Sunday, June 06, 2010

Long-gun registry

Whew. This is a long post. So get settled in and here goes.

Jack Layton will not be whipping the vote in the upcoming third and final reading of Bill C-391, meaning that the controversial long-gun registry could finally meet its demise. This has once again caused a division on the political left, with some praising Layton for allowing his MPs to follow their constituents' wishes and vote their conscience on this controversial issue and others swearing that they'll never vote NDP again because of how Layton has betrayed the left. This latter group really pisses me off.

Really? You're going to blackball an entire political party because of one issue? And I really hate how some of these people on the left think everything you say is just dandy, as long as you stick to the typical "left" stance on the issues. But as soon as you offer a dissenting opinion about anything, they jump down your throat and start telling you how you're not a "real progressive" because a real progressive would not have an opinion like that. Says who? I try to take each issue on an individual basis and do my own thinking. Most of the time I do end up agreeing with the typical "left" perspective. But sometimes I don't. And if you are not thinking things through on your own but just automatically agreeing with everything a particular group says, then you are no better than the idiots on the right who continuously vote conservative time after time despite the fact that if they took a couple of minutes to look into things, they'd find that they're voting against their own best interests.

The long-gun registry has always been controversial but instead of dividing neatly down a right/left line politically like many other issues, it tends to be more of an urban/rural divide. Which is why you have rural NDP and Liberal MPs voting with the Conservatives, and why you have many people who are as left as it gets in every other way but who still strongly oppose the registry. JJ and I are not the only ones. And just because we happen to agree with the conservatives on this one issue does not mean that we have betrayed the entire progressive movement.

So what reasons could we possibly have for objecting to the long-gun registry? And when you read that last sentence, you should inject as much horrified disbelief as possible and you'll be pretty close to the tone some people on the left use when they ask us this question. Because here is the thing. Most of the people who support the gun registry are urban dwellers. And they cannot for the life of them even see why anyone actually needs a gun. Because they certainly don't need one. And it's true. Unless you're a weekend hunter, the need for a gun in an urban setting is pretty much non-existent. I currently live in a city and I do not own a gun, nor do I feel a need for it. With a phone call city police are a few minutes away. If we get a wild animal invading city limits, then you can call the city for help with that too. But you've got to step out of the box for a moment and picture things from a rural dweller's perspective. RCMP are spread pretty thin in some areas, and help from them can literally be more than an hour away. Guns are also useful for pest and predator control. And if you're picturing in your head a bunch of country bumpkins in the back of a pickup truck driving around the countryside shooting at anything that moves - then stop. Yes there is the occasional idiot like that. But for my part, I have only ever seen guns used very occasionally, and only when livestock were directly threatened and there wasn't another way to deal with it. Where my parents farm, they get foxes, coyotes, and even the occasional cougar, but unless there is a problem, they leave them alone. And even then, sometimes a warning shot will suffice to scare them away. The gun is a needed tool in a rural setting.

But, I have heard some people whine, those rural people are in the minority. The majority of us live in cities and want the registry to remain, so we should win! Hmmm. I believe that is called tyranny of the majority and it's something that Canada tries to avoid in general. Just because you don't have a need for something, or even understand that need, doesn't mean you get to steamroll over the rest of us just cuz there's more of you. These are the same people who whine about how electoral ridings represent rural areas disproportionately. Yes they do, to prevent just this kind of scenario.

But the gun registry saves lives! Right? People who use this argument are very fond of saying things like "Over the past decade, the rate of firearm-related spousal homicide decreased three-fold, declining from 1.7 per million spouses in 1996 to 0.5 per million spouses in 2007." And then they like to show this chart. But if you look at that chart closely, you realize that it's actually been dropping for the past 30 years, in line with homicide rates in general, well before the long-gun registry came into effect. The chart does not show a more precipitous drop since 1995 when the gun registry became law. The rate was going down anyway, which suggests that other factors can account for the drop. Which factors? Well, I don't know, how about those mentioned in this government report:

Although it is difficult to determine the reasons why spousal violence has declined, explanations may include increased societal awareness and lower tolerance of spousal abuse, as well as greater access to social services to protect victims (e.g., shelters) and improved responses by the criminal justice system. Over the past couple of decades, pro-charging and pro-prosecution policies have been introduced in all Canadian jurisdictions mandating that charges be laid where there are reasonable and probable grounds to believe that an offence had been committed (Ad Hoc Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group, 2003).
Other measures to improve the justice system’s response to spousal violence include multi-agency coordinating committees, specialized domestic violence courts, civic domestic violence legislation, as well as increased services and supports for victims and treatment for offenders.

You'll notice that the gun registry isn't mentioned.

But the police think it's good, right? Except when they don't. And I have heard anecdotally of other police and RCMP who have expressed similar sentiments - that the top brass are out of touch and that the registry does little to help them in their jobs. Because even when police check and they find that the residence they're being called to does not have any registered guns, they still have to assume that there may be some there. And in rural Canada, where shotguns are ubiquitous, that's a pretty good assumption to make. So operationally, the registry is not causing them to do anything different.

I can think of a couple of scenarios where the registry would be useful. If a criminal actually bothered to register a gun and then was dumb enough to leave it at the scene of a crime, then the police could use the registry to catch them. Not a common occurrence I'm willing to bet. The other way is if someone registers their guns and then begins acting in a homicidal or suicidal manner such that police are alerted and then take away their guns preemptively. Again, I'm thinking this is a rare occurrence. The registry was created in response to the 1989 shootings at Ecole Polytechnique. But the only way the registry would have prevented this tragedy was if Marc L├ępine had registered his weapon and police had become aware of his homicidal intentions ahead of time. Personally, I know someone who committed suicide with a shot gun. It was a horrible thing. But the registry wouldn't have prevented it. If his own family weren't aware of the turn his mind had taken, then the police sure weren't and couldn't have taken the gun away ahead of time.

But, the police do use it! All the time! But sometimes statistics can be misleading:

Once again Thursday, the chiefs trotted out their stats: Last year alone, the registry was used 3.8 million times. That averages out to 10,411 times a day — or seven times a minute, 365 days a year.

Here’s what that means, according to rank and file officers who oppose the registry. Each time an officer searches for any kind of information about anyone, the database is tapped. It’s accessed automatically, all the time.

And of all those times it was accessed, only about 2.4% of queries actually had anything to do with guns.

So here's what I think after spending a lot of time reading about this this weekend.

At this point, I don't think the cost is an issue. Yes, the set-up of the system was expensive, it went way over budget and I think the current estimate is about 1 billion dollars. But the maintenance cost is relatively small, about $15 million is I believe what I last read. So I don't think that is a valid argument anymore.

As to it usefulness, I think I've shown that the data is, at best, incomplete. I like to get to the root of the problem and my personal feeling is that putting more money into preventing crime, providing more social services, and reducing poverty will be more helpful than the registry. Even the Auditor General criticized the registry for having no real way to monitor itself. In my line of work you know that if you set up a program or a service, then you had also better set up some way of monitoring it so that you know if it's been a success or not. Otherwise, come budget time, how do you justify spending money on it? At the very least, we need to put something in place so that we can see what effect, if any, the registry is having.

At that point, we might be able to judge if the registry is actually worth alienating half of Canada for. I've seen nothing to suggest that it is. I think Jack Layton was right to allow his rural MPs to vote their conscience, and if the gun registry dies, so be it. I'm not going to panic.

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