Flaw in Government Study Means Registration will Cost Millions More

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

February 13, 1995

A flaw found in a government study caused a serious under-estimate of the number of firearms in Canada, meaning that the proposed registration of all firearms will cost between 15 and 98 million dollars more than has been estimated. When questioned, women tend to say that there are no guns in their homes when there really are, but the survey on which the government has based its plans could not compensate for this under-reporting. A new study which found this flaw also demonstrated that there is much less support for prohibiting handguns than previous studies have suggested.

The new national public opinion study was designed by Professor Gary Mauser of the Simon Fraser University Faculty of Business Administration, with the assistance of Associate Professor H. Taylor Buckner of Concordia's Sociology and Anthropology Department. The interviews of 1,505 Canadians were carried out by Canadian Facts between January 18 and 23. Funding was provided by the Langley Symposium of Responsible Canadians. A study of this size should be accurate within 2.5% nineteen times out of twenty.

In the flawed government study, a screening question was asked of anyone over 18 who answered the phone, "I would like to know if anyone in your household owns any of the following consumer goods; a recreational vehicle, fishing equipment, skiing equipment, any type of gun or firearm, a pleasure boat?" Only the 23% who said they had a gun were then interviewed, no demographic data was collected on those who denied gun ownership.

In the Mauser-Buckner survey, as in the government study, 23% of those questioned said there was a gun in the home, but 38.5% of married men and only 22.8% of married women, said there were guns in their homes. Several studies on firearms ownership in the United States over the last 20 years have demonstrated that married women are significantly less likely than married men to admit that there is a gun in their home. When adjustments are made for this under reporting, the number of gun owning homes jumps from the 23% estimated by the 1991 government study, to between 27% and 28.5%, and is probably even higher because it is unlikely that only "married" women deny gun ownership.

Why women deny that there is a gun in their home is not known. "It may be that guns are unimportant to them, and they don't think of them when asked," Professor Buckner speculated. "It may be they do not know they are there, that they are uncomfortable with the idea of gun ownership, or don't want to admit it to a stranger on the phone." A further under- counting comes from the tendency of women to say they "Don't Know" if there is a rifle or shotgun in the house, even if they know there is a gun.

The Minister of Justice has estimated in the House that firearms registration would cost 85 million dollars, based on 23% of the households owning guns. If it cost as much to register a rifle or shotgun as it does to currently register a handgun, $82 each, the total cost would be 410 million dollars, based on the 23% figure. Since there are somewhere between 17% and 24% more households with guns than thought, registration will cost at least 15 to 98 million dollars more than estimated.

"The government saved a few thousand dollars by doing a flawed study," Professor Buckner said, "but it is like saving money by not checking the optics on the Hubble telescope before launching it into space: it costs a lot more to fix than to do it right the first time."

"This new study was designed to take a more scientific approach to public opinion on gun control issues than has been the case in previous polls," Buckner said. "By asking the same questions as have been asked in earlier studies, and then placing the questions in a context, it allowed us to see Canadians' thought processes more clearly. When a question is asked in an information vacuum, you get a vacuous response."

For example, the high level of support (71%) for prohibiting handguns found in a 1993 Coalition for Gun Control study, disappears when Canadians are asked whether they favour confiscating handguns from collectors (only 20% do), target shooters (only 24% do), and persons who have handguns for self- defense (only 47.5% do).

Interestingly, slightly over half (54%) of those who favour confiscation of self-defense handguns said they would use a gun to defend themselves or their family from an aggressor.

Only 27% said they would be more inclined to vote for a political candidate who favoured confiscating handguns from their lawful owners, while 43% said they would be less inclined. The government confiscated many handguns, without a vote in Parliament, on January 1 of this year.

Buckner said, "Canadians are thoughtful and decent people. When asked, they favour registration, but when they realize it will cost a lot of money and take police off the streets, they re- evaluate. They say they agree with 'handgun prohibition,' but when they realize it involves confiscating legally owned private property, most back off."

Dr. Buckner trained at the Survey Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his doctorate. He has been professionally involved in survey research for 35 years, and has been teaching at Concordia for 28 years. He teaches the Honours Research Design and Analysis course in the Sociology and Anthropology Department. He is also an instructor for the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. This year he is on sabbatical leave researching issues related to gun control in Canada.


For further information contact Professor Buckner at
1-514-293-4835 (Home),
or Professor Mauser at (604) 291-3652 (office) or
(604) 936-9141 (Home)