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web posted June 19, 2000

Canadian Supreme court upholds federal gun control law

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the federal gun control law, rejecting a challenge mounted by the government of Alberta.

The decision comes barely four months after the court heard arguments on the subject - two months shorter than the average turnaround time. The Alberta government took the matter to court because it felt Ottawa was encroaching on provincial territory when it implemented the national system of gun licensing and registry.

The law, passed in Parliament in 1995, requires that every gun owner get a licence by the end of this year and register every firearm they own by Jan. 1, 2003.

Alberta lost its case in 1998 at the province's court of appeal in a 3-2 decision. The province appealed to the Supreme Court.

Alberta argued that regulating guns, which are private property, is an area of the law that should be within the purview of provinces, not the federal government. In short, the system was unconstitutional, it argued.

Its position was supported by Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories and the gun lobby.

The federal government says the Firearms Act was passed in the name of public safety and that it falls within its powers to legislate in the area of criminal law.

Even if the court rejected that argument, Ottawa said it could rely on its constitutional powers to legislate in any area relating to peace, order and good government.

Its position was bolstered by a number of gun-control advocates who cautioned against allowing the provinces to legislate a patchwork of different systems across the country.

The ruling comes amid reports the gun-control program is in trouble, with thousands of backlogged applications and millions of dollars in cost overruns.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan has admitted there have been some start-up troubles, but said the system will proceed as planned.

Provincial governments and gun owners are threatening rebellion over the ruling, however, with Alberta and Saskatchewan reacting angrily to the decision, saying they will not help implement or enforce the program.

"We will not enforce the Firearms Act in the province and we will leave that to the federal government," said Chris Axworthy, the Saskatchewan Justice Minister.

David Hancock, the Alberta Justice Minister, said he will not prosecute any registry-related issues under the law and provincial officials said the province also will not require hunters to produce a gun licence when they apply for hunting licences next year.

"There's no initiative whatsoever for the province requiring anyone in the future to produce a firearm licence as a prerequisite for obtaining a hunting licence," says Pat Dunford, an Environment Department official.

Michael Baker, the Nova Scotia Justice Minister, is among the thousands of Nova Scotia gun owners who have not yet registered their firearms.

"No, I haven't," Baker admitted yesterday. "Obviously, I'll have to re-examine that in light of recent developments."

Gun lobby groups posted scathing critiques of the Supreme Court on their Web sites and promised to flout the law by refusing to register their firearms.

McLellan said she was not concerned. "We have known that there are a number of provinces that are not going to administer the law, we know that so we're administering the law," she said outside the House of Commons. "If, in fact, we have to prosecute the law we will do that, too."

Bruce Hutton, of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., president of the 20,000-member Law-Abiding Unregistered Firearms Association, said he has no intention of registering his three firearms. "I'm going to jail first," said Hutton. "I am not a criminal and I refuse to have the government treat me like one."

Queen's Park rioters hurl molotov cocktails, bricks

Hundreds of anti-poverty activists, many armed with smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails, clashed with police in front of Ontario's legislature in Toronto on June 15.

What started as a peaceful march through the city's streets quickly became a violent, chaotic melee as protesters rushed the police barricades in an attempt to storm the legislature, prompting a swift and firm response as officers drove the mob back with truncheons and shields.

The protesters hurled rocks at officers and attacked police horses with wooden planks. Many of the group of about 500 came prepared, wearing gas masks and goggles.

Eighteen people were arrested, six at Queen's Park and a dozen more in the downtown core. Twenty-nine police officers were injured in the battle, but only one, who was struck in the face by a rock, was seriously hurt. Numerous protesters suffered cuts and bruises. Eight police horses were injured.

"This is very disappointing for a city that prides itself on its peaceful protests," said Loyall Cann, Toronto's acting chief of police.

"It's very unfortunate, a sad day for the city of Toronto."

Protesters from across the province, led by John Clarke, an organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, rallied at Allan Gardens early in the afternoon.

From there, demonstrators marched to Queen's Park, holding placards and chanting anti-government slogans.

The majority of the crowd was young. Many wore handkerchiefs over their faces and goggles and carried tin cans filled with marbles, which police say were used to make police horses stumble.

Bernie Munich, a student demonstrator, said the group had targeted Queen's Park because "these people are only interested in representing the wealthy."

Upon arriving, Clarke led a small delegation to the building's main entrance and demanded to address the legislature. Police told the diminutive British-born activist that if he and his group tried to enter, they would be arrested for trespassing. Clarke promptly returned to his followers and urged them forward.

"Put on the goggles," he shouted through a bullhorn as the mob surged toward the legislature.

Riot police moved in with steel barricades and officers on horses marshalled in a line. The protesters stormed the barricades and scuffles broke out as police beat them back with truncheons. Several pockets of demonstrators picked up sections of the barricades and rushed at the officers, while others flung them at the legs of the horses in an effort to make them rear.

Police began pushing the mob back toward the roadway and were showered with a hail of rocks and chunks of concrete, which they tried to deflect with their plexiglass shields. Several officers were struck and had to be helped back to safety.

Smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails were lobbed into the police ranks and firefighters had to put out several small blazes that had been lit as the mob retreated.

As horses charged through the demonstrators' line, scattering the crowd, several protesters whacked at the animals with two-by-fours and flung rocks and bottles at them.

Several more scuffles erupted and officers continued to use their clubs on the flailing protesters before handcuffing them and forcing them in the back of police vans. No pepper spray was used, police said, although officers were seen carrying canisters.

Clarke was unapologetic about the violence.

"I can well believe that some people would say that what just took place is ugly," he said.

But, "people are angry enough to rebel ... It's an inevitable product of social polarization."

More than 30 minutes after the protest started police had cleared the park, and while groups of stragglers continued to taunt police, calling them Nazis and fascists, the majority of the crowd marched away.

Small marauding pockets made their way through the downtown core, causing havoc along the way. One group tried to overturn a Volvo on Yonge Street, but police stepped in and made arrests.

Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal leader, also took a hard line on the protest: "I am appalled that the protestors came armed with rocks, eggs and a Molotov cocktail and with the intention of inciting the police who were there to keep order."

Gerrard Kennedy, a Liberal MPP, who along with several other politicians came out to observe the riot, was critical of the police action and said he saw officers using "an excessive amount of force."

"Obviously violence is used by the protesters and something has to be done, but we just witnessed a heavy, excessive use of violence on a very small woman that can't be justified," Kennedy said.

He was later rebuffed by Deputy Chief Cann, who said: "Quite frankly, I believe [the officers] exercised a tremendous amount of restraint given the circumstances."

He said police would be reviewing videotape of the riot when deciding whether or not to lay charges against Clarke or any of the other organizers.

Waco wrongful-death trial against government set to begin June 19

A $675 million lawsuit stemming from the deaths of some 80 Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in 1993 goes to trial June 19.

The defendant is the federal government, which says it was justified in using armed force to end a 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidians, a Christian apocalyptic sect.

The plaintiffs are about 100 family members of the sect members who died, among whom were sect leader David Koresh and 17 children. The families allege the government used excessive force throughout the standoff, which began on February 28, 1993 and ended on April 19, 1993.

The wrongful-death case, to be heard in a Waco federal court by U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, will once again focus attention on the government's actions during the 1993 raid and standoff that made headlines around the world and led to congressional inquiries. Though the government was cleared of wrongdoing, critics have insisted it went too far.

The wrongful-death trial revolves around five issues:

  • Did the BATF agents shoot indiscriminately into the compound on February 28?
  • Did the FBI start and spread the fire on April 19?
  • Did the FBI shoot into the compound?
  • Did the FBI prematurely demolish the compound?
  • Did the FBI prevent firefighters from reaching the compound in a timely fashion after the compound went up in flames?

A wrongful death claim is a civil action that occurs when someone is killed as a result of the negligence, recklessness or intentional act of another. Such lawsuits are usually brought by the victims' families.

The families are entitled to monetary damages as a result of the wrongful act. Damages may be assessed from the time of injury to death, including pain and suffering; and for death.

The trial is technically a non-jury trial, meaning only Smith has the power to decide the case.

But the judge has taken the fairly unusual step of calling for a jury to serve in an advisory capacity to help him sift through the evidence and make findings of fact, said Sol Wisenberg, a Washington attorney who has closely observed the case.

Judges have discretion to ask that such juries be seated. But in this case, Smith does not have to accept the jury's findings, said Wisenberg, a Texas prosecutor before he entered private practice.

Until 1946, when the Federal Tort Claims Act was passed, the government could not be sued because it has sovereign immunity, a doctrine that absolved actions that could be construed as wrong, he said.

The Tort Claims Act allows citizens to sue but specifies that trials against the government could not be decided by juries, Wisenberg said.

Come June 19, the attorneys on both sides will begin questioning people to sit on the advisory jury. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Wisenberg said the families' lead attorney, Michael Caddell, faces a difficult task in proving government culpability because of the so-called 'discretionary function' exception in the 1946 law. That exception says a government agent cannot be held liable for doing his or her duty.

"The government is going to say our agents, that's their job to decide whether to use force, how much force to use. That's going to be real tough to overcome," Wisenberg said.

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