Canada’s long gun registry, facts and fiction
The House of Commons is poised to vote on the fate of the long gun registry. The Conservatives would scrap the registry and destroy all of its records but most other MPs want to keep it. The showdown in coming and the vote will be close. The Conservatives have orchestrated this issue and are trying to use it as a wedge that they hope will dislodge votes from NDP and Liberal MPs in rural and small town areas. For a long while it looked as though the politics of division was working, but there has been a growing chorus in support of the registry from police chiefs, emergency room physicians, nurses, people who run women’s shelters, labour unions and others. MPs on both sides of the issue are being lobbied furiously.
The Firearms Act was passed in 1995, a response by the Liberal government to the 1989 massacre by Marc Lepine of 14 young women at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. The Act required gun owners to obtain permits and to have their rifles and shotguns registered. People were in no way prevented from owning and using these guns, but they were expected to register them. Supporters of the registry believe it is a valuable tool for preventing gun violence, often arising from domestic disputes. Some people, for a variety of reasons, including a record of instability or violence, can be denied ownership if compromising information comes to light when they seek a firearms permit. With a registry, police heading to the scene of disturbances can find, by running a computer check, if there are registered firearms at the address.
The registry is supported by the Canadian Police Association, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Association of Police Boards. The RCMP has produced a report that says the registry works. That report was released only recently because the government, which sat on its since last spring, prevented its distribution.
The Conservatives opposed the registry vociferously in opposition. In government, they have refused to enforce the registry’s provisions and now they want to get rid of it altogether. Conservative MPs (and some others) untroubled by the facts have been constantly repeating a mantra against the long gun registry. Let’s look at some of their claims:
The registry is a financial boondoggle. The registry’s implementation in the 1990s did go badly, a saga that involved large cost overruns and expensive computer software that at first didn’t work. But those problems have been sorted out and more than seven million guns have now been registered. The boondoggle argument is out of date and the registry’s costs are modest. The RCMP manages the registry and reports that in 2009 the long-gun portion of the entire firearms registry (which also includes restricted weapons like handguns) cost $4.1 million to operate. Speaking of financial boondoggles, the Conservative government spent $1 billion for a G8-G20 summit that lasted less than three days in Ontario last summer.
It costs people too much to register rifles and shotguns and the process is swathed in red tape.Â In fact, it’s free to register or transfer the registration of rifles and shotguns andÂ gun owners can register their guns online or over the phone in minutes.
Criminals use handguns. Shotguns and rifles are used by law-abiding hunters and farmers. Criminals also use shotguns and rifles. Of the 16 police officer shooting deaths in Canada between 1998 and 2009, 14 were killed by a long gun. They are also used in domestic violence and in suicides.
Gun violence is a big city problem but long gun registry targets people in rural areas.Â In fact, gun deaths are higher in rural areas and Western provinces. In Yukon, for example, gun deaths run at about three times the national average.
The firearms registry does not save lives. The Firearms Registry and associated measures have worked to reduce rifle and shotgun murders in Canada. Death and injury from firearms have declined by over 40% in Canada during the era of stronger gun laws. Can all of this be attributed to the long gun registry? Probably not, but it is irresponsible to claim that the registry has had no impact in reducing risk and death, and even more irresponsible to want to get rid of it.
The firearms registry does nothing to prevent violence against women. Safety experts and front-line workers women’s shelters across the country beg to differ. They say that the registry helps reduce violence against women. Do you prefer to believe them or to believe a gun shop owner on this one?
Making people register their guns means that law abiding gun owners are treated like criminals. We register cars, boats, mortgages, even bicycles and dogs — and we pay for it. Nobody can seriously argue that they are being treated as second class citizens for having to register a firearm, particularly when it has been shown to improve public safety.
The government wants guns to be registered so that it knows where to go to confiscate all of them. This is the biggest whopper of them all and it is difficult to believe that anyone would actually use the argument – but read this from the pen of Saskatchewan MP Gary Breitkruez: “Why are the police chiefs so strident in their quest to keep the registry in place? They won’t admit it, but it appears they don’t want Canadians to own guns. To that end, they need a database that will help them locate and seize those firearms as soon as a licence or registration expires.” The National Rifle Association in the U.S. has been lending assistance to anti-registry forces in Canada and has spread this myth as well. It is either an entirely cynical argument or an illustration of paranoia. In either case, it is unworthy of adult debate.
Conservative strategists and MPs have been busy in the political ridings of rural opposition MPs who they believe will be vulnerable if they do not vote to get rid of the long gun registry. The Conservatives are using every conceivable communications device available – radio and newspaper ads, billboards, and flying visits to opposition ridings by Conservative MPs. They are threatening the defeat of those who don’t meekly obey the call to scuttle the registry. They are also encouraging constituents in those riding to call those opposition MPs and to give them an earful. But that is not the only game going. A growing coalition that includes police chiefs and associations, doctors, nurses, social workers, front line staff in women’s shelters, and labour unions is also asking people to contact their MPs to say that the long gun registry is doing the job and should be kept. A number of opposition MPs who formerly supported the Conservatives on this now says they will not be bullied and will vote to keep the registry. It may well be that it is Conservative MPs in closely contested seats who will be the losers if they decide to kill the registry. This strategy may well be their latest misstep, in league with their proroguing Parliament in 2009, ditching the long form census this summer and musing aloud about doling out billions of dollars for NHL hockey arenas.