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Fraser Forum

March 2001

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Firearm Registration and the Slippery Slope in Canada

by Gary Mauser

False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils, except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm those only who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.
—Ceasare Beccaria (1764), pp. 87-8.

By 2003, and for the first time in Canada, all firearms in this country will have to be registered. Proponents of universal firearm registration promise that registration will encourage greater responsibility among owners and provide police with better methods of tracing lost or stolen firearms. Opponents argue that such a scheme is unworkable, and, at best, will create just another costly bureaucracy. The recent introduction of a licensing scheme for gun owners gives a taste of the kind of problems firearm registration will run into when it is introduced. At worst, firearm registration is another step along a slippery slope that will destroy individual freedom for Canadians.

Universal firearm registration is part of Bill C-68, which was passed in 1995 and is a massive revision of Canada’s firearm laws. Handguns have been registered since 1934, but long guns, which represent the bulk of all firearms in Canada, have never before been registered. The government has decided to proceed in stages. First, those who have decided to keep a firearm they already own must have been licenced to do so by January 1, 2001. Then, by January 1, 2003, the firearms themselves must be registered.


Costs have escalated rapidly

In 1995, the federal government claimed in Parliament that it would cost no more than $85 million over 5 years to implement firearm registration. Although few firearms have been registered to date, the cost of setting up the firearm registration bureaucracy has already passed $600 million and the total is expected to reach $1 billion in 2001. Other governmental priorities have languished while costs have skyrocketed for firearm registration. Statistics from Garry Breitkreuz, an Alliance MP from Yorkton-Melville, Saskatchewan, reveals that RCMP salaries were frozen for most of the 1990s, while the number of employees working on firearm registration grew from under 100 in 1995 to over 1,700 in 2000 (Breitkreuz, 1999a, 2000a, 2000b). The total number of RCMP officers has declined per capita nationwide by over 10 percent since 1975. This means there is a shortfall of over 500 RCMP officers in BC alone (Besserer and Tufts, 1999; Statistics Canada, 1994, 1998).


Firearm registration violates basic policing principles

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 (Reith, 1948). Experience in England, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States shows that non-compliance with firearm registration is widespread (Mauser, 1995).

Surveys show that many Canadian gun owners will refuse to register.  This percentage has increased since the law was passed. In 1995, 72 percent said they’d comply (Mauser and Buckner). In an Environics poll taken in 1997, only 58 percent said they would (Breitkreuz, 1999b). The rejection of firearm registration by "the policed" necessarily accelerates the tendency towards a militarization of the police. This will divide even further the police from the typical citizen.

Anticipating problems, the government claims that many owners have rid themselves of their firearms. In 1998, the government estimated there were 3.3 million gun owners in Canada (Block, 1998). Our survey pegged this number at around 4.5 million (Mauser and Buckner, 1997). In January 2001, the government estimated there now were only 2.4 million owners (Canadian Firearms Centre, 2001). This drop means that about one million people got rid of all of their guns, and that at least one million guns must have been sold or turned in to the RCMP. However, records show that far fewer firearms than this were sold or turned in for destruction over the past few years. Apparently, many gun owners have quietly kept their guns without getting the necessary licence. They are now subject to five years in jail.

The debate over firearm registration has caused deep divisions in police ranks. Although the chiefs of police support this legislation, surveys of serving police officers show that most other ranks do not. The Canadian Police Association has even voted to reconsider its support for firearm registration.


Public support is evaporating

Polls find over 80 percent of respondents support registering firearms. But public opinion begins to shift as soon as people realize that it will cost them, as taxpayers, a significant amount of money, or that it will divert government resources from more desirable programs. Support drops to 50 percent when respondents are told that it might cost $500 million to register firearms; it drops further to around 40 percent when the trade-off is a reduction in the number of police officers (Mauser and Buckner, 1997).

Despite the absence of any organization in Canada similar to the powerful National Rifle Association in the US (the National Firearms Association is much smaller) firearm registration has 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 managed to get elected (Gunter, 1999).

Firearm registration also had a powerful impact on the federal election last year. Support for 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 too important in Central Canada, opposition to firearm registration did help the Alliance to win two seats in rural Ontario, and helped the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada.


The history of gun control demonstrates the "slippery slope"

In Canada, as in the US, gun laws are usually passed during periods of public hysteria. After the threat recedes, individual rights and freedoms remain 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: Asians, labour organizers, and Quebecois separatists.

During the 1930s, handguns were the first to be registered when the Canadian government feared labour 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 Asians, even Chinese Canadians, despite that fact that throughout the war, China remained a strong ally of Canada and the US in their efforts to defeat Imperial Japan (Smithies, 1998).

In 1977, after a shooting tragedy in Toronto, a police permit was introduced for acquiring rifles and shotguns. The protection of property was eliminated as a suitable reason for acquiring a handgun. Now, 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 shooting tragedy in Montreal sparked a nationwide campaign that demonized "gun owners," the government introduced restrictions on "semi automatic" firearms and stiffened requirements for buying firearms.

In 1995, Bill C-68 was rammed through Parliament over the protests of three of the four opposition parties. Small- and short-barrelled handguns were banned on the grounds that they could be easily concealed. Presumably, larger handguns are less dangerous. In addition to prohibiting and confiscating over half of all registered handguns, Bill C-68 also:

  • Significantly relaxes parliamentary oversight of the process of prohibiting weapons through order-in-council (allowing gun bans without the need for Parliamentary approval);
  • Broadens the police powers of "search and seizure" and expands the types of officials who can make use of such powers (allowing the police to enter homes without search warrants, to "inspect" gun storage and look for unregistered guns);
  • Requires applicants to disclose detailed medical and financial information;
  • Requires suspected gun owners to testify against themselves;
  • Introduces a licence to possess firearms and to buy ammunition;
  • Requires the registration of all firearms, including shotguns and rifles.

Immediately after the federal election this November, the government decided to classify many popular BB and pellet guns as firearms; some even became restricted or prohibited weapons. No public announcements of these changes were ever made, so many Canadians are now subject to criminal penalties of up to 10 years in jail without knowing it.


Conclusion

Firearm registration and owner licensing may appear reasonable, but in practice they have a number of serious defects. A number of problems have emerged since the federal government began to implement firearm registration.

Firearm registration is inordinately expensive, and it violates basic principles of policing. This might be acceptable to the Canadian public if it worked, but research shows that Canadian gun laws have no significant effect on criminal violence (e.g., Mauser and Maki, 1999).

The history of gun control in Canada demonstrates the "slippery slope" of accepting even the most apparently benign gun control measures. At each stage, the government has demonized a target group, and moved to restrict access to firearms and to increase government powers. Firearm registration damages traditional Canadian liberties and freedoms, while it protects criminals by keeping police off the street. Is this what we want?



References

Beccaria, Ceasare (1764). An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. Henry Paolucci, tr. Bobbs-Merrill, 1963, pp. 87-8.

Besserer, Sandra and Jennifer Tufts (1999). "Justice Spending in Canada," Juristat. Vol. 19, no. 12, pp. 11-12.

Block, Richard (1998). Firearms in Canada and Eight Other Western Countries: Selected Findings of the 1996 International Crime (Victim) Survey. Policy Sector, Canadian Firearms Centre. January. WD1997-3e.

Breitkreuz, Garry (1999a). "Criminal Offenses More than Double—Number of Police Officers Still Dropping." News Release, March 4.

Breitkreuz, Garry (1999b). "Five Reasons Why Police Oppose Gun Registration." News Release, June 28.

Breitkreuz, Garry (2000a). "Snapshot of Number of Employees Working on the Liberal Gun Registration Scheme." News Release, July 19.

Breitkreuz, Garry (2000b). "Police Say: Gun registry is ‘Deeply, and Possibly, Fatally Flawed.’" News Release, June 21.

Canadian Firearms Centre (2001). Internet: http://www.cfc-ccaf.gc.ca/general_public/news_releases/Survey-01252001-en.asp

Gunter, Lorne (1999). "Canadian Gun Registration Push Fails." Edmonton Journal. October 13.

Mauser, Gary A (1995). "Gun Control is not Crime Control." Fraser Forum. March.

Mauser, Gary A. and H. Taylor Buckner (1997). Canadian Attitudes Toward Gun Control: The Real Story. Toronto, Ontario: The Mackenzie Institute. Feb.

Mauser, Gary and Dennis Maki (1999). "An Evaluation of the Effects of the 1977 and 1991 Canadian Firearms Legislation on Robbery Rates." Presented to the Annual Meetings of the American Society of Criminology, Toronto, Ontario. Nov.

RCMP. Annual Firearms Report to the Solicitor General of Canada. Internet at: www.cfc-ccaf.gc.ca/research/statistics_en.html#Table4.

Reith, Charles (1948). A Short History of the British Police. London: Oxford University Press.

Smithies, Allan (1998). For Their Own Good: Firearm Control in Canada 1867-1945. Toronto, Ontario: Ontario Handgun Association.

Statistics Canada (1999). "The Justice Factfinder, 1998." Juristat. Vol. 20, no. 4, p. 11.

Statistics Canada (1996). "Police Personnel and Expenditures in Canada—1994, Juristat. Vol. 16, no. 1, p. 1.


Gary Mauser, Ph.D., is Professor in Business Administration, and in the Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies, at Simon Fraser University. He is author of the 1995 Fraser Institute study, Gun Control is not Crime Control.

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