Thursday, November 25, 2010

When we used to play "Bang Bang"

I have sat on this post for a while, because I was doing it for a Political Science paper, but I have the green light from my Professor to post it online.
An issue that has been getting a fair share of press time in Canada recently is the bill to eradicate the long-gun registry. The precise thrust of the debate that has raged, most recently coming to a head in a vote that was put to the House of Commons September 22nd, 2010, is whether the long-gun registry represents a substantial enough benefit to Canada to justify the rising cost of upkeep. This issue has particular import for Canadians not only because many Canadians own long-guns and many others believe it to be an invaluable tool for the police, both in crime prevention and investigation, but also because the annual net cost of the program is between $1 million and $3.6 million, not including the amount that is financed by gun-owners who are forced to pay fees simply to keep their personal guns. The other aspect of this debate is whether it actually provides personal security through the control of firearms, or whether it simply creates the illusion of such, by appealing to people’s emotions, rather than their rational sides. The final point that people raise when arguing the issue is whether or not it is actually an effective tool for the police to use; most police chiefs tend to support it (74% of officers reported a benefit from query searches prior to major operations; Canadian firearms program - survey, Canada Firearms Office, May 8, 2008), while the majority of rural citizens disagree (72% of Canadians responded to a survey that they did not believe the registry prevented crime; Canadian Firearms registry, Wikipedia, November 3, 2010).

    I do not support the gun registry because I believe it is a band-aid solution that lulls people into a false sense of security without considering the ramifications of the financial investment, when the same cost could provide the police with better tools to keep law and order, such as more strict gun legislation, better education for gun owners and handlers, or by simply being put into police forces across Canada to encourage hiring and promotions. Three things are necessary for a crime; motive, weapon, and opportunity. Since the registry does not do anything to deter the motivation, and the opportunity is variable depending on external factors, such as weather or location, the weapon becomes a factor dependant on opportunity and personal preference. In other words, if we outlawed guns, we would simply see an increase in knife violence, as is the case in Great Britain where guns are illegal except for police officers’ weapons, but people still commit violent crimes with knives, pipes, and even screwdrivers. This dissemination of the policy surrounding the long-gun registry demonstrates clearly how it is essentially unable to prevent crime.
    One of the arguments illustrating the ineffectiveness of the long-gun registry is the Mayerthorpe incident, the tragedy in the town of the same name where James Roszko took the lives of  four young mounties with rifles he had hidden on his premises.  The Police and townspeople were aware, in that small community, that the man possessed firearms, and this fact did not assist the mounties.  Mr. Roszko had been prohibited from legally possessing firearms, but this did not stop him from stock-piling weapons. One of the weapons that he used was registered to the grandfather of  Mr. Roszko’s accomplices, and it is often brought up that the registry brought police to the men that were later charged as accessories to the murders, but since the weapon had been reported stolen to the police, it could also have been traced through the usual police method of investigation.(Mayerthorpe Incident, Wikipedia, November 16, 2010). If the registry cannot be found to have a use in such a large, wide-scale investigation as Mayerthorpe, it is unlikely to assist in smaller, more variable situations. It is simply the nature of the registry that it cannot inherently prevent violent firearm crime.

    I  believe that the long-gun registry is only detracting money and attention away from initiatives that could be more effective. For example, the $3.5 million annual could, if spent on the police forces, create around 344 more officers, based on the average total cost of training, salary, and benefits per year, $101 742. (Crime control and Public Expenditure, The John Howard society,  September, 1995). Once the current “amnesty” for citizens who do not register their guns ends on May 2011, the registry will become an even bigger burden for the officers who are forced to waste their time on people who have failed to register their long-guns but present minimal threat to public safety.  These people might also become disgruntled if forced to give up their means of defence against robbers and wild animals.

     On the subject of police support,  a former president of the association of police chiefs went on record saying that the system was expensive but has proven itself to be an asset in police forces (Police chief issues statement on long-gun registry, Sudbury star, Frank J. Elsner, September 15, 2010). He continued on to say that officers relied on the registry to tell them whether or  not there were guns present  in the house before entering a domestic dispute situation. One of the most common examples cited by supporters of the long-gun registry is that the registry has decreased the rate of domestic homicides in Canada, but in fact it has been dropping since 1970, years before the registry was introduced, and only approximately 26% of spousal homicides (30% for female victims) involve a firearm (Statscan, August 21, 2009); 72% of the incidents involving a firearm involved a long-gun, (Statscan

     It is precisely these situations which reveal the danger in the registry. If officers become complacent when going into situations, believing there are no guns present, they run the risk of being blind-sided by a man with a gun. This could result in a much more harmful situation. Many people respond to this by pointing out that officers always assume there are firearms present, in which case we are left to wonder what good the registry does if the officers are alert equally at all times. There is also, given the two recent officer shootings in Alberta (Police kill Driftpile man, Edmonton Journal, Conal Pierse, November 21, 2010; Alberta serious incident response team investigating reserve shooting, Edmonton Journal, Conal Pierse and Mariam Ibrahim, November 17, 2010),the suggestion that officers entering a situation where they know guns are present, might be overly inclined to respond with higher levels of force than they would otherwise because they have been “psychologically primed” for a more serious incident . In fact, when one begins to look for statistics on officer support of the bill, completely contradictory numbers are indicated and backed by evidence, (Officer's survey finds 92% of police want gun registry scrapped, CSSA, Tony Bernardo, August 19, 2010; Canadian firearms program - survey, Canada Firearms Office, May 8, 2008)  so it is hard to say whether or not officers are in support of it at all.

    When considering the financial aspect of the registry we must consider that the initial cost of the gun registry was heavily over budget compared to any expectations, and the result is that most people feel it would be a waste of money to abandon it without seeing some fruition of the cost. This phenomenon where people feel they can glean some good out of lost resources if they just add a little more resources (Digging yourself out of a hole you’ve dug) is common in psychology but does not necessarily imply that it is correct; sometimes money spent is simply money wasted. The constant upkeep of the program is almost $4 million a year and during these times of economic hardship, every spare tax dollar must be carefully considered to maximize good. Consider the statistics behind the registry: it is accessed around 14,000 times a day (bringing the cost to a little over seventy five cents a search), but of those 14,000, only 530 are genuine searches (or about $414 worth of real concern) , the rest are automatic searches whenever a name or address is run (Canadian Firearms registry, Wikipedia, November 3, 2010). Within that 530 intentional searches, however, whenever a firearm sale is completed, it results in three separate searches: one for the buyer, the seller, and the registration number of the gun itself. Thus the complete traffic on the registry could be accounted for by 175 gun sales, and five genuine officers. Although this situation is unlikely, it does outline the absurdity of running a massive program for $4 million a year when the amortized benefit is equivalent to about $151 000.

    There is also the possibility that this illusion of public safety created by the long-gun registry is being brought up to entice voters to cast their ballot for the Liberals next election, the Liberals being the strongest supporters of the registry; implying  the conservatives care less about women, who are the supposed victims in most long-gun crimes, is a powerful fear tactic. The supporters of the long-gun registry have not been subtle in their manipulation of human emotions, pushing supporters such as an École Polytechnique massacre survivor into the limelight (the registry was the Liberal government’s response to the massacre), and allowing a Liberal MP from Newfoundland to tell the story of how his father committed suicide with a gun (Long-gun registry survives tight commons vote, Ottawa Bureau, Campion-Smith and Les Whittington, September 22, 2010). But people who do not support the long-gun have no such similar heart-wrenching stories. Their motivation is to ensure taxpayer’s money goes to an initiative that will work towards actually preventing crimes, in the fashion the registry claims to do, but in fact cannot. (Interestingly, the United States used Canada’s log-gun registry as an example of why it should not adopt a gun registering program, although its decision not to is widely attributed to the fact that the U.S. has more guns. (Canadian Firearms registry, Wikipedia, November 3, 2010) )
     The registry claims to prevent violence against battered women, but since there is no actual restriction on who can acquire a gun, this means that it will simply prevent a murderer from having a license, which does not intrinsically prevent them from having a gun or, indeed, any form of weapon. Rough estimates put the number of confiscated guns that are illegal and smuggled in through the United States between 70% and 97%, depending on the region of Canada the statistics are obtained from (The long-gun registry: Costs and crime statistics, Public Safety Canada, December 5, 2008). Many people argue that police could use the database to see if spouses involved in domestic disputes possess firearms, then go in and confiscate them, but Canadian officers have had the power to search property and seize weaponry that they believe may pose a threat to public safety since 1969, and this power is granted without regards to the gun registry. Even the Auditor General has said the registry seemed more concerned with filling licenses and registrations, and that:
“The Centre does not show how these activities help minimize risks to public safety with evidence-based outcomes such as reduced deaths, injuries and threats from firearms.”
(Bungled gun registry focus of Fraser’s report, Canwest News service,, May 17th, 2006)

    One further uncomfortable fact that we learn from the Mayerthrope incident is that Mr. Roszko possessed a list including the names, call signs, and cell-phone numbers of mounties working in several townships in Alberta. There is no suggestion that Mr. Roszko obtained the list from the registry but it raises questions about what he could have done with such information, and how dangerous knowledge can be in this society.  A noted computer consultant in fact proved to the Federal government that he could break into the registry system in under thirty minutes, and gained information such as names, addresses, and various details about the firearms contained therein. (Canadian Firearms registry, Wikipedia, November 3, 2010) It is one thing to keep firearms in one’s home, but it is quite another for the government to make a detailed list containing many convenient locations for criminals to acquire guns from, which are both inherently useful as well as valuable. There has already been one documented case of home invasion where it appears the house was “targeted” because it contained firearms, and people are concerned about more cases. If the registry cannot be properly secured, and the information cannot even be properly verified, so anyone with a basic understanding of computer hacking could wreck mischief and undermine the integrity of they system, then the registry becomes a source of harm for the government, and puts the lives of responsible gun-owners at risk.

    With these considerations in mind, its inability to prevent crime, irrelevance to domestic homicide cases, exorbitant cost, and privacy issues, it becomes clear that the long-gun registry, although well meaning, was a bad idea, and should be abandoned in favour of more effective crime prevention measures as soon as possible. Although doing so will likely cause a political backlash in the form of uninformed people who see only specific incidents rather than trends in crime statistics, sometimes it is necessary to do things that may seem unpleasant to make the right decision.

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