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From hunter to criminal

Gun owners have until Jan. 1 to register their firearms or face the consequences. Unfortunately, the NWT has no firearms office, the company that offered training in Yellowknife has stopped offering the course, and many people continue to question the effectiveness of the gun registration program.

Mike W. Bryan
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 14/02) - Jonas Sangris remembers some advice he received from his father one time before heading out onto the land.

"If you go hunting, this gun here is better than your dad," Sangris, a resident of Dettah, recalls his father saying.

NNSL Photo

For many aboriginal communities, hunting and the use of firearms are an integral part of life. Last fall, Joanne Tetlichi was cutting freshly killed moose meat on her kitchen floor in Fort McPherson. The moose was the first one shot by her son P.J. Robert, 13. - NNSL file photo

NNSL Photo

Registration Requirements

-- Gun owners can register their firearms through the mail or online.

-- Owners who wish to register by mail must call the Canadian Firearms Centre hotline 1-800-731-4000 to obtain a personalized application package for an $18 fee, which includes all firearms.

-- Registering online is free at www.cfc-ccaf.gc.ca, but is only available until Jan.1, 2003.

-- Applicants must have a valid possession and acquisition licence (PAL) in order to possess and register firearms.

Did you know?

-- The number of firearms in Canada, as estimated by the federal government: 7.9 million (40,000 in NWT)

-- The number of gun owners in Canada: 2.3 million (18,000 in NWT). Type of firearm: rifle, 74 per cent; shotgun, 71 per cent; handgun, 11 per cent; other, 1 per cent

"If I'm with you, and we don't have a gun, how am I going to protect you? Here's the gun, take it. If you see animals, grizzlies, anything, this gun will help you survive."

The conversation turns to the current gun control laws, a thorny issue in the North.

There are approximately 18,000 gun owners in the NWT, and about 40,000 guns. As of Jan. 1, all guns must be registered or their owners risk becoming criminals.

According to the Firearms Act, which passed into law in 1995, the maximum penalty for "inadvertently" forgetting to register hunting rifles is a $2,000 fine and/or six months in jail. A more serious charge of possessing a firearm without a licence or registration could net an offender five years in jail.

The Canadian Firearms Centre, in charge of registering and licensing gun owners, couldn't provide any numbers on how many NWT residents have registered their guns or how many there are yet to go.

Sangris applied for his licence and registration for his numerous firearms well in advance. His experience was relatively hassle-free, but still, he has serious reservations about how the federal government chose to implement the gun law.

For one, a concession made by the federal government appears nonetheless to smack in the face of aboriginal rights guaranteed under the 103-year-old Treaty 8.

Under the treaty, every cardholder is entitled to an annual box of rifle shells, but without gun registration, and a possession and acquisition licence, it would be illegal to use them.

"Now, another thing you can't do is pass your gun on to your children," says Sangris. "My dad gave me his gun. I still have it."

In order for Sangris to legally pass his guns on to his children they would need a licence too. They would also need to re-register them, but Sangris thinks many young people are simply too frustrated by the new gun laws to bother.

"I don't think the younger people go out (onto the land) any more," says Sangris. "There are so many regulations.

"The government makes it hard on everybody, not only for aboriginals, but non-natives too. People in the North shouldn't have to do those sort of things."

Offices have closed

Many gun owners in the North feel the federal government has abandoned them at a most inopportune time.

Last month, the Canadian Firearms Centre closed both its Hay River and Yellowknife offices. NWT residents now have to register their guns online or by phone. A spokesperson said the offices were closed because of staff shortages. They are currently searching for someone to staff the Yellowknife office.

Yellowknife Shooting Club president Barry Taylor says he believes the federal government is trying to wash its hands of the program because it was no longer viewed as a political liability to do so.

Polls suggest more than two-thirds of Canadians -- mainly urban non-gun owners from the South -- support the gun law.

Taylor says as long as the program is not scrapped all together, and a skeleton crew kept to maintain it, the government will survive any backlash they receive from voters.

"The focus is over," says Taylor.

"It got high enough that then they got embarrassed by the cost (estimated to be as high as $1 billion so far). Then they had to cut staff and services. It's not unusual to phone the 800-number and be told you have a four-hour wait."

A News/North reporter phoned the centre's service line -- 1-800-731-4000 -- and was told by an automated voice that the estimated waiting time was seven minutes.

Eighteen minutes later, an agent answered and said she would have to transfer the call to the NWT Chief Firearms Officer. A recording said the office representing British Columbia and the Yukon had been reached.

Two days later, a message left by the reporter asking to return the call had not been acknowledged. The reporter did not identify himself as a member of the press.

What's most troubling at this critical point in time, says Taylor, is all the confusion surrounding the program. Gun owners don't know where to turn. Residents interested in acquiring a licence don't know who to call.

The media blitz through TV, radio and newspaper ads in the follow up to the Jan. 1 deadline this year for licensing has slowed to a trickle now that the gun registration deadline is near.

Now, in order to just get a licence, a resident must either pass a gun safety course or challenge that requirement before making an application.

Training questions

News/North asked Firearms Centre spokesperson Don LaBelle how many course instructors there are in the NWT, and where could they be found.

He said he didn't know, but somebody in a small little hamlet would likely have to find a larger community offering the course.

"That's the way it is now, even in Alberta. These small little towns in Alberta, they have to go to Medicine Hat or Lethbridge or somewhere to get it done."

Taylor laughs at such a proposition.

"Look at the guy sitting in Grise Fiord," says Taylor.

"Even if he just has to go to Resolute, which is the next closest, that's a $600 airfare."

Currently, no one is offering the course in Yellowknife. SECURECheck conducted one for a fee of $75 until Sept. 30, but they're not doing it any more.

"The firearms office here in Yellowknife had come to us and asked if we'd be willing to take it over because they're not mandated to do it," says SECURECheck manager/owner Peggy Near.

"We said we'd try it, but it was just taking more time and effort than we were prepared to give. We weren't even breaking even on these courses."

In Inuvik, Randy Phillips, a licensed instructor, teaches a three-day Canadian Firearms Safety Course.

More paperwork

But Dale Johnston, owner of Wolverine Sports Shop in Yellowknife, says gun sales are down 60 per cent since the Firearms Act went into law in 1998. The paperwork only adds to his troubles.

"Honestly, it is quite horrendous the paperwork that has been generated," says Johnston. "I've got, literally, boxes and boxes of paper."

Of course, the inconvenience was to be expected, for both the gun owner and retailer. But what about the true intention of the law?

The government hopes it will curb violence, increase safety awareness and make it easier to track guns, but Taylor finds it difficult to see how the government's intent can be realized.

Most gun owners support the gun safety program, says Taylor, but finding instructors is difficult.

The Firearms Act will centralize the gun registry, but with 728,046 registered guns missing serial numbers -- according to the government's own records -- and a host of other problems, including duplicate registrations and serial numbers, and an overall malaise within the Canadian Firearms Centre, Taylor doubts it will be effective.

As for curbing violence, he doesn't believe the act will be able to do that either.

"How do you stop someone from breaking into someone's home, stealing a gun and going out and shooting people," says Taylor.

"It's a standard problem with government.

"You can't pass a law and expect everyone's going to be intimidated and obey it. If that was so, drugs are banned in Canada, how come that doesn't work?"