OTTAWA - The Conservative government refunded nearly $21 million in licence fees to more than 340,000 rifle and shotgun owners in 2006, the Tories' first year in power after years of railing in opposition against the national long-gun registry.
The latest report by the federal firearms commissioner, made public Tuesday, also estimated that some 76,000 gun enthusiasts failed to renew licences that ran out during 2006.
That meant, by year-end, that the holders of those expired licences were deemed - at least according to the letter of the law - to be illegally in possession of roughly 234,000 weapons.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day announced in May 2006 that the Tories would waive the fees for licence applicants for the next two years and would also grant a one-year amnesty to owners of unregistered rifles and shotguns.
The amnesty, which essentially protects people from criminal prosecution for violating the law, was renewed in 2007 and the government has served notice it will be extended again this year.
The Conservatives have also transferred the Canada Firearms Centre, which had been a stand-alone regulatory agency, to the RCMP in an effort to save on administration costs.
In addition, they have introduced legislation - but never brought it to a vote in Parliament - to formally abolish the long-gun registry, which has been unpopular among farmers, hunters and sport shooters ever since it was put in place by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien in the 1990s.
The federal auditor general has estimated that the registry, which was supposed to be self-financing, ran up cost overruns of nearly $1 billion in its first decade in operation.
The fee waivers and amnesty introduced by Day were officially billed as an effort to encourage non-compliant gun owners to sign up and obey the law.
But gun-control advocates say the Tories, lacking the votes in a minority Parliament to legislate an end to the registry, are trying instead to cripple it through back-door administrative and budgetary moves.
The commissioner's report says the government issued refund cheques totalling $20.8 million in 2006 to 345,737 gun owners who had already paid for new licences or for renewals of old ones before Day instituted his policy of fee waivers.
There were a total of 1.9 million licensed gun owners in the country at year-end. The registered weapons in their possession added up to about 7.1 million, the vast majority classified as long guns - essentially rifles and shotguns.
Although the Tories have eased the rules for those weapons they have vowed to maintain tough controls on handguns.