The Untold story of Canada's Longest Serving Firearms Organization
“I would dearly love to defeat stupid gun control laws, close down the NFA, and go shooting. But it isn’t gonna happen because the gun-grabbers never rest. They don’t go away, they’re always regrouping and they're always working on the next thing to take.”
Those are the words of Sheldon Clare, the current president, longtime member and supporter of Canada’s premiere firearms rights organization - the National Firearms Association.
The National Firearms Association (NFA) was founded in Ottawa, Ontario in 1978. The product of merger between various firearms advocacy groups scattered across Canada, the NFA came into being during a time of increasing public support for gun control measures. While strictly Canadian in nature, the cultural milieu which sparked the formation of the NFA was heavily influenced by American events, including several high profile assassinations the University of Texas clock tower shooting, and the Vietnam War.
NFA President and founder Bill Jones, formerly of the Firearms and Responsible Owners Group (FARO), described the lackadaisical attitude of firearms owners at the time as a key reason for formation of the NFA.
“At the time most firearms owners attempted to stay out of sight, which in my view was the wrong approach… The NFA was formed after a raucous meeting of perhaps some 20 members of various groups from across the country and, as humans so often do, they generally agreed to disagree -- personality clashes I attributed it to -- and I decided it was simply not going to work the way it was. Someone suggested we try to agree on an all-inclusive name and the NFA appeared to be the winner. Once that was accomplished, I registered the name and the NFA was officially recognized as the Gun Lobby.”
The fight against Bill C-51 was of primary importance for many NFA members in the early days of the organization, including: Major R. A. Laycock of Calgary, an Alberta columnist for Gunrunner periodical who had been involved in firearms politics for some time; George Miller of Ontario, collector and firearms enthusiast Clive Law; and gun writer and collector David A Tomlinson of Edmonton, Alberta. These individuals formed the core of the NFA in the early days.
Bill C-51 was a major piece of firearms legislation in Canada’s history, as it created the Firearms Acquisition Certificate and divided firearms into the three categories of Prohibited, Restricted, and Non-Restricted that we still use today. The major burr in the saddle for early NFA members in regards to Bill C-51 was the portion of the bill that took aim at machine gun ownership. However, despite the organization's best efforts, Bill C-51 came into effect in 1978.
Being the dominant force behind the organization’s fight against Bill C-51 took its toll on Jones, especially financially. “I had gone broke by then because I was using my own money for travel to debates from coast to coast and had sold my three farms to maintain some semblance of a nation-wide organization I simply could not continue,” Jones explained. “Thankfully, the organization continued and morphed into what we have today, much to my pride.”
With Jones stepping aside, and the fight against Bill C-51 lost, the NFA became dormant for a few years, until reconstituted by Tomlinson and Laycock in 1984. The NFA spent the next twenty years fighting against other gun control measures put forth by both the PC and Liberal governments. Provincial NFA Branches and other groups formed across the country and the membership grew at a slow but steady pace.
However, in 1989, the situation changed drastically with the introduction of the Mulroney government’s Bill C-80, which served to galvanize the firearms rights community and rapidly boost the profile and stature of the NFA.
In the wake of the deadly École Polytechnique Tragedy, the PC government brought forward a series of harsh gun control measures, spearheaded by the Justice Minister Kim Campbell. However, due to substantial opposition from the NFA, provincial hunting and some national shooting groups, and many MP’s (including Campbell’s fellow PC MP’s), the bill failed.
This was not the end of the PC’s push for gun control. Just one year later, the PCs brought forward and ultimately passed into law, Bill C-17. Bill C-17 was a very impactful piece of firearms legislation as it beefed up licensing requirements, imposed a mandatory 28 day waiting period for purchasing a Firearms Acquisition Certificate, and outlawed many various types of military and high-power and high-capacity firearms. The legislation was deeply unpopular amongst the firearms community and even amongst the general conservative voting base and was one of the factors that led to PC’s collapse, under then Prime Minister Kim Campbell, in 1993.
All this, however, did not mean the end of the NFA’s mission or the end of further efforts from the federal government to control firearms usage in Canada. On the contrary - the new Liberal government introduced Bill C-68 in 1995, which created the Firearms Act and in effect, an entire firearms related bureaucracy to go along with it. In addition to growing the scope of government to further regulate firearms, amongst many other things, the bill also mandated that you needed to have a firearms license to possess and acquire firearms, and to buy ammunition, and created the requirement that all firearms, including shotguns and rifles, had to now be registered with the government. Handguns were already required to be registered since 1935.
The vast potential impact of Bill C-68 served to further stimulate the burgeoning firearms rights movement in Canada with groups like the NFA and the CSSA (Canadian Sport Shooting Association, formerly the Ontario Handgun Association) leading the charge against the overbearing legislation. The movement gained steam and resulted in a number of rallies across the country, with the largest one drawing 30,000 people to Ottawa united under the rally banner of ‘Fed Up’. Once again, however, despite the increased public opposition to the bill from thousands of Canadians, the Liberal government, ruling with a comfortable and largely unchallenged majority, pushed ahead with the legislation and passed it into law.
In the years following the arrival of Bill C-68, the membership of the NFA continued to grow as successive Liberal governments implemented more and more restrictions on law-abiding firearms owners, all in the name of public safety and the greater good. Slowly but surely, over time, the concerns of many, including former NFA president David Tomlinson, former MP Gary Breitkreuz and his assistant Dennis Young, were sadly realized, as the cost of implementing the new regulations ballooned and the calls for further disarmament went on unabated.
While Tomlinson and the NFA took the lead in the charge against Bill C-68 on the public relations and lobbying side of things, and Breitkreuz fought against the legislation in Parliament, it was the largely unheralded work of Dennis Young that provided a lot of the ammunition the firearms community needed to fight against this latest piece of intrusive legislation.
In a recent episode of NFA Talks, which commemorated Young in light of his death earlier this year, Christopher Di Armani, a Canadian author and longtime firearms advocate, noted the impressive impact Young’s work had saying “He’s been around for decades and decades and is probably the single guy that is most responsible for getting rid of the long gun registry.”
Thanks to Young’s countless hours of research and a multitude of ATIP (Access To Information & Privacy) requests, the massive cost of the long gun registry was eventually revealed. The program, estimated to cost only a net amount of 2 million dollars, due to the revenue from licensing. However, a 2002 audit, driven in large part by the aforementioned firearms advocates, revealed that the program cost had ballooned to over a billion dollars.
This information in turn provided the Conservative government of Stephen Harper with the political capital to introduce four separate pieces of legislation to end the long gun registry, with the fourth one finally receiving royal assent and coming into effect in 2012. The now defunct registry ended up costing Canadian taxpayers over two billion dollars by the time it was ended and did nothing to help the cause of public safety, as noted by academics such as Dr. Gary Mauser.
During this period of time in the early 2000s, the NFA underwent many changes and gradually, after some rough stretches in the earlier part of the decade, transformed into a modern and far more organized political lobbying organization. In 2001, Tomlinson stepped down and was replaced by Jim Hinter, who led the organization until he left the organization in 2005. It was a turbulent time for the organization, as allegations of fraud and criminality against Hinter were raised. Tomlinson came back and with the help of several others, righted the ship and stayed on as President until his death in 2008. A lifelong firearms advocate, Tomlinson spent his dying days in the hospital, still helping Canadians with their respective legal problems arising from poor firearms legislation.
Following Tomlinson's death, NFA Vice President Blair Hagen was elected as President and served in that role for two years, until the current NFA President, former BC Branch President and Director Sheldon Clare, was elected in 2010. This next generation of NFA leadership, including National Vice President Sean Penney, Treasurer Henry Atkinson, Ontario Director Bill Rantz, BC Branch President Sheldon Clare, and others, set out to improve the organizational structure and further professionalize the organization. A new set of bylaws were drafted and adopted by the NFA membership in 2010.
Specifically, under the leadership of Atkinson in his role as treasurer, office processes were standardized, administrative staff hires were made, a marketing budget was developed, and annual financial reviews were implemented. Building off of Atkinson’s work, Rantz, who would later replace Atkinson as treasurer, further improved financial control by instituting full audits and overseeing an increasingly large budget.
Also of note during this time period was the NFA’s effort to clarify its goals as an organization. The organization recommitted itself to attacking the heart of Canadian gun control - the firearms licensing requirement and the subsequent registration and classification systems. In particular, the two pieces of legislation they aimed to fight against and repeal were Bill C-17 and Bill C-68, as these pieces of legislation have had damaging and long lasting impacts on the rights, freedoms, and wallets of law abiding Canadian firearms owners.
This attitude of no compromise helped spur the NFA on to greater heights in the 2010’s, as organizations membership and stature continued to grow. Along with the increased membership came a larger bank account and the ability to hire a full time lobbyist. Things were looking up for the NFA - in addition to their presence in Ottawa, they were also branching out into the global firearms community, becoming active in the World Forum on Shooting Activities (WFSA) and forming a presence as a stand alone NGO at the UN, representing Canadian firearms owners in talks about international gun control efforts.
However, as is often the case when newly acquired money and power are involved, conflict broke out amongst the leadership group at the NFA. While much could be written detailing the story from perspective of all those involved, for the sake of brevity in this medium, I will simply summarize the results of this infighting. The lobbyist, Shawn Bevins, was terminated in 2015, and a new offshoot firearms group named the CCFR (Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights) was formed by some disaffected NFA members.
The key difference between the two organizations is really a philosophical one. As mentioned, the NFA maintains a no compromise position and seeks the repeal of the federal licensing or registration requirements, along with a significant review of all Canadian firearms legislation. The CCFR on the other hand, embraces a compromise position, supporting a licensing structure, but still pushes back against registration(?). Whereas the NFA has positioned itself as the staunch and uncompromising defender of the rights of firearms owners, the CCFR aims to improve the standing of Canadian firearms owners by focusing on public education and trying to win over support for ‘common sense’ firearms laws, without any indication of what those might be. .
The NFA leadership carried on after the split and hired well known Conservative Party insider Fred DeLorey as their new lobbyist in Ottawa in 2016 to help repair relationships and increase the influence of the NFA. DeLorey performed well in the role, opening many new doors for the organization and helped to substantially re-establish the NFA’s credibility in Ottawa. After DeLorey’s departure in 2019 to work on the Conservative leadership campaign, he was replaced by the current NFA lobbyist and former NFA Ontario Director Charles Zach. To date, the NFA maintains its position as the premiere firearms rights advocacy group in Ottawa, when measured by the sheer amount of lobbying meetings they have arranged, as well as significant results in matters such as the rewrite of the Explosives Act, major court actions, and in publicly challenging bad gun laws - both domestically and at the United Nations.
Lobbying is not the only thing the NFA spends its time and money on however. The organization is involved in a bevy of firearms related activities including providing educational position papers on the latest firearms legislation, sponsoring shooting sports athletes who represent Canada in international sporting events - including the Olympic games; representing Canadian firearms owners at the UN; building relationships with the international firearms community through organizations like the aforementioned WFSA, and the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights (IAPCAR); and offering a $5 million liability insurance program for members and clubs who purchase it.
One other major strength of the organization is its ability to fight for the rights of Canadian firearms owners in court. Notable past cases include Anderson v. Canada, 1992; R. v. Nur, 2008; R. v. Henderson, 2009; R. v. Barnes, 2011; Quebec v. Canada, 2015; NFA v. Procurere Generale du Quebec, 2019; and R. v. Cancade, among others.
Currently, the NFA is supporting Cassandra Premack (formerly Parker), the owner of the firearms store KKS Tactical in Prince George, B.C., in her fight against the Trudeau’s government’s Order in Council (OiC), which banned over 1500 types of firearms. If her court case is successful, it will be a major blow to Trudeau's efforts to control and ban firearms. It would also be a major win for Canadian taxpayers, as Trudeau's OiC is likely to follow in footsteps of the ill fated Liberal long gun registry and become, as the Fraser Institute estimates, a “billion dollar boondoggle.”
Given the current sad state of affairs for Canadian firearms owners, who have been under attack from the Trudeau government for the last 5 years, it appears that the NFA will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future, as the need for reliable and effective political advocacy on behalf of firearms owners seems to increase every year. This growing need is evidenced by the fact that membership in the NFA has increased by 62% in the last decade, growing from approximately 45,000 in 2010 to around 72,000 in 2020. This membership, and the vast network of volunteers embedded within it, is really the NFA’s secret sauce.
When asked where he sees the NFA in 10 years, Clare noted that thanks to the fact that more and more Canadians are starting to realize just how much the government is overstepping its boundaries and trampling on its citizens freedoms, he predicts that by 2030 the NFA have “a new board of directors, new energy, new focus, and a much larger organization.”
For the sake of the freedoms that many Canadians hold so dear, let’s hope he’s right.