Second reading of Bill C-21, An Act to amend certain Acts and to make certain consequential amendments (firearms)

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to Bill C-21.

This legislation has been the subject of intense debate, both in Parliament and in the media. I want to share — on the record — my thoughts on the bill, and discuss some concerns that likely represent the views of many people who watched this debate unfold.

By speaking to this bill, I appreciate that I’m wading into one of the most controversial and divisive topics that we can discuss as legislators: firearm laws in Canada. I won’t spend much time debating the merits of owning firearms, nor will I spend a lot of time sharing my views about the various social and political factors often found at the heart of this debate.

My goal is simply to speak on the components of Bill C-21 that I think could use some work, and touch upon the shortcomings that I believe hindered the bill’s legislative process.

I will start by acknowledging what I believe Bill C-21 does right. I appreciate that the bill acknowledges many of the new realities in the fight against smuggled and illegal weapons. Firearms have changed a lot since they were first invented. The guns that were used by soldiers, hunters and farmers in the 1800s bear little resemblance to the firearms we use today.

Today’s firearms are far more powerful and are manufactured differently. In fact, firearms manufacturing has changed dramatically, with 3-D printers helping to lead the charge. We are all familiar with 3-D printers and the impressive output they can turn out. Unfortunately, the use of these printers in the manufacture of firearms, or components for firearms, and the subsequent rise of ghost guns has become a significant cause for concern, particularly in large urban centres. I’m pleased that Bill C-21 is taking steps to address this issue, and I was inspired to learn that all parties in the other place share this particular concern.

On a similar note, the introduction of red-flag and yellow-flag laws is a sensible approach that I believe will help remove firearms from situations where violence may occur. Not all senators will agree on this legislation, but one thing we all agree on is that we need to protect the public, particularly vulnerable populations, from the threat of violence.

I believe red- and yellow-flag laws are a positive step in the right direction. Senator Yussuff already spoke about red-flag and yellow-flag laws in his sponsor speech. I won’t dwell on the point other than to note that empowering the justice system to proactively take steps to protect victims from gun violence makes sense, and I think the introduction of these laws will help us move closer to the desired results. Of course, we must ensure that the rights of all citizens are respected and that these laws are used carefully and always aim to protect the public from the threat of violence by illegal gun owners, violence-prone individuals, and especially gangs and generally gun owners or prospective gun owners exhibiting traits of instability verging on doing harm to themselves or others.

Now I will speak to some of my concerns with the bill. I believe Bill C-21 is well intended, but its legislative process has been the subject of much controversy. Massive amendments were introduced and then they were withdrawn. Gun owners and Indigenous leaders expressed significant concerns. Sadly, the debate became poisoned in the public sphere, particularly in rural Canada. I’ll try to keep my remarks concise and free of rhetoric. Ultimately, I believe this bill is somewhat flawed and has the potential to cause challenges for law-abiding gun owners.

Targeting criminal behaviour should be our focus, and I’m particularly concerned about those who smuggle guns into Canada. No matter one’s opinion on this specific bill, we should all agree that illegal firearms coming across the border are a problem. I believe we need stronger gun laws on smuggling, with criminal sentences that can serve as a deterrent. We need to invest in stronger border patrols to stop the flow of illegal handguns. As we know, Bill C-21 proposes to increase the maximum penalty from 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment for certain firearms-related offences, including smuggling and trafficking.

To my mind, that’s a good start, but I wonder if a four-year increase in the maximum sentence will be enough of a deterrent for those who are already smuggling guns into Canada. Is this increase in the maximum sentence — and I underscore that’s maximum, not minimum — enough of a deterrent to this behaviour and make a noticeable dent in the number of guns that smugglers bring into Canada? Frankly, I’m not convinced. Yet, as I understand it, the 14-year maximum sentence is the last stop before you get a life sentence. Perhaps it should be 14 years with no chance of parole without participating in a substantial rehabilitation program that results in a substantial turnaround and evaluation of being unlikely to reoffend.

Over the last couple of years, senators have debated the concept of mandatory minimum sentences. Bill C-5, which was passed last year by Parliament, removed mandatory minimum penalties for many criminal offences, but it did not remove minimum penalties for all firearms-related offences, such as the mandatory minimum punishments for certain offences where a restricted or prohibited firearm is used. Since then, further debate has risen over the impact of removing mandatory minimum penalties and its subsequent effect on crime. Should we reimpose mandatory minimum penalties for all gun crimes? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m not convinced that extending the maximum sentence for gun trafficking by a few years will help solve the problems we’re facing without an effective rehabilitation program that is audited for its implementation, execution and success rate.

The government has acknowledged that no one program or public initiative will solve the problem of gun violence by itself. To me, that’s both an accurate and reasonable argument. We won’t solve gun violence simply by banning automatic weapons or handguns. Some may argue that bans are a critical component of solving the issue, but I believe that bans alone will not solve the problem. We must address the socio-economic factors that lead to gun violence the same way we must address the mental health issues that, if left unaddressed, are likely to lead a person to violence.

We must also crack down on gangs. Gangs have been at the epicentre of gun violence in Canada for decades. The level of violence has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, but we’ve never quite managed to eliminate gangs despite the very best efforts of law enforcement, governments and society at large. We need to “double down.” Gang violence needs to be tackled with determination; otherwise we will continue to have to deal with the same issues plaguing our communities.

I’m pleased that the Minister of Public Safety announced in May that the federal government will spend $390 million over five years to help provinces crack down on gang violence. That’s a good start, but we need to be consistent on this issue over a long period if we want to make true progress.

I also want to touch on how Bill C-21 impacts Indigenous peoples. As with any bill we consider in this chamber, the rights of Indigenous nations and individuals must be respected. That means consulting with Indigenous peoples and ensuring their rights are respected. This is a sacred obligation, and one that I take very seriously.

We saw the controversy that arose a few months ago when the federal government introduced amendments to the bill at committee stage in the other place, and Indigenous organizations spoke out. I appreciate that Bill C-21 includes a provision which clarifies that nothing in the legislation abrogates or derogates from the rights of Indigenous peoples, but I believe the government should have done a much better job of conducting advance consultations with Indigenous leaders. The Assembly of First Nations even voted to publicly oppose the bill when the government introduced controversial amendments, and the Assembly of First Nations also expressed their concern that long guns traditionally used by their people were being targeted. I’m satisfied that the government withdrew those controversial amendments, but effective advance consultation earlier in the process would likely have been beneficial for all involved — they may have even discovered some alternative solutions that could have led to breakthrough policies.

I do want to share that I was struck by Senator Kutcher’s speech and his comments on the connection between firearms and suicide. It’s no secret that firearms are often used as the instrument of choice when a person chooses to end their life. That’s a sad reality we must contend with. Senator Kutcher noted in his speech that a recent study found that both men and women who own handguns were more likely to die of self-inflicted gunshots. Is Bill C-21 the answer to reducing incidents of gun‑related suicide in Canada? I cannot definitively answer that question, but I echo Senator Kutcher’s call to study this issue.

There is another concern I’d like to address. To the best of my knowledge, the federal government does not have a dedicated, anonymous phone line or online tip system that the public can use to confidentially report illegal gun ownership or to report gun owners exhibiting concerning behaviour. Of course, there are services such as Crime Stoppers that can be used, but a dedicated system for gun crimes or potential gun crimes would be helpful in this era of mass shootings. We have dedicated anonymous tip lines for reporting drunk driving, so why can’t we do the same for gun crimes? For me, this deserves consideration, and I wish a similar system could have been considered in the formulation of Bill C-21.

Colleagues, Bill C-21 has been the subject of much debate, not just here in Parliament but in the media and in the homes of gun owners and non-gun owners alike. That’s healthy, and a hallmark of our democracy. Unfortunately, the narrative surrounding this bill, and others like it, has, at times, led to deviation from the norms of a grounded democracy.

No matter their opinion, people feel strongly about firearms, and I understand why. I hope that, by providing some measured concerns with this bill, senators will be able to appreciate the challenges and possible alternatives for consideration with this legislation, and I hope I have provided some food for thought in that regard.

Firearms will always be controversial. We should debate the merits of gun laws in a fair, open and honest manner, with respect for dialogue in our democracy, no matter our individual positions or beliefs on this issue. I look forward to more debate to come. Thank you. Hiy kitatamihin.

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