Let's fix the gun registry

In March, the Harper government introduced a new bill to abolish the long-gun registry. There have also been attempts to do this through private member's bills.

Guns have legitimate uses. We rely on an armed police force. And agriculture would be very difficult without controlling the populations of some wild animals. “Sport” hunting plays a role in this.

Despite high-profile stories of gang violence, guns are not a major cause of death in Canada, accounting for only 0.4% of all deaths from 2000-2005. 80% of gun deaths were suicide. For comparison, motor vehicles accounted for 1.4% of deaths. In the U.S., with its laxer gun laws, guns accounted for 1.2% of deaths in 2005, and only about 60% of those were suicide.

But there are many crimes involving guns that do not result in death. People get injured, sometimes for life. Guns often figure in domestic violence.

And long guns – shotguns and rifles – are used inappropriately far more often than you might think if you listen to the gun lobby.

The Ottawa Citizen recently reported some statistics resulting from a provision of the Firearms Act, which came into force November 1. This requires Police to report guns surrendered and confiscated – usually because someone has threatened or used violence.

In the first 6 months of statistics, 8,281 guns were seized. 74% were non-restricted weapons, mostly shotguns and rifles.

That seems like a pretty good reason to keep the long gun registry and start enforcing it properly. 43% of the weapons seized had actually been registered, despite all the resistance to registration and the extensions to the registration deadline that have been granted.

Obviously, registration alerts the police to the existence of a firearm in a domestic violence situation and makes it easier to seize it. Women are at more of a risk from their intimate partners than they are from strangers.

In a 2007 survey by the Canada Firearms Centre of police officers from various agencies, 92% of respondents reported that their agency used the registry, and 74% reported that, in their experience, the registry had proved beneficial during major operations.

Gun lobbyists often say that criminals will not register their guns. If so, the solution seems simple. Responsible gun owners should register. Then, police can simply confiscate any unregistered weapon they come across.

Registration allows people to be held accountable for guns they possess. It reduces the chance that careless storage will lead to theft or that guns are sold illegally.

Registry opponents often complain about the cost. The initial set-up cost has been about $2 billion, around $70 for each Canadian. In 2005-06 costs were $46 million per year, a bit over a dollar a year for each of us, and headed down.

The registry set-up cost far more than originally planned. There is little doubt that part of the problem was mismanagement, including poor software design and changing requirements. Another reason was fee waivers.

But there were other costs, too. Some gun owners were urging others to wait to the last minute to register, to make deliberate “errors” in filling out the form, and otherwise sabotage the system.

These tactics seem to have worked. The Canadian Firearms Program listed the applications backlog and a high error rate on applications as major reasons for the cost over-run. Both required more staff.

Whatever the reasons, the cost of implementing the registry was too high. But scrapping it and destroying the records as the Harper government wants to do will not recover that money. It will only ensure that it is completely wasted.

Despite being incomplete and out of date because of deadline extensions, the gun registry has proved its value in getting guns out of violent situations. It should be fixed and enforced, not scrapped.

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