The Harper Government May Have Bullied a Pro-Gun Group into Dropping its C-51 Criticism

The National Firearms Association suddenly pulled out of a hearing on the Conservatives' new anti-terror bill, which they were expected to slam.

Justin Ling

Justin Ling

Photo via Flickr user Stephen Z

Canada's foremost pro-gun lobby group backed down from criticizing the Harper government's anti-terrorism legislation out of concerns that the Conservatives would screw them over on changes to new gun laws, VICE has learned.

The National Firearms Association (NFA) was scheduled to testify on Monday night before the Public Safety committee alongside OpenMedia, its partner in the Protect Our Privacy Coalition.

But Sheldon Clare, the NFA's President and CEO, pulled out just three days before he was scheduled to testify.

According to emails provided to VICE, Clare withdrew after pressure from the Conservatives over a different piece of legislation—Bill C-42.

That bill aimed to lessen paperwork for gun owners and to allow them to transport weapons more easily. Gun advocates called it "tinkering."

The NFA proposed a whole suite of amendments to the legislation. They want the bill to go much broader, and asked that the Conservatives to re-craft the bill to remove barrel length restrictions that determine whether a weapon will be restricted, axe storage and transportation regulations, and generally reduce policing for lawful gun owners.

But, at present, it does not even seem a much milder version of the bill will have much of a future. Originally slated for debate on October 22—when Michel Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire on Parliament—the legislation has been shelved, with no clear sign of when it will come back.

Yet given that there are only nine weeks left for Parliament to debate and vote on bills before the summer break—which will be followed immediately by an election—it means that it's now or never for the legislation. If Stephen Harper is replaced in next October's election, there's a better chance that gun owners will see laws around their ability to possess guns tighten, not loosen.

It's with that deadline for action firmly in mind that the NFA backed out of the committee hearing.

In the emails shown to VICE, the NFA specifically cited C-42 as a reason for the withdrawal, and tacitly acknowledged that pressure had been applied by the Prime Minister's Office. In the emails, a representative from the NFA suggested a replacement for Clare who would also oppose the legislation.

The emails were provided by a source who wished not to be identified, as they were not in a place to comment on the NFA's decision.

VICE spent much of Monday trying to reach Clare or a spokesperson, to no avail. Clare finally answered on Wednesday afternoon.

Initially, Clare said that the NFA never had any intention of testifying. When asked about the emails, Clare responded that he's said all he's going to say on the matter, adding that they've already commented on the bill.

Clare had previously told the Ottawa Citizen that C-51 has the trappings of a "creeping police state bill." Other than that, the NFA has made no public comment on the legislation.

VICE has asked spokespersons for both the public safety minister and the Prime Minister's Office for comment about the matter. Both refuted the story, but would not offer further comment.

When asked about their partner's decision to step down, OpenMedia Executive Director Steve Anderson told VICE in an email that "it's a pity the National Firearms Association withdrew from participating in the Bill C-51 committee hearing. We know that gun owners see C-51 as the long gun registry on steroids."

He said the government allegedly pressuring gun owners to muzzle themselves over C-51 is "very troubling and frankly disappointing.

"The government should come clean on what exactly happened here," Anderson said.

The committee hearings have not, thus far, been kind to C-51. Anderson, when he testified, brought a petition signed by over 100,000 Canadians, opposing C-51. He testified alongside the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (who called parts of the bill "shocking") and a founder of conservative political website FreeDominion, who replaced the NFA on the panel. (They called it "broad and vaguely worded.")

First Nations activist and Ryerson University professor Pamela Palmater, who testified to already being targeted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP, said C-51 will exacerbate the problem. Former Supreme Court Justice John Major said the bill is devoid of proper oversight without the creation of new powers to examine how CSIS' new powers will be used.

Perhaps the most withering criticism of the bill came from former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who has long been an advocate for increased oversight of Canada's spy bodies.

"Attempts to keep Canadians safe, the number one job of any government, should not include provisions that make us resemble those we are struggling to defeat," Segal told the committee.

Anderson says the fact that opposition to the bill has expanded past the usual suspects and into the general public and even the conservative camp, has worried the government:

"It appears that the government is panicking because public opinion has so decisively turned against them."

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