The Globe & Mail published excerpts from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police position paper, on March 13, 1995, under the title "Why Canada's police chiefs favour gun registration."

Here is the text of my reply, submitted to the Globe & Mail Commentary Page. I have not heard if they are going to print it, but I thought it might be useful to send it along, because the 'position paper' is likely to show up in various places.

A Response to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police

H. Taylor Buckner
Associate Professor of Sociology
Concordia University

Back when I was a police officer I developed an allergy to lead flying in my direction. I do not like being shot at. No police officer does. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is legitimately concerned with reducing risk for their officers and for society as a whole. Back in 1976 they argued persuasively, on the basis of research, that firearm registration was counter productive. In 1995, without doing any research, they support universal firearms registration. What has changed?

It is certainly not an increase in firearms misuse. Comparing 1976 with 1991 (the worst recent year for firearms homicides), the firearms homicide rate has dropped from 1.1 per 100,000 to 0.9. The firearms suicide rate has dropped from 4.8 to 4.1, the firearms accidental death rate has dropped from 0.4 to 0.2. By all these measures the situation has improved, not deteriorated.

Record keeping technology has improved since 1976, computers and bar codes make record keeping more efficient. At the same time the process of investigating a potential or actual gun owner has become much more demanding, with references, neighbours, and social service agencies to be checked, as well as police records. Thus while it is easier to retrieve records, it has become more time consuming to create them.

In 1976 the Chiefs said that the cost of registering the 8 million firearms in Canada (on a legitimate basis) would be "staggering." In 1995 they say "The federal government has promised that the costs will not be downloaded on police agencies and has proposed that fees be nominal to promote compliance." If this turns out to be true, the "staggering" cost will be born by the taxpayer.

In 1976 the Chiefs said "The registration of firearms, serializing and licensing will not act as a deterrent to violence and will not necessarily identify the person perpetrating the crime." In 1995 the focus has shifted to punishing the gun owner whose gun was stolen, because he did not store it safely enough to prevent the theft - as if that were possible.

One thing that has changed is that, in 1976, the Chiefs saw the utility of firearms for self-defense, particularly for people in rural areas, high crime areas, or in stores containing valuable merchandise. In January 1995, in Guelph an 81 year old jeweller was charged with unlawfully firing a gun at two teenagers who broke into his store. Perhaps he should have subdued them by physical force. In 1995 the Chiefs are silent on the value or duty of self-defense, it has become an unmentionable.

In 1976 the Chiefs thought of the logistics of registration, in 1995 they have ignored logistics, and produced a wish list of benefits that they hope might come from registration. Almost all the benefits they mention - solving crimes, tracing firearms, punishing firearms owners for unsafe storage - can, and will, be eliminated by drilling out the serial number of the gun. The first time a police officer is shot in a house that the computer said was gun-free, police across the country will stop trusting the system.

Let's look at the logistics. Bill C-68 proposes a "Firearms Possession Certificate" that every firearm owner in Canada will have to have. There are approximately one million Canadians who have a currently valid "Firearms Acquisition Certificate," and two million gun owners (who have not bought a gun in the last five years) who do not. These two million will have to be investigated - the Minister of Justice says it will just require mailing in a postcard, but will the police not be blamed for not investigating when a newly licensed owner misuses his gun?

Let's take as the registration goal the 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, 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 misused. The misused firearms are not a random sample - half of men who kill their wives have criminal records, 20% were already under a prohibition order, almost all handgun homicides are with unregistered guns. The guns most likely to be misused will be the hardest to register. Over the last five years only 1% of applications for the Firearms Acquisition Certificate have been refused. People who are likely to be refused don't apply. 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 FPC, because it would be refused, and thus they could not register their guns.

The police will be required to record and approve every transaction between Firearms Possession Certificate holders, whom they have already investigated. This will surely require many more police officers, or fewer officers on the street. There are only 56,774 (1991) police officers in Canada - some might think they could be better employed than in investigating millions of Canadians, almost 100% law abiding.

A further problem, revealed in a January 1995 national survey on Gun Control designed by Professor Gary Mauser of Simon Fraser University, which I helped with, is that less than three quarters of current gun owners said they would register all their guns. The reasons 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 an FPC plus registration costs that could end up at around $100, to register their $60 rifle. Others are concerned that their firearms will become prohibited - after all the government just prohibited over half a million legally owned handguns, and says it wants to prohibit a varmint rifle, the Mini-14, and a target rifle used in shooting matches, the AR-15, as soon as it passes Bill C-68 - so this is not paranoia, just taking the government at its word.

Even if 95% registered, an astounding and probably unachievable success rate, the guns most likely to be used for homicides, domestic and criminal, will not be among them. 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 not be affected. There might possibly be one or two fewer accidental deaths (some of which are disguised suicides) with safer storage occasioned by registration. But at what cost?

I heard recently that the government is spending five million dollars a year on breast cancer research, and that 5,400 women will die of breast cancer this year, or $926 to prevent each breast cancer death. Registration will arguably cost about $100 million a year to implement, and there are about 1,400 firearms deaths (almost none of which would be affected by registration) a year, for a cost of $71,429 for each firearms death. For each death that registration could actually prevent, the cost will be many millions of dollars. Are gun victims worth 77 times more than breast cancer victims?

Would it not be cheaper and more effective to publicize the safe storage laws? Some surveys have shown that many gun owners do not yet know about them. Why not an advertising campaign addressed to gun owners who would probably respond well to the information. After all, gun owners are the only group in society who are all certified to be law-abiding by the police.

Registration could well increase the crime rate. It will turn hundreds of thousands of Canadians who never had a criminal impulse in their lives into criminals if they do not take action and spend money. The police will not have the resources to check and recheck the law-abiding and at the same time give extra attention to domestic violence and drug wars.

The Chiefs are caught in what sociologist term the "foreman's dilemma." They have to represent the boss to the workers, and the workers to the boss. Sometimes they come down on one side or the other and find their effectiveness impaired. In this case they might want to consult further with the officers they represent before giving such an unqualified endorsement to a system that will be "staggeringly" expensive and of little practical use.