Canadaâ€™s long gun registry could soon be scrapped thanks to a vote on a Private Memberâ€™s Bill that passed in the House of Commons on November 4th. Candice Hoeppner, a Conservative MP from Manitoba, introduced it with the blessing of the prime minister, who sees it as a timely wedge issue to shore up his base, mainly in rural and northern areas. The bill will now go to a committee for further consideration and it willÂ have to come back before the House for another vote, as well as passing in the Senate prior to becoming law.Â It is ironic, to say the least, that this vote occurred just a few weeks prior to the 20th anniversary of the December 6th Montreal massacre, when Marc Lepine mowed down 14 young women at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal with a semi-automatic weapon. Although this bill will not touch the ban on handguns, it will, if it becomes law, eliminate the requirement to register the type of people-hunting firearm that Lepine used in 1989. It was that gruesome killing which prompted the then-Liberal government of Jean Chretien to pass the Firearms Act in 1995, requiring gun owners to obtain permits and to register their guns. The act did not prevent people from owning and using rifles and shotguns, but they were legally bound to register them.
Supporters, including Canadaâ€™s police chiefs, believe the registry is a valuable tool for preventing gun violence, often arising from criminal activity and domestic disputes. Some people can be denied ownership of a gunÂ if they have a record of instability or violence. With a registry, police arriving on the scene of disturbances can find, by running a computer check, if there are registered firearms at the address. In fact, death and injury from firearms have declined by over 40% in Canada during the era of stronger gun laws. The Conservatives opposed the registry vociferously in opposition. In government, they have refused to enforce the registryâ€™s provisions and are now poised to get rid of it altogether.
Opposition to the original registry was centred in the Reform Party led by Preston Manning and among fellow travellers in gun, wildlife and hunting lobbies. Manning was able to turn the issue to his advantage. The registryâ€™s implementation went badly, a saga that involved large cost overruns and expensive computer software that didnâ€™t work â€“ but that wasnâ€™t the main reason for the opposition. As with many issues in the culture wars, the gun registry became a proxy for something much larger.
Guns in the trenches
I have considerable experience in the trenches on the guns issue. I was a candidate in four federal elections in mixed urban-rural constituencies in Saskatchewan and the gun registry featured in every one of those campaigns. In 1997, I was a candidate in Saskatoon-Humboldt, the area where I was born and raised. One day I was campaigning in a small town that was clearly suffering from the rural economic crisis. The rail line had been removed and the two tall grain elevators at the head of Main Street were being dismantled.Â The townâ€™s business buildings were shabby and much of the housing stock was run down. I came upon a man who was backing his truck out of a driveway. He recognized me and said that he knew my sister. â€œI havenâ€™t got much time,â€ he said. â€œI just want to know one thing. What is your position on gun control?â€ I asked him if that issue was more important to him in an election than the fact that his town had lost its rail line and its grain elevator. â€œYou bet it is,â€ he said. I lost that election by 221 votes to the Reform Party candidate.
I have asked myself many times since why people would base their vote on something that has little or nothing to do with their personal well-being and that actually makes their communities more prone to gun violence. Then in 2004, I read a book that provided a good part of the answer. Itâ€™s called Whatâ€™s The Matter with Kansas and was written by Thomas Frank. He says that Kansas has changed. In the early 1900s it was a hotbed of agrarian radicalism. People took on the banks and the railroads and the business and political Establishments who they believed were ripping them off. In this way it was very much like Saskatchewan in the same era, and at least a bit like the Saskatchewan in which I grew up. In Kansas today, the rich vote Republican as they always did, but they are not nearly such fervent supporters of arch-conservatism as are farmers, elements of the middle class and even the poor. How can this be? Frank says these people are angry. They are in backlash mode. And who are they angry with? Not with greedy bankers or industrialists or right wing politicians who lie to them in every election.
Frank writes: â€œThe backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues â€“ summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art â€“ which it them marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshalled to achieve economic ends. And is these economic achievements â€“ not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending cultural wars â€“ that are the movementâ€™s greatest monuments.â€
I found this analysis instructive about Saskatchewan. There was a lot of anger among the gun crowd aimed at what they called big government — and the firearms registry was a new government program. These people said they were good, law-abiding citizens and that the government was treating them like criminals. There was anger at bureaucrats, at liberals and anger directed against big city dwellers. The people most opposed to the gun registry were generally from towns, smaller cities, and rural areas. The people most in favour were from larger cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The people against the gun registry did not want a bunch of city slickers telling them what to do. Some also feared that the government wanted information about their guns so that it could take them away, and then do bad things to them. They said they had the right to have guns to protect themselves and their loved ones, a ludicrous argument that sounded as though it may have been imported from a Montana militia.
There was another sombre overtone here. The Reform Party made good mileage in the West by being anti-Quebec and the party also contained anti-feminist elements. My experience in four election campaigns was that you got nowhere with people opposed to the gun registry if you said that the Montreal massacre was a reason why firearms should be registered. That argument left them cold. There was rarely, if ever, any acknowledgement or sympathy expressed for Marc Lepineâ€™s victims.
Guns a symbolic issue
To summarize, the gun registry issue became a symbolic issue, even a metaphorical one. This was no accident because the Canadian right, borrowing from the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby in the United States, framed the debate. They constantly talked about â€œgun controlâ€ by a big, bad government — but the issue was really about registering firearms, and if you had no criminal record or record of violence or instability you could register your gun. We register cars, boats, mortgages, even bicycles and dogs. What is so sinister about registering firearms?Â The right coined the phrase â€œgun controlâ€ and many of us fell into the trap of using their language. When you do that, as American linguist George Lakoff tells us, you have lost the debate.
Lakoff also describes how political conservatives in the United States made a conscious decision in the 1970s to spend the money to build an intellectual culture for the right. For example, wealthy people financed think tanks and set up professorships and scholarships at many universities, including Harvard. â€œThese institutions have done their job very well,â€ Lakoff says. The right deliberately transformed the language of American politics and in Canada the right has borrowed techniques and language on guns and a range of other issues.
The Conservatives talk constantly about safe communities, but what they mostly mean is locking people up. How can they, in good conscience, believe that our communities are safer with unregistered guns, and presumably more of them? This position is simply bankrupt and immoral. A nurturing vision of a safe community is one where women, children and men do not have to fear gun violence, or any other violence. We want to keep our families safe so letâ€™s have fewer guns around, and if we are to have them letâ€™s certify and register them.