Long gun registry and Montreal massacre

By Dennis Gruending

conservatives_gun_registry_300c.jpgCanada’s long gun registry could soon be scrapped thanks to a vote on a Private Member’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 will have to come back before the House for another vote, as well as passing in the Senate prior to becoming law. 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 Canada’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 gun 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 registry’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 registry’s implementation went badly, a saga that involved large cost overruns and expensive computer software that didn’t work – but that wasn’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.  The town’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. “I haven’t got much time,” he said. “I just want to know one thing. What is your position on gun control?” 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. “You bet it is,” 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. It’s called What’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: “The backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues – summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art – which it them marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshalled to achieve economic ends. And is these economic achievements – not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending cultural wars – that are the movement’s greatest monuments.”

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 Lepine’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 “gun control” 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?  The right coined the phrase “gun control” 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. “These institutions have done their job very well,” 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.

Safe communities

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 let’s have fewer guns around, and if we are to have them let’s certify and register them.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

16 thoughts on “Long gun registry and Montreal massacre”

  1. scap it it is a waste of money on law abiding huters and farmers! crimals dont use long guns for crime the use full auto wepons and hand guns smuggled into canada . use some of that money to improve borders and shipping docks!

  2. “Canada’s long gun registry may soon be scraped thanks to Private Member’s Bill that passed in the House of Commons on November 4th.”

    So far, the private member’s bill has only passed second reading, though, Dennis. You write that it passed the House of Commons, but in fact while the vote passed, the bill has not, yet (if at all).

    Thanks, as always, for an interesting post.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Alice for making this distinction. I was not clear enough in my description and I have now made a revision the piece to clear that up. The vote on the long run registry bill passed in the House of Commons at what is called Second Reading and the bill will now be sent to a committee. The bill will eventually have to come back to the House and be voted on at what is called Third Reading. My main point, however. is that there is a good rationale for having a gun registry and that the arguments against having one are morally bankrupt and represent bad public policy.

  3. I appreciate this thoughtful piece, but I still don’t think I get it.

    I am still puzzled by the transformation that you describe of Kansas and Saskatchewan. You quote Frank as saying “The backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues – summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art – which it them marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshalled to achieve economic ends. And is these economic achievements – not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending cultural wars – that are the movement’s greatest monuments.”

    What are the underlying causes/sources of the anger that has been so marshalled? What is the backlash fundamentally against? How exactly do issues such as gun registration get mated to this anger so as to (presumably) misdirect it from its truer targets to these objectives that ultimately do not actually help address the real issues?

    Thanks for helping us think about these things!

  4. “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.”

    No wonder you lost. You don’t think people should have the right to defend their families.

    Dennis replies: How many Canadian examples can you provide where people have had to defend their families with guns? We defend our families by creating safe communities. Arguments against the gun registry are intellectually shallow and morally bankrupt.

  5. Dennis,

    Another provocative post, with which I agree.

    I hope in a future post you’ll explain the politics of the gun registry that split the NDP and Liberal caucases on November 4th. Is it really just about urban/rural differences? And from your insider’s point of view, what will happen when the Bill comes back to the House? Will there be a whipped vote to defeat it?

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  7. Four months ago (Jul, 09) a young boy was being mauled by wild dogs in Wollaston Lake. The neighbour quickly stepped in and shot both dogs, thereby saving the boys life.

    But that wouldn’t count as “defending their family”, right Dennis?

    Ask your contacts if the firearm was registered.

    Four weeks ago, the Town of Ile-a-la-Crosse hired a local to shoot on site any free-range dogs after another attack on a boy…a coworkers nephew, as it happens.

    But that also isn’t protecting their families, is it Dennis?

    Every day coyotes are shot on Saskatchewan ranches and farms to protect livestock, but that also isn’t protecting the family, is it Dennis?

    Dennis replies:  There is absolutely nothing in the long gun registry to prevent the people you mention from having guns and shooting dogs or coyotes. They are free to own those guns but the law says they have to register them. If police were to receive a trouble call about a domestic dispute in these or any other communities, the registry would allow them to know if there was a registered gun in the house. This is a question of community safety and it is an important reason for having the gun registry. A Parliamentary report released on November 5th indicates that police used the registry 3.5 million times in the past year. Law abiding people register their cars and law abiding citizens register their guns. I would ask those who refuse to do so why they believe this country’s laws should not apply to them.

  8. Thanks Dennis, this is an excellent analysis. I never thought of it that way, that we register so many things, why not guns which are dangerous? It’s amazing how it becomes such an emotional issue, perhaps some of that is a sentiment that has come from across the border.

  9. We have to register cars, we have to register cats and dogs with the city. What’s the issue with registering guns?

  10. Thanks, Dennis! Terrific article! Wish you’d published it in the G & M before the vote sometime. My rural (male) cousins & I have debated this ad nauseum. I’ve come to the conclusion that the issue could be deconstructed in Freudian terms. Logic & rational facts seem to have absolutely nothing to do with it. I am disgusted again by the Cons using this for cheap political points. Oh, but of course….They could easily be mistaken for American Republicans.

  11. Thanks Dennis. A thoughtful piece. Good analysis. To bad you couldn’t convince 12 of your colleagues. A discouraging vote.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment Richard. Actually, I can’t, and don’t, claim to be a colleague of NDP MPs because it is now nine years since I sat in the House of Commons. Without letting anyone off of the hook, I think we should remember who introduced this Bill to get rid of the firearms registry. It was the Conservatives. It is they who must bear the major responsbility for threatening to dismantle a registry that, after a shaky and expensive launch in the 1990s, has been been working well. It is an important tool to protect the safety of people in our communities and the safety of police officers called to the scene of crimes and domestic disputes. The Conservatives, it seems, are opposed to safe communities. I hope constituents, particularly in urban areas, give their Conservative MPs an earful.

  12. Thanks for this excellent analysis Dennis. We know that the right wing loves to bring up their “wedge” issues whenever they want to shore up support for themselves. Mostly they want to distract Canadian from real issues.

    Once again, they have brought up the gun registry. You correctly point out that there is nothing stopping people from owning guns – they just have register them.

    We register cars, houses and our salaries – why not a lethal weapon.

    The gun-stuff is a nice distraction from the economy, H1N1, not to mention the Conservative logo appearing on government-issued cheques.

    They haven’t brought up a woman’s right to choose or homosexuality in the last little while, so keep your ears tuned for it – just as soon as the gunplay settles down a bit!

    They’re cynical bastards and we should call them out on it – except we keep falling for it and walk awaythinking how morally superior we all are.

  13. Dennis wrote…”How can they, in good conscience, believe that our communities are safer with unregistered guns, and presumably more of them?”…

    Well I can turn that around and say,how do you know our “communities”(I use quotes because most people do not even know their neighbors) are safer,or can be made safer,by having people register their long-guns ? Statistics can be read in many different ways,indeed are.
    Also using the Montreal massacre as a cudgel to be used against those that argue against long-gun registration is just plain wrong,it reeks of holier than thou type thinking.
    All said, personally I do not believe gun registration makes us safer,what ever safer means.
    Life can be a risk…that said there is nothing wrong with trying to lower risks associated with certain activities,behaviors etc etc.But education & information campaigns are the way to go, not more regulations,threats,laws,fines etc,etc…
    After all we are all adults,the vast majority of people have not hurt anyone, nor do they have any desire to hurt anyone.

  14. Despite the million dollar advertising campaign based on out of date information the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians and the Association of Police Chiefs say they are both apposed to repealing the registry. One Police chief said “it helps us keep our communities safer.”

    Facts of recent study known, but purposely held back until after the vote took place: the registry is now used by police over 10.000 times a day, and is now 1/3 under budget. Perhaps it may have been far more cost effective at first (and may have been more so in the hands of other programmers), but to destroy all the information compiled and to get rid of the registry now that police tell us it is under budget and working would be far more wasteful.

    Fact: long guns are used in majority of gun related suicide & spousal related homicides. Women are over 80% more likely to be the victim of these kinds of homicides, just as they were the targets in the massacre. It is not an unfair comparison. That “fringe group” called women now have one more in a long list of reasons to feel threatened by this administration.

    People are 7 times less likely to be killed by gun shot in Canada than in the US. Please help keep it that way. The long gun registry was in part in inspired by the Montreal Massacres. Families of victims have called it a monument to their daughters. Please don’t let misinformation win.

  15. Dennis, that was an interesting article. And unlike some other commentators, such as Gerald Caplan, you didn’t take to smearing Jack Layton or NDP MPs who voted for this private member’s bill.

    The car registry metaphor is often invoked by people who style themselves gun control advocates, but it is never adhered to. The provincial motor vehicle acts are civil, regulatory statutes. If I disobey, if I do not register or have insurance, I am committing an offence, but at no point will I be subject to criminal level proceedings or acquire a criminal record with all the implcations that has for employment and international travel. It’s this odour of criminality for non-compliance with what, to many average slobs both rural and urban, are bureaucratic paper-work demands, that turns this issue into a symbolic one.

    Perhaps it’s for this reason that Liberal MP Wayne Easter, a former Sol-Gen in charge of the registry for a time, has talked about “de-criminalizing” it, borrowing language from another debate. However, a non-criminal statute, even if it met with greater compliance by gun-owners, would not have the support of the gun control advocacy groups. A regulatory statute would not meet their political and personal needs.

    I would suggest that the federal justice department wanted to make all parts of the long-gun registry a criminal matter for several reasons, some good, some weak. They wanted to create a class of open-and-shut cases to use against career criminals caught with an arsenal of unregistered weapons, probably not a bad idea. But they also wanted to make it easy on themselves in terms of resisting any constitutional challenge from the provinces (Alberta principally) by invoking criminal law jurisdiction.

    But the real motivation for making it a criminal law came at the political level, among Liberal party eletion strategists, as outlined in a Jan 2003 Globe and Mail article by John Dixon, a former aide to the DM of Justice during Kim Campbell’s tenure as Minister. Liberal Red Book authors wanted to pass a statute that rural people would dislike and rail against, because that would create the political theatrics the Liberals needed to cement their support in urban/metropolitan ridings. For many years it has worked wonders for them and to some degree still does.

    I wish there were free access to Dixon’s article on the Globe and Mail site, but there isn’t. So I will just have to refer people to a copy of this column on a site run by some admittedly extremist type. Unfortunate, but that’s what’s out there.

    http://www.lowe.ca/Rick/FirearmsLegislation/AGangThatCouldn'tShootStraight.html

    Anyone who is naive enough to think that the search for symbolic “wedge” issues in this area of public policy is a one-sided preserve of the Conservatives and the far-right is being used quite ruthlessly by some very clever and self-interested people.

    Personally, I think it’s a bit disturbing to watch these Liberal hacks wrapping themselves not only in the flag, pretending to be in a battle to the death with the NRA and the Republicans, but also in the bloodied garments of actual murder victims. Apparently when there’s an election to be won and votes to be rallied in the Liberal’s critical GTA donut-belt, the standards of conduct are simple: If it works, use it!

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comments Rod. My posting on the gun registry has elicited more response, much of it in private emails to me rather than comments on the blog, than I have received on any other piece in two years. I have read Mr. Dixon’s article, using the URL that you provide. I notice that he provides no documentation, other than his own opinion, that the Liberals used the gun registry as a wedge issue against Kim Campbell. I notice, too, that Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control, who Mr. Dixon says supported Ms. Campbell’s attempts at gun legislation, is a supporter of the current long gun registry and she opposes the Private Members Bill that would do away with it. In any event, it is good to be talking to each other, rather than past one another, on this imporrtant question.

  16. I dont understand how registering firearms is going to stop people going off the deep end. I think the the only reason the Liberals are so hardcore on keeping the gun registry is they are going for total confiscation. What a scary thought.Registered guns are still going to kill people. Spend the money on keeping the guns out of the wrong hands.

    Dennis replies: I’m sorry, but the “Liberals want to confiscate guns” line is right out of the looney American militia mindset. It is not worthy of adult debate.   

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