Don’t go overly broad on gun control amendments

  • January 30, 2023

The Criminal Justice Section of the Canadian Bar Association supports gun control generally, as well as the objectives of Bill C-21. But as it explains in a letter to the Chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, there are reasons certain elements of An Act to amend certain Acts and to make certain consequential amendments (firearms) should be redrafted to better achieve those objectives.

Ex parte applications

Among those we find amendments that would allow “any person” to make an ex parte application for an emergency weapons prohibition order. This application could be anonymous, the hearing could be private and there would be no opportunity for the subject of the application to be heard in court.

Currently police officers can seek a warrant to seize firearms under specific circumstances. The law also allows police to seize firearms without a warrant when obtaining it is impractical or when someone fails to show license or authorization. Such a seizure means an automatic revocation of licenses and authorizations, but it does not mean a prohibition, not until the person has had the opportunity to be heard in court.

The Section believes the proposed amendments included in Bill C-21 “pose a threat to public safety and a disproportionate risk to marginalized groups,” adding that the current law contains sufficient powers to accomplish the goal of seizing weapons believed to have been used in a crime or removing them from the hands of persons who are believed to be a danger to themselves or to others.

SWATting and other concerns

The Section is concerned that Bill C-21 would not prevent anyone from sending police to someone else’s address under false pretenses, a practice commonly known as SWATting, claiming there are weapons at the location. “Warrant executions involving firearms typically are tense, high risk, and involve police attending a residence en masse while heavily armed,” the letter explains. “These provisions can be used unscrupulously as a weapon by aggrieved persons.”

This is not a theoretical example, as we saw recently in London, Ontario, when a transgendered social media performer was subject to this very tactic, as was reported in the media. “Someone impersonated her online and emailed threats and a picture of a gun to city councillors in London, Ontario. Police responded by attending her doorstep while heavily armed and arresting her at gunpoint,” the submission reads.

Among other issues arising from secret complaints, the Section notes the potentially catastrophic consequences of a false criminal accusation. Those include potential incarceration, loss of employment and a criminal record. “The subject of the complaint is prevented from knowing who the applicant is and therefore from marshalling a defence. This is especially so when a false accusation is made because of personal animosity, or by individuals who are members of racist or hate groups,” the letter states. Members of such hate or racist groups would be protected from investigation, which could only lead to more abuse.

Indigenous rights

As well, the provisions as drafted do not consider the hunting rights of Indigenous individuals who may be the subject of an ex parte application.

The CBA Section recommends removing the reference to “any person” making ex parte applications. Instead, the bill should allow any person to make a complaint to the police, for the latter to investigate and potentially make the application for a firearms prohibition order when appropriate. As well, it “recommends that the traditional hunting rights of Indigenous peoples and the background of proposed subjects of emergency firearms prohibition orders be considered a factor in a s. 110.1 hearing.”

Other issues

Proposed changes to the Firearms Act would deem anyone who is or has been the subject of a protection order from being eligible to hold a firearms license. These orders include restraining orders, emergency protection orders and peace bonds. While the CBA Section supports the goal of protecting victims of domestic violence, it considers those proposed amendments too broad. “The wording in s. 6.1 is rigid and would see many Canadians lose their firearms licenses without considering the context of a past protection order or offering an opportunity to review their ineligibility,” the letter summarizes.

And finally, Bill C-21 would make it an offense to advertise a firearm in a manner that “depicts, counsels of promotes violence against a person.” The Section points out the proposed text is too strict and might make it a crime to advertise “a lawful use for a firearm, such as self-defense, or by referencing a firearm’s history.” The text should include exceptions to allow less restrictive advertising of firearms to the film industry, to the military and the police.”