or the other. He says dirty tricks are not unknown on either side of the debate.
“What we recommend is that anyone who wants to support this bill should read it,” he says.
In the end, Whitmore says most Canadians are going to have to make a hard decision based on instinct rather than information since few will take the time to read all 120 pages of Bill C-68.
“It depends on who you want to believe.”