Opponents of Quebec’s long-gun registry protest in Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle in Montreal, on Saturday, February 16, 2019. ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

“What do we say to the gun registry?” a man yells through a bullhorn as he stands on a snow-encrusted, bronze fountain created by artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. “No!” answers the crowd of about 200 people gathered in the square outside the Palais des congrès in Old Montreal, most of them wearing bright orange safety vests, some snugly fitted over camouflage jackets. Next question: “What do we say to mental health?” “Yes!” is the answer.

The event on Saturday morning, timed to coincide with the Montreal Outdoor, Hunting, Fishing and Camping Show at the convention centre, was organized by a group calling itself Contre le registre! Pour la santé mentale.

“The (long-gun) registry targets the wrong people and it’s not effective,” Michel Therrien, a hunting guide who co-founded the group, said in an interview. He said there’s no proof registering firearms prevents crime. “We’re saying let’s instead put the money where it would help” — mental-health services and targeting the black market for guns, Therrien said.

He said the registry stigmatizes hunters, adding many urban dwellers have misconceptions about hunting. “If you grew up in the Gaspésie or Abitibi, people have farms, they hunt, they go out into the forest, it’s passed down from generation to generation,” he said. “For us, guns are used for a very precise purpose — hunting.”

In response to the protest, gun control activists, including victims of the École Polytechnique and Dawson College shootings and their families, insisted Quebec’s long-gun registry will save lives and prevent crimes.

Quebec passed a law creating the registry in 2016, giving owners until Jan. 29, 2019, to register firearms or face penalties of up to $5,000. As of mid-January, owners had registered less than one-quarter of the 1.6 million guns the government estimates are owned by Quebecers. So far, the Coalition Avenir Québec government has said it will encourage compliance via information campaigns rather than fines.

As he stood in the crowd in Place Jean-Paul Riopelle, gun owner Hugues Vaillancourt noted in the Quebec City mosque massacre and the Dawson shooting, the killers used registered weapons.

“The registry would have changed nothing,” said Vaillancourt, a hunter who lives in Disraeli in the Chaudière-Appalaches region. “You have to get to these individuals before they commit the crimes.”

Ken Taylor, a hunting guide from Waskaganish in Northern Quebec, said the registry creates unnecessary bureaucracy and he expects the cost of the system to balloon. Taylor, who said he worries requiring extra paperwork will discourage hunting, noting owners of long guns must have a possession and acquisition licence, a process that involves background checks.

Police can use that information to determine whether someone may have a gun, he said. “We’ve been checked, we’re not bad people, we’re not criminals, we don’t have mental problems, we’re not fanatics,” Taylor said.

But gun-control advocates say the registry will provide detailed information that could be crucial in dangerous situations.

Fourteen lights shine skyward at a 2018 Montreal vigil honouring the victims of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre.RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS

“It’s important for police forces, for people in authority, to know if someone has long guns, for example in cases of conjugal violence,” said Sylvie Haviernick, whose sister Maud, was killed in the Polytechnique massacre in 1989. “When the police show up at a critical time, (the registry) is an important information tool.”

PolySeSouvient, a gun-control group, points to a Quebec public health study that found the old federal system helped save about 300 lives annually. It also notes the RCMP called that registry a useful tool that allowed police to, for example, pre-emptively seize firearms.

She said the registration system is not cumbersome, noting it can be done quickly online. Haviernick said after the federal long-gun registry was shut down, Quebec consulted the public before deciding to proceed with its own registry.

Hunters and other opponents “had the same right to be heard as any other group, to present their sides, they were listened to,” she said. “It’s the desire of Quebecers to have a registry. Do the majority of Quebecers have to listen to an armed minority? I don’t think so.”

The gun registry “is just a logical thing,” added Louise De Sousa, whose daughter Anastasia was killed in the 2006 Dawson shooting. “I don’t understand why there’s a big commotion. Hunters pay for hunting licenses and for dog licenses so what’s the big deal about registering their guns?” She said the registry cost about $21 million to set up (about $2.50 per Quebecer) and between $4 million and $5 million per year to maintain (about 60 cents per Quebecer). “We pay so much in income tax, you won’t even see that,” De Sousa said.

Serge St-Arneault, whose sister Annie was killed at Polytechnique, said registry opponents are trying to pit urban centres against rural areas where most hunters live. But the registry isn’t about demonizing hunters or their sport, he said.

“It’s about mobilizing to protect lives,” St-Arneault said. “Owning a firearm in Canada is a privilege, just as driving is for motorists. Since a license is still required to drive a car, why would it be different for a firearm? In both cases, it’s about public safety.”