News  Long gun registry under fire

Opponents say proposed legislation threatens public safety

Correction Appended.

Twenty-one members of the opposition are supporting the Conservative Party’s bid to pass Bill C-391, a move that would eliminate the federal long gun registry.

Supporters of the bill say the registry is overly complicated and punishes responsible hunters in rural communities, where stringent registration is unnecessary.

C-391 passed its second reading November 4 with support from all Conservatives, as well as eight Liberals and 12 New Democrats. The bill will now be reviewed by a group of parliamentarians.

New Democrat Nathan Cullen, who represents a riding in northern British Columbia, echoed the view that the registry is difficult to navigate when he explained why he voted to eliminate the registry. “The people that I listen to are what I would call the more reasonable elements of the gun community…. They hunt once a year. They bring me these stories of trying to register a weapon four, five, six times,” he said.

If passed, the proposed legislation would eliminate the 10-year-old long gun registry, along with all existing information on approximately seven million long guns – weapons like rifles and shotguns. The registry for handguns, however, would remain in place.

Larry Bagnell, the Liberal MP for the Yukon and the official opposition critic for northern affairs, also voted to scrap the registry. He spoke of his constituents’ difficulties registering long guns. “[When registering a car] you spend about 30 seconds at the counter and it’s done. To register a gun, some of these people have had to run around for months and months,” Bagnell said.

Wendy Cukier, president and co-founder of the Coalition for Gun Control, contended that supporters of C-391 have misrepresented the registration process. “[Registry opponents have] successfully conflated licensing – which is more cumbersome – with registration,” Cukier said.

Obtaining a firearm license involves classes, written and practical examinations, and background checks, while registering a firearm involves filing forms that can be submitted online or by mail.

Still, Bagnell’s and Cullen’s views are illustrative of strong opposition to the registry in rural communities.

Many members of the opposition who voted to scrap the registry represent ridings outside of major urban centres.

The long and short of it
Cullen distinguished between handguns and long guns based on utility. “We deem handguns to have a different purpose than a long gun,” he said. “A handgun…is not a tool – it’s a weapon.” However, the Commissioner of Firearms’ Annual Report of 2008 casts this distinction in doubt. The report states that outside urban centres, long guns are the most common weapons used in homicides.

Heidi Rathjen, co-founder of the Coalition for Gun Control, who became an involved gun control activist after being present during the 1989 massacre at École Polytechnique, said the current distinction between long guns and handguns fails to account for particularly dangerous weapons.

They both pointed to the Ruger Mini-14, the semi-automatic rifle used by Marc Lépine during the massacre at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989.

Classified as a long gun, the Mini-14 is capable of firing the same ammunition as the M-16 rifle used by NATO troops. The Mini-14 is regularly stocked at firearms stores in the Montreal area.

“If this legislation becomes reality you will be able to buy not one but 50 Ruger Mini-14s and no one will know you have them,” Cukier said. “Something like the RM-14 uses NATO-standard ammunition and…we saw the results at [École] Polytechnique.”

Rathjen expressed similar frustration and anxiety. “We believe this is a military assault weapon…. What kind of a hunter needs 30-bullet ammunition clips?” she asked.

Those backing C-391 point to the high cost of the gun registry.

A 2002 report from the auditor general showed that the cost of gun registration would hit $1 billion by 2005.

But Cukier emphasized the significance of a 2006 report from the auditor general, which stated that since most guns in Canada have already been registered, eliminating the gun registry would only save taxpayers $3 million a year.

“Most of the cost is associated with licensing and registering gun owners,” Cukier said.

Bagnell added that despite the costs, his constituents are not worried about money.

“It’s not the money. It’s a point of principle. They see it as an infringement on their freedoms and their rights,” Bagnell said.

Hunting for hits
Cullen stated that there is an important difference in the way members of rural and urban communities handle firearms. “For somebody who hunts…they associate to [firearms] differently. They’re part of their set of tools…. It’s something I’ve had to learn as an urban-born Canadian,” he said.

Closer to home, proponents of gun control contend that the dissolution of the registry will endanger members of both urban and rural communities. Rathjen said that she sees the registry as a useful tool in reducing gun violence, especially violence against women.

“The long gun registry is one of the reasons why…murders of women with firearms have decreased substantially,” Rathjen said. She pointed to a Statistics Canada report, which states that murders of women with firearms per year decreased from 85 in 1991 to 32 in 2005.

The online registry also allows police to search for a person’s name, address, firearms’ license number, or a firearms’ serial number, and access other relevant information. However, Bagnell, who expressed doubt that the registry is an effective means of curbing firearm violence, was unconvinced of the important role it could play as a consultative tool for police officers arriving at a potentially dangerous scene.

“They always have to assume that there could be firearms there,” said Bagnell.

Cullen agreed. “When you talk to a lot of the police that work in my part of the world, they always assume a weapon is in a home that they are being called to,” he said.

The Commissioner of Firearms’ 2008 report stated that the online registry was consulted by law enforcement 3,441,442 times that year. Supporters of C-391 claim these numbers are inflated, because a hit is counted anytime the police use the registry – even for license plate numbers.

Earlier this month, journalists in a media scrum criticized Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan for releasing the report two days after the House voted on C-391. The registry contains information on the 6,659,534 registered long guns and 478,487 registered restricted firearms in Canada.

For Rathjen, the number of firearms and consultations provided sufficient reason to maintain the registry. “[Police] say they need the registry and that they use it on a daily basis for a range of reasons. That’s good enough for me,” she said.

Opponents of the registry maintain that it is ineffective in quelling firearm violence.

“No one’s offered one shred of evidence…in my riding…that it’s effective at reducing gun crime,” Bagnell said.

Mark Holland, the Liberal opposition critic for public safety and national security, voted against C-391. He pointed to the fatal shooting of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta in 2005.

“That conviction was made possible because of the gun registry,” Holland said.

Cukier was concerned that support will continue for C-391 as those supporting rigourous long gun control remain apathetic. “If I came to McGill and I said…‘How many think we should license gun owners? How many think we should register guns?’ most people would raise their hands. And if I said ‘How many have done anything about it?’ most people look at their shoes.”

The original version of this article included the line: “Both Holland and Cukier argued that a registered firearm left at the scene was instrumental in convicting the shooter.”
Holland and Cukier were referring to the convictions of two men following the Mayerthorpe incident. While the two men were convicted for involvement in the incident, neither was the shooter. The shooter, James Roszko, was a convicted felon, but he committed suicide at the scene and was not convicted.