Research on Firearms Registration:
A Presentation to the Parliamentary Justice Committee

8 May 1995

H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Concordia University, Montreal

I appear before you today as a sociologist who has followed the gun control debate for the thirty years since I was a police officer, as an expert in survey research which I have practiced and taught for 35 years, as a member of the Quebec Shooting Federation, an instructor for the Canadian Firearms Safety Course given by the Quebec Wildlife Federation, and, apparently, as one of the 5,000 reported members of the Coalition for Gun Control.

I will confine my comments to a few points that I have researched.

Under-Estimation of Number of Firearms In Canada

On December 3, 1990, I wrote the Director of the Firearms Control Task Force, proposing a study based on 10,000 interviews, to determine the distribution of firearms ownership in Canada. Many months later, with no response from the Firearms Control Task Force, and only after a freedom of information request by Southam News, I discovered that the study had been carried out in February 1991, with a sample of 10,000, using a slightly cheaper, but defective, methodology. This study (Reid) became the foundation of the Government's estimate of the number of firearms in the country.

According to estimates I calculated from the 1995 Gun Control Survey, organized by Professor Gary Mauser, with my assistance, the Reid study under-estimated the number of firearms in Canada by at least 24%. This is a result of women not reporting firearms ownership (which has been found in other surveys), and not taking into account those who refused to answer the question. There are also people who lie, which makes the total an unknown percentage higher. Similar problems have been reported in U.S. surveys (Erskine; Kennett; Kleck). Thus, the cost estimates for Bill C-68 based on the number of firearms to be registered are many, many millions of dollars too low.

Registration - Compliance

Universal firearms registration is justly controversial. Personally, I routinely send a list of all my firearms to the Surete du Quebec so that they will have it on file in case my guns are stolen or destroyed, along with my records, in a fire. But is universal registration good public policy?

Even those who support universal registration can only say they hope it will reduce firearms accidents, suicides and homicides by forcing gun owners to be more careful, and by providing the police with a list for Prohibition Orders, or for seizure in case of domestic conflict. There is certainly no research that suggests that either of these hopes is realistic, but for the sake of argument let's say they are. For either to work, the weapons likely to be misused would have to be registered, and in the case of prohibition orders, the registration would have to be current, complete, and correct.

In the 1995 Gun Control survey, a national study carried out by Canadian Facts in which 1,505 Canadian adults were interviewed, we asked gun owners, "If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?" Overall, only 71.1% (+ or - 6%) of gun owners said they would register all their guns. In other words, roughly two million firearms belonging to over a quarter of firearms owners will remain unregistered. Of course, over time with great expenditure of funds and criminal prosecutions, more than 71.1% registration could probably be achieved.

As Table 1 shows, among the small number of female gun owners who admitted gun ownership, only 40% said they would register all their guns. There is less than one chance in one hundred that this difference in willingness to register between the two sexes was a result of sampling error.

Propensity to register also varies widely by region of Canada (Table 2), with 86% of Quebeckers and only 58% of prairie gun owners saying they would register all their guns. There is less than one chance in twenty-five that the differences in willingness to register among regions was a result of sampling error.

The reasons for reluctance to register are not hard to understand. Many farmers have an old Lee-Enfield rifle, worth about $60, and they may be reluctant to pay $60 every five years for a possession licence, plus registration fees, to register their $60 rifle. Others, perhaps including a fair number of women, do not want anyone to know they have a firearm for self-defense. Still others are concerned that their firearms will become prohibited - after all the government just prohibited by Order in Council over half a million legally owned and registered handguns, and says it wants to prohibit two kinds of rifles commonly used for hunting and sporting purposes as soon as Bill C-68 comes into force - so this concern comes from seeing what has already happened, and what has been proposed.

No one seriously argues that criminals will register their guns. The black market appears to be large enough to replace those few guns that cannot be stolen because registrants store their firearms more securely (Criminal Intelligence Service Canada).

The argument has been made that before domestic conflict arises, the participants are law abiding and will register their guns. But, "Husbands who kill their wives typically have criminal records and/or substance abuse problems and/or are experiencing economic difficulties. They have a history of violent disputes with their wives that has not been made known to the police. (Dansys p.47)" That many people in this situation will register their firearms seems unlikely, as Table 3 demonstrates, because only 46% of persons in common law unions, where the rate of uxoricide is eight times higher and the rate of slain husbands is 15 times higher than in registered unions (Wilson and Daly, p. 9), said they would register all their guns. Also, single people, who account for 45% of those accused of homicide (Fedorowycz p. 15), are significantly less likely (61%) than the average (71.1%) to say they will register all their guns. Thus the people most likely to misuse guns are those who are least likely to register them. There is less than one chance in fifty that the differences in willingness to register by marital status was caused by sampling error.

As a former police officer, I cannot imagine a rational police officer placing any trust in a system that is likely to be ignored by the most dangerous elements in society.

Registration - Logistics

Let's take as the registration goal an estimated 8 million firearms in Canada. In any given year there are just over 4,000 misuses - just under 3,000 firearms lost or stolen (which would include the legal arms used in criminal acts), 1100 suicides, just under 250 homicides and about 60 fatal accidents. Taken together this means that 1/20th of 1% of the firearms are misused, 99.95% are not of interest to the legal system. Registering the 99.95% which are of no interest, to find the 0.05%, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack by registering every piece of hay.

Over the last five years only 1% of applications for the Firearms Acquisition Certificate have been refused (R.C.M.P). People who are likely to be refused don't apply (Scarff, et. al.). If people who have criminal records, mental instability or domestic conflict have a gun, (perhaps inherited, perhaps bought before 1978, perhaps stolen) they are unlikely to apply for a possession licence, because, upon investigation, it would be refused. Without a possession licence they could not register their guns. If the government is proposing to issue licences to all present owners without serious investigation, then many who are likely to misuse their guns will become licensed owners, and registration will come to be seen to be a failure.

The police will be required to record and approve every transaction between firearms owners (C-68, 30-33), who they have already, presumably, investigated and approved. This will necessarily require a great deal of time and paper work. There are only 56,774 (1991 - Campbell) police officers in Canada, who are already fully occupied. Investigating millions of Canadians, almost 100% of whom will prove to be law abiding, may be a less efficient use of police resources than targeting those most likely to misuse firearms (Wright).

Even if 95% of owners registered, an astounding and probably impossible success rate, the guns most likely to be used for domestic and criminal homicides will be significantly under represented in the system.

The notion that suicides and accidents will be reduced by registration depends on a convoluted and unproven chain of logic. First the owner has to register. Then, because he has registered he will be inspired to go out and purchase locks or a safe which he would not have purchased had he not registered. Then, because he has registered, he has to consistently keep the firearms out of the hands of other people in his household who might misuse them, which he would not have done if he had not registered. One or two potential suicides may have to find a plastic bag, or a car in the garage, or a high place because they can't get into the gun safe, but the overall suicide rate will probably not be affected. There might possibly be one or two fewer accidental deaths with safer storage occasioned by registration, but this is only conjecture. Most of the benefits which might be expected from registration have already been achieved by the Firearms Acquisition Certificate system and the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. The diversion of police resources into the registration system, for marginal additional benefit, may well mean that there is less time for investigating and preventing problems, so, overall, it is unreasonable to expect registration to produce any net saving of lives.

It is also unreasonable to expect any great number of real crimes to be solved, or weapons to be usefully traced because of registration. All but the most careless and dim witted thieves will drill out the serial number on any gun they steal, making it untraceable. Instead we can expect a host of technical charges against gun owners who have not followed this complex law to the letter.

In the last 20 years the firearms homicide, accident and suicide rates have all declined, and firearms use in crime is not increasing (Roberts, p. 19). There is no evidence that a registration system would, on balance, make Canadians any safer. There is a great deal of evidence, from the mail you have received, that the implementation of a registration system will profoundly alienate some members of Canadian society. Registration appears to me to be a lose-lose proposition.

Finally, I would like to quote the Chairman of this Committee on the subject of universal registration, "... for the ten million long guns in Canada I believe that a registration scheme would be unworkable and impractical in comparison with its potential benefits." (COMMONS DEBATES, April 8, 1976, p. 12627, Mr. Allmand)

Note: Tables and References not included, they didn't format for e-mail.