Patrick Grady and Larry Comeau
What About the Gun Registry?
January 29, 2006

The long-gun registry (Bill C-68) has become a real political hot potato. The killing of the four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, followed by the shooting of the female officer in Quebec demonstrated just how ineffective the costly long-gun registry is. Legitimate gun owners have long been angry about all the red-tape involved in licensing and registration. Many feel that hunters, target shooters and gun collectors have been scapegoated by the Government for its inability to control criminals with guns. Moreover, fiscal conservatives are upset about the irresponsible way a program that was originally budgeted at a few million dollars has been allowed to grow like a cancer to well over a billion dollars. On the other hand, there are many people residing in cities like Toronto, especially after last Boxing Day, who believe guns should be banned entirely.

During the election, the Conservatives promised to repeal the long-gun registry as part of a larger package designed to enhance community safety and security. Now that the election is over is a good time for the new Government to step back and take a less passionate look at the gun control issue before proceeding back into that minefield.

The first and most basic question that must be asked is has the long-gun registry had any significant impact in reducing gun crimes in Canada, including most importantly homicides. Before looking at the available statistics, it is useful to recall that gun regulations are not something that were only introduced to Canada in 1995 when Bill C-68, the Firearms Act that established the gun registry was passed. In fact, laws regulating guns have been around in Canada almost since Confederation.

The most recent laws prior to C-68 were enacted in 1977 and 1991. The first required gun purchasers to have a Firearms Acquisition Certificate and the second introduced mandatory safety courses and additional screening and information requirements. In 1995 Bill C-68 further tightened the regulations by creating a new more restrictive licensing system to replace the FAC and by requiring the registration of all firearms, including long guns such as shotguns and rifles as well as hand guns, which had already been subject to formalized registration since at least 1934. The new regulatory regime was to be administered separately from the Criminal Code by a new agency, called the Canadian Firearms Centre, which was also assigned the responsibility for maintaining a centralized registry.

If the long-gun registry had had a major impact in reducing gun crimes, we would expect to see a significant decrease in some relevant measure of gun crimes after Bill C-68 came into affect. This would have occurred sometime after 1998 when the regulations were passed or maybe even as late as January 1, 2003 when the new licensing and registration requirements came fully into effect. The most important gun crime, which should have decreased, is, of course, homicide.

An examination of the data on homicides shows some revealing trends in recent years. Overall, homicides have gone up since 1998 (Table 1). Homicides by firearms, which account for less than a third of homicides, have also increased sharply. But of more relevance to the issue at hand is the fact that increase in homicides by hand guns has been partially offset by a decline in homicides by long guns. The proportion of homicides by long-guns has declined from over a third to around a fifth since the long-gun registry has come into full effect. This provides some prima facie evidence that the long-gun registry has reduced homicides at least by long guns.1

Table 1
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Total Homicides 596 588 635 586 558 538 546 553 582 549 622
By firearms 196 176 212 193 151 165 184 171 152 161 172
Of which:
Hand Guns 90 95 107 99 70 89 108 110 98 109 112
Long guns 66 64 81 77 51 58 57 46 40 32 37
Other 40 17 24 17 30 18 19 15 14 20 23
Long guns
as a share of firearms' homicides 33.7 36.4 38.2 39.9 33.8 35.2 31.0 26.9 26.3 19.9 21.5

Source: Statistics Canada, Table 250-0002.

Does this mean that the long-gun register was good public policy? Not so fast, that depends on its cost and the alternatives. Since the 2002 when the Auditor General first issued a report decrying the cost overruns on the Canadian Firearms Program, there has been a continuous controversy raging over the out-of-control cost of the program. Following reports by Ray Hession, Decision Economics Ltd. and KPMG in January 2003, the CFP was streamlined and expenditures capped at $82.3 million per year starting in 2005-06, with expenditures on the registry itself limited to $25 million. In the subsequent “Report on Plans and Priorities for 2005-2006 of the Canadian Firearms Centre,” it was estimated that total program costs were already over $1 billion by the end of 2004-05.

Given the high costs of the CFP and the relatively small reduction in long-gun homicides, which may or may not be related to the register, it’s certainly impossible to argue very convincingly that the CFP was a very effective way to reduce firearms homicides. What were the alternatives? In their campaign bluebook (pp.23-24), The Conservatives propose to “reinvest savings from scrapping C-68 into hiring front-line law enforcement officers and assisting victims of crime.” They also propose to “maintain the existing handgun registry and bans on all currently prohibited weapons.” And to “work with the provinces to keep guns out of the hands of criminals” including minimum sentences for firearms offenses and strict monitoring of high risk individuals. They also will beef up border security, including arming Customs officers. This sounds like a pretty good plan, particularly since Bill C-68 doesn’t seem to have done much to curb gun crimes in Toronto, which was turned into a shooting gallery on Boxing day and, where many the supporters of a ban on guns live.

But, there’s more. There will be “a certification system requiring a background check and safety training.” Wait a minute, how does that differ from the existing licensing system? If a certificate is just another name for a license, then the only savings from implementing the Conservative proposals will be the elimination of the register. And that accounts for only a small part of the budget of the Canadian Firearms Centre - $14.6 million in the Main Estimates for 2005-06 to be precise. It gets worse. Some portion of the $14.6 million will probably be needed if the Government were to decide it wanted to preserve and continue to access the registration information on existing guns for law enforcement purposes.

And worst of all from the point of view of wasting taxpayer money would be the prospect that another government in the future might decide to reestablish the gun registry after it was abolished. The cost of this would very much depend on how much of the old system was still operational. This is a real danger of only partially abolishing the gun registry. There will always be the possibility that a future government will be fooled into reestablishing the registry on the misapprehension that it won’t cost very much. If the C-68 the Firearms Act is to be killed, it would be best to drive a stake through its heart. Or else it may come back to waste even more taxpayers’s money. It’s also necessary to realize the savings necessary to finance the other part of the Conservative’s plan.

1.  Two studies by Gary Mauser for the Fraser Institute also make the case that there is not much evidence on the effectiveness of the gun registry in reducing gun deaths even including suicides, which account for four fifth of the total. See Gary Mauser , “Why a Drop in ‘Gun Deaths’ Can Not Justify the Gun Registry,” Fraser Forum (November 2005), pp23-26 and “Suicides and the "Gun Deaths" Fraud,” Fraser Forum (Septembre 2005), pp21-22.