Commentary  Gun registry in Conservatives’ sights

On November 4, MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of a private member’s bill to repeal Canada’s federal long-gun registry, instituted in the 1995 Firearms Act. The registry was created in the wake of the 1989 massacre at the École Polytechnique, following pressure from activists who survived the tragedy.

Bill C-391 would destroy the registry’s existing records of around seven million non-restricted guns (also known as long guns – rifles and shot guns) and eliminate the need for their registration in the future. While restricted firearms (handguns) would still require registration, non-restricted firearms could become untraceable after purchase. Although this debate has been framed in the media as a conflict between hunters and owners of handguns, it is clear that many non-restricted firearms are meant for killing human beings. For example, under the new law, the registry would no longer hold records of the Ruger Mini-14, a semi-automatic rifle that can fire the same ammunition as an M-16 – NATO’s standard issue – and that has been proven brutally efficient against human beings.

Supporters of the repeal criticize the high costs of the program and the complicated nature of the registration process. Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has said the registry is “harassing” law-abiding farmers and hunters. When it comes to costs, however, the CBC reported that the auditor general determined in a 2006 study that repealing the long-gun portion of the registry would only save about $3 million a year.

The benefits of the program outweigh the bureaucratic red tape non-criminal gun owners have to deal with. It helps police officers in limiting crime, being prepared for dangerous tactical situations, and halting the use of legal guns in illegal activity. While supporters present long guns as a minor issue in crime and primarily relevant to farmers and hunters, they make up the vast majority of guns in Canada and was used in one-third of all 2008 firearm-related homicides. The RCMP reports that as of September 2009, there are 6,776,686 non-restricted firearms registered in Canada, around 90 per cent of total registered guns. And they are being used in crimes – in 2008, long guns were used in almost three-quarters of firearm-related spousal homicides, according to Statistics Canada.

The registry also allows officers to be aware of and prepared for potentially violent situations. Toronto Police Chief William Blair explained that the registry allows police to check for household firearms, a “vital piece of information for protecting victims, as well as the responding officers,” especially in domestic violence calls. Knowing that individuals have guns allows police officers to make informed decisions in taking action – and a lack of knowledge can be fatal. In 2007, Sergeant Daniel Tessier, a Laval police officer, was shot and killed on duty by a registered gun owner who had failed to report his change of address. The investigation determined that a thorough check of the gun registry would have led to a tactical team being called in before the under-prepared drug squad.

Police organizations have come out strongly in favour of the registry, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Association of Police Boards, and the Canadian Police Association. A report from Canada’s Firearms Commissioner said that police used the registry more than 3.4 million times in 2008. In one instance in October this year, lapsed registrations led the Toronto police to a cache of 58 illegal firearms, including a machine gun, a submachine gun, and 39 non-restricted guns. The registry can also aid police in promptly seizing weapons from gun owners who lose their license or when warrants for seizure are obtained due to warning signs of potential violence.

The registry also helps prevent the diversion of legal guns into illegal markets. Since most firearms used in illegal activity were purchased legally and then obtained by theft, or by other criminal means, the registry allows police to hold individuals accountable for the whereabouts of their guns. The registry prevents people with valid licenses from obtaining and then supplying – by giving or selling – firearms to people who cannot obtain licenses due to an inability to pass a background check, and ensures that, if an arms dealer sells someone a gun without checking their license, the government will know.

Many MPs involved in the November 4 vote have attempted to frame this conflict as a rural/urban divide based on culture. This obscures the real harms of unregistered – and therefore untraceable – long-gun firearms. Let’s be clear: this legislation will cost lives. Potential bureaucratic inconvenience can never outweigh danger to human life, so we ask you to contact your representatives and demand that they reject this repeal.

You can also take part in the Canadian Labour Congress’s electronic postcard campaign and send a message to the prime minister. Go to their web site for more information: