Selling guns without mandatory checks on new owners [UPDATED]

There’s not much point prolonging the argument about the government’s determination to scrap the registry for rifles and shotguns.  But as Bill C-19, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Firearms Act, comes up this evening for a final vote in the House—its passage assured by the Conservative majority—Canadians on both sides of this bitter debate should consider the practical implications of the outcome.

One important matter is what will now happen when guns are bought and sold by individuals. After the gun registry’s introduction in 2003, any transfer of a gun’s ownership had to be approved by the federal firearms registrar, since the gun changing hands had to be registered by its new owner.

When the Tories shred the registry, of course, that obligation will disappear with it.

There will still, thankfully, be mandatory licencing of gun owners. So I had guessed that an individual selling a gun would, at least, have to make sure the buyer is duly licenced. When Bill C-19 was tabled last fall, I looked for this new mechanism, and was surprised to find that the legislation only stipulates the seller of a gun must have “no reason to believe” the buyer “is not authorized to acquire and possess that kind of firearm.”

Why such a weak obligation? Why not specify that the seller must make sure the buyer has a licence? I’ve asked the Public Safety department that question and I will post the answer when I get it. [UPDATED BELOW]

It’s not as if there isn’t an obvious way for a seller to check up on the buyer. After all, there will still be a federal firearms registrar.  Indeed, the new law says that a seller of a gun “may request” information from the registrar about whether the prospective buyer “holds and is still eligible to hold” a gun licence. Again, then, why not specify that the seller must request that verification?

It seems to me that leaving this up to the discretion of the seller is an obvious flaw. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews doesn’t see it that way. When I asked Toews about it at his news conference this morning, he said, “It is very clear that there is a legal prohibition against the individual from selling to firearm a person who is not licenced. So that it would be a criminal breach for the person to do that.”

To me, it seems clear only that I’d be prohibited from selling my rifle to a person I “have reason to believe” isn’t authorized to buy. But how exactly would I have reason to believe one way or the other? It’s not as if I’m obligated to call the registrar and ask.

Toews also said, in exasperated tones, that getting rid of the registry will not make any difference at all when it comes to buying and selling guns. His words: “I think many people forget that the registry has nothing to do with the licencing and the transfer of firearms from a licenced owner to another licenced owner.”

Actually, the registry fundamentally changed the process of transferring guns between licenced owners. Licencing includes no mechanism under which the federal authorities must be alerted to the private sale of a gun. Their approval became a requirement only when every firearm required a separate registration certificate, valid only for a given owner, and thus a new certificate had to be issued when any gun was sold.

That’s not to say licencing has not been a key part of the buying and selling of registered guns. It’s the licencing of owners—not the registering of weapons—that involves the most background checks. And the licence is revoked when a court finds a gun owner to be a public safety risk. But it was the moment of registration that brought the seller and buyer into contact with the registrar, who would then check to see if the buyer’s licence status had changed.

A final, broader observation here. The licencing of gun owners is the more useful and, frankly, intrusive part of federal gun-control regulations. It has always seemed to me nonsensical for the Conservatives to argue that forcing honest duck hunters and farmers to register their guns is a grievous affront, but requiring them to get an owner’s licence is entirely benign.

In fact, licencing and registration regulations are closely related and grew from the same public policy concerns, albeit decades apart. When it came to the buying and selling of guns, at least, they made sense together. I don’t see what principle is served by eliminating one while leaving the other in place. I only see a system made less effective.


On my question about why sellers aren’t simply required to check on the prospective buyer’s licence with the firearms registrar, I received an emailed answer from the media relations officers at the Public Safety department.

It begins: “This government remains committed to reducing the administrative burdens for law abiding gun owners.” So I take it that the first and cardinal reason for not making it mandatory for sellers to check up on buyers  is merely to make transferring the gun easier.

The answer goes on to note that a seller might “physically inspect” the buyer’s licence or might “have personal knowledge” of the buyer’s licence status. Well, sure. But I think anybody can see that it would be better to check the system to be certain. Just in case the guy’s been in court lately or something.

Indeed, the department reminds me that the seller, when in doubt, is supposed to pick up the phone and verify the buyer’s licence with the RCMP Canadian Firearms Program: “Bill C-19 ensures that the transferor has a legal right to request and receive that information.”

That’s a good thing. So I ask again, Why not make that check mandatory? Oh, wait—my note from Public Safety reasserts the government’s reasoning: “We do not support additional burdens placed up law abiding, licenced gun owners.”

It’s not very persuasive. I find it hard to believe even most opponents of the gun registry would very vigorously object to being asked to pick up the phone and make a simple inquiry before they go to sell a gun.