Minister grilled over gun registry report

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan attempted to undermine a report to Parliament on the federal gun registry Thursday — calling into question the agenda of its authors after refusing to make the report public before a crucial parliamentary vote.

OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan attempted to undermine a report to Parliament on the federal gun registry Thursday — calling into question the agenda of its authors after refusing to make the report public before a crucial parliamentary vote.

The 2008 annual assessment of the Canadian Firearms Program by the RCMP will be released Friday, said Van Loan, 48 hours after the Conservatives won a vote in the House of Commons on legislation that would kill the federal long-gun registry.

Under intense questioning, the minister refused to say how long he’s had the report.

Instead, Van Loan claimed to have new statistics — not included in the report — that show the long-gun portion of the registry is relatively seldom used by police.

By Van Loan’s account, only 2.4 per cent of the 3.5 million police checks of the registry last year were specific to long guns, although even that slim proportion would amount to more than 80,000 long-gun checks.

He questioned why those numbers won’t be in the annual report tabled Friday.

“That information was not put there by the people at the National Firearms Registry so you should ask them why that information wasn’t there,” said Van Loan. “We’ve gone and got that information.”

He said the report was prepared “to justify the existence” of the firearms centre, and suggested parliamentarians really don’t need to read it because it shows the same thing as previous years.

“We had the report last year revealed the same trend. The year before revealed the same trend. The year before revealed the same trend. There’s no new information in that. What we know is the same thing.”

Those trends suggest the registry system — after an exceedingly rough start-up that cost almost $1 billion and was excoriated by the auditor general — may be finding its feet.

A brief RCMP synopsis of the program, contained in thousands of pages of parliamentary performance reports tabled Wednesday, said police use of the registry jumped 25 per cent last year, well above the expected 10 per cent increase.

Police groups continue to praise the registry as an effective tool in their crime-fighting arsenal, but opponents say it targets otherwise law-abiding citizens while useless against criminals who will never register their weapons anyway.

The Conservatives mounted a targeted campaign to exert pressure on individual opposition MPs, particularly in rural ridings, over the long-run registry. The effort paid off when a total of 12 NDP and eight Liberal MPs joined the government in an ostensibly “free vote” on a Conservative backbencher’s private member’s bill.

With all 143 Conservatives in the Commons voting to repeal the gun registry, the bill received approval in principle from a majority of MPs, sending it to the next stage of the legislative process.

NDP Leader Jack Layton called the debate “a real test of democracy here right now because you’ve got a majority of members in the House of Commons who’ve sent a bill to the committee. These people were elected by Canadians.

“There’s obviously some kind of a problem here,” said Layton. “And what we’re going to try to do is to try to get to the bottom of those problems so that the registry can be maintained.”

Layton said decriminalizing the registry, as suggested by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, isn’t his preferred position. But he signalled a willingness to consider the idea.

“If we’re going to make this registry work, we’re going to have to build some bridges . . . So I think we have to put all the possibilities on the table.”

Liberal MP Bob Rae said the time for possible registry reforms is later. His immediate priority is reversing Wednesday’s parliamentary vote.

“For me, right now, the battle is to stop this bill from being successful,” said the Toronto MP.

“I hope this bill loses in committee and loses on third reading. I hope it loses in the Senate. I hope it loses somewhere.”

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