Professor Gary Mauser, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada,
& Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute
National Review Online, 12/07/00 1:45 p.m. More by Kopel on firearms registration and on Canada.
In the United States, universal firearms registration is demanded by groups such as Handgun Control, Inc., and the "Million" Mom March Foundation. They argue that registration would encourage greater responsibility among owners and also provide police with better methods of tracing lost or stolen firearms. Opponents argue that such a scheme would be unworkable and, at best, just create another costly bureaucracy. The recent introduction of firearm registration in Canada enables us to see how firearms registration actually works.
Jean Chrétien's Liberal government pushed through a massive revision of Canada's firearm laws in 1995, with Bill C-68. The new law, among many other things, required that long guns (rifles and shotguns) be registered. Handgun registration had been required since the 1930s.
When firearm registration was introduced, the federal government claimed that it would cost no more than $55 million (US) over 5 years. Although few firearms have been registered, the cost of setting up the firearm registration bureaucracy has already passed $350 million (US) and the total may reach $1 billion (US) in 2001. Other governmental priorities have languished while costs have skyrocketed for firearm registration. The total number of Royal Canadian Mounted Police ("RCMP"-only Americans call them "Mounties") officers declined, and RCMP salaries were frozen for seven years, while the number of employees working on firearm registration grew to around 600 in 1999 and to over 1,700 in 2000.
Canadian polls find over 80% of respondents supporting registering firearms, slightly more than the number of Americans who say they support registration. But public opinion begins to shift as soon as people realize that it will cost them — as taxpayers — serious money or that it will divert governmental resources from more desirable programs. Canadian support drops to 50% when respondents are told that it might cost $500 million to register firearms; dropping further to around 40% when the trade-off is a reduction in the number of police officers.
Despite the absence of any organization in Canada similar to the powerful NRA (Canada's National Firearms Association is much smaller), firearm registration had a significant impact on Canadian politics. Five provinces have held general elections since 1995. Firearm registration was an issue in every one of them; no party supporting firearm registration was elected.
Firearm registration also had a powerful impact on the federal election this November. Opposition to firearm registration was an important reason that the Liberals were all but shut out in western Canada by the Canadian Alliance. Although registration was not an important issue in central Canada (Ontario, the population center of Canada), opposition to firearm registration did help the Alliance to win seats in rural Ontario, and helped the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada.
According to the father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, the police must have the support of 'the policed' for laws to be enforced effectively. Experience in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States shows that gun-owner non-compliance with registration is widespread.
In Canada, surveys show that many gun owners will refuse to register. This percentage has increased since the law was passed. In 1995, 72% said they'd comply. In 1997, only 58% said they would. The rejection of firearm registration by "the policed" necessarily accelerates the tendency towards a militarization of the police. This will further act to divide the police from the policed.
The debate over firearm registration has caused deep divisions in police ranks. Surveys of serving police officers show that many do not support this legislation. The Canadian Police Association has voted to reconsider its support for firearm registration.
In Canada, as in the U.S.,gun laws are usually passed during periods of public hysteria or fear, then, after the threat recedes, individual rights and freedoms have been further diminished. Firearm owners serve as a convenient "devil" for the government to justify passing new legislation. A frightened public supports new restrictions on their individual freedom because the government claims it needs more power to deal with the threat. In the past, the Canadian government has demonized other minorities: Orientals, labor organizers, and Quebecois separatists.
During the 1930s, handguns were the first type of firearm to be registered when the Canadian government feared labor unrest as well as American "rum runners." There were separate permits for "British subjects" and for "aliens." Subsequently, during World War II, firearms were confiscated from all Orientals, even Chinese Canadians.
In 1977, the protection of property was eliminated as a suitable reason for acquiring a handgun. Police routinely refuse to issue a firearm permit to anyone who indicates they desire a firearm for self-protection (although Canadians still use guns defensively.) In 1991, after a nationwide campaign demonizing "gun owners," the government vastly expanded the list of types of firearms that needed to be registered. In 1995, Bill C-68 was rammed through parliament over the protests of three of the four opposition parties. This bill banned small and short-barreled handguns on the grounds that they could be easily concealed. Presumably, large caliber handguns are less dangerous. In addition to prohibiting and confiscating over half of all registered handguns, Bill C-68 also:
Immediately after the federal election this November, the government decided to classify BB and pellet guns as firearms; and then expanded the list of restricted weapons.
The demonization of average people who happen to own a gun lays the foundation for a massive increase in governmental intrusiveness in the lives of ordinary citizens. In short, firearm registration is already damaging traditional Canadian liberties and freedoms, while protecting criminals by keeping police off the street. Is this what Americans want to happen in the United States?
An earlier version of this article was presented to the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco, November 17–20, 2000.