By JOHN DIXON
Wednesday, January 8, 2003
– Page A11
We now know that the government's gun-control policy is
a fiscal and administrative debacle. Its costs rival those of core services
like national defence. And it doesn't work. What is less well known is that
the policy wasn't designed to control guns. It was designed to control Kim
When Ms. Campbell was enjoying a brief season of success in her re-election
bid in the summer campaign of 1993, Mr. Chrétien was kept busy reassuring
what he called the "Nervous Nellies" in his caucus that Ms. Campbell's star
would soon fall. To bring her down, the Liberals planned to discredit her
key accomplishment as minister of justice, an ambitious gun-control package.
Those measures -- enacted in the wake of the Montreal Massacre -- included
new requirements for the training and certification of target shooters and
hunters. We got new laws requiring: the safe storage of firearms and ammunition,
which essentially brought every gun in the country under lock and key; screening
of applicants for firearms licences; courts to actively seek information
about firearms in spousal assault cases; the prohibition of firearms that
had no place in Canada's field-and-stream tradition of firearms use.
I was one of the department of justice officials involved in that earlier
gun-control program. When the House of Commons passed the legislation, Wendy
Cukier and Heidi Rathgen of the Coalition for Gun Control, which had been
part of the consultation process, supplied the champagne for a party at my
So what were the Liberals to do, faced with a legislative accomplishment on this scale?
Simple: Pretend it hadn't happened, and promise to do something so dramatic
that it would make Ms. Campbell look soft on gun control. The obvious policy
choice was a universal firearms registry.
The idea of requiring the registration of every firearm in the country
wasn't new. Governments love lists. Getting lists and maintaining them is
a visible sign that the government is at work. And lists are the indispensable
first step to collecting taxes and licence fees. There is no constitutional
right to bear arms in Canada, as is arguably the case in the United States.
So why not go for a universal gun registry? The short answer, arrived
at by every study in the Department of Justice, was that universal registration
would be ruinously expensive, and could actually yield a negative
public security result (more on this in a moment). Besides, in 1992 Canada
already had two systems of gun registration: the complete registry of all
restricted firearms, such as handguns (restricted since the 1930s) and a
separate registry of ordinary firearms.
This latter registry, which started in the early 1970s, was a feature
of the firearms acquisition certificate (or FAC) required by a person purchasing
any firearm. Every firearm purchased from a dealer had to be registered to
the FAC holder by the vendor, and the record of the purchase passed on to
the RCMP in Ottawa. So we were already building a cumulative registry of
all the owners of guns in Canada purchased since 1970.
The FAC system was a very Canadian (i.e. sensible) approach to the registration
of ordinary hunting and target firearms. If you were a good ol' boy from
Camrose, Alta., and didn't want to get involved, you didn't have to -- as
long as you didn't buy more guns. Good ol' boys die off, so younger people
in shooting sports would eventually all be enrolled in the system.
After the Montreal Massacre, the then-deputy minister of justice, John
Tait, asked me to review the gun-control package under development. One thing
I immediately wanted to know was how many Canadians owned Ruger Mini-14s
(the gun used by the Montreal murderer). The Mini-14 came into production
about the time the FAC system was introduced, so the FAC should have a good
picture of the gun's distribution.
But when our team asked the RCMP for the information, we couldn't get
it. Computers were down; the information hadn't been entered yet; there weren't
enough staff to process the request; there was a full moon. After a week,
I said I didn't want excuses, I wanted the records. Then a very senior person
sat me down and told me the truth.
The RCMP had stopped accepting FAC records, and had actually destroyed
those it already had. The FAC registry system didn't exist because the police
thought it was useless and refused to waste their limited budgets maintaining
it. They also moved to ensure that their political masters could not resurrect
Such spectacular bureaucratic vandalism persuaded my deputy and his minister
to concentrate on developing compliance with affordable gun-control measures
that could work. A universal gun registry could only appeal to people who
didn't care about costs or results, and who didn't understand what riled
up decent folks in Camrose.
Which is precisely why it appealed to those putting together the Liberal
Red Book for the pivotal 1993 election. If the object of the policy exercise
was to appear to be "tougher" on guns than Kim Campbell, they had to find
a policy that would provoke legitimate gun-owners to outrage. Nothing would
better convince the Liberals' urban constituency that Jean Chrétien and Allan
Rock were taking a tough line on guns than the spectacle of angry old men
spouting fury on Parliament Hill.
The supreme irony of the gun registry battle is that the policy was selected because it
would goad people who knew something about guns to public outrage. That is,
it had a purely political purpose in the special context of a hard-fought
election. The fact that it was bad policy was crucial to the specific political
effect it was supposed to deliver.
And so we saw demonstrations by middle-aged firearm owners, family men
whose first reflex was to respect the laws of the land. This group's political
alienation is a far greater loss than the $200-million that have been wasted
so far. The creation of this new criminal class -- the ultimate triumph of
negative political alchemy -- may be the worst, and most enduring product
of the gun registry culture war.
John Dixon is a hunter, and president of the B.C. Civil
Liberties Association. From 1991 to 1992, he was adviser to then-deputy minister
of justice John Tait.