Canadian Firearms Register

The program's costs have escalated, seemingly out of control

When firearm registration was introduced, it was claimed by the federal government that it would cost $85 million over 5 years to introduce (Department of Justice, 1995). At the time this was announced, these estimates were subject to strong doubt, as registration involves the cooperation of several federal ministries (e.g., Customs, the RCMP, Justice, and Indian Affairs), all 10 provincial governments, as well as all three territorial governments.

The Canadian Firearm Centre (CFC) was set up in 1996 to administer firearm registration. Although firearm owners will have until January 1, 2003 to register their firearms, the cost of the CFC passed $500 million in early 2000, and the total is expected to reach $1 billion within another year. While Bill C-68 was before Parliament, I estimated that the final cost would be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion (Mauser, 1995a, b). I may have underestimated the true costs.

Despite the difficult fiscal situation facing the Canadian government during the 1990s, the budget for the CFC has grown rapidly, even exponentially. At the same time the total number of RCMP officers has declined, the number of employees working on firearm registration at the Canadian Firearms Centre, and associated government agencies, grew from a handful to at least 600 employees in mid-1999 and to over 1,700 by July 2000 (Breitkreuz, 20 May 1999; 19 July 2000). Despite this impressive growth, there is a backlog of more than a million applications. This situation has prompted the CFC to process incoming applications faster (reportedly one every five minutes), and declare a six month "grace period" for owners before they may be charged for not having a firearm license (Levant, 2001, p. A15).

More importantly in a time of tight fiscal constraints, this growth has meant that other governmental priorities have languished while costs have skyrocketed for firearms licensing and registration. The RCMP budget was virtually frozen between 1993 and 1999, and spending on justice services overall has been decreasing (Statistics Canada, 1999, p. 11). RCMP salaries were frozen for seven years, and recruiting and training were severely curtailed. Despite their declining numbers, a large number of RCMP officers have been seconded to provincial liaison jobs where they assist in the screening of license and registration applications. Although the number of police officers has increased slightly in the last couple years, the absolute number of officers declined between 1990 and 1998 (Besserer and Tufts, 1999). The statistics look even worse when considered as a ratio of the number of police officers to population. This ratio is at its lowest point since 1972 (Statistics Canada, 1996, p. 1). In 1998, there were 181 police officers for every 100,000 population, but back in 1975, there were 206 police officers per 100,000. This means there is a shortfall of over 500 RCMP officers in BC alone (Besserer and Tufts, 1999; Statistics Canada, 1999).

These costs might be worth it if the benefits were substantial enough. But what are the benefits? It is true that gun deaths continue to decline, but this decrease does not appear to be linked to the gun laws. Firearm accidents started to decline in the mid-1960s, before the federal gun laws were changed. Similarly, homicide rates have declined over the past few decades, but no solid evidence can be found linking this fortuitous change to the new gun laws (Dandurand 1998; Mauser and Holmes, 1992). Over three-quarters of all deaths associated with firearms in both Canada and the United States are due to suicides. Unfortunately, there is no convincing evidence showing that stricter gun laws can help reduce suicide rates (Dandurand, 1998). Despite the lower rates of firearm ownership in Canada than in the United States, Canada has a higher suicide rate than the United States.

The supporters of firearm registration argue that its benefits are that it controls violence by increasing the difficulty of obtaining firearms and by helping police solve crimes. There is no evidence that merely increasing the difficulty of obtaining a firearm through stricter gun regulations has any important effect on crime rates (Kleck, 1991). The conditions under which registration records might help solve a gun crime are quite narrow (Kleck, 1997). Despite there being a requirement to register handguns since 1934, eighty percent of all reported gun robberies are committed with handguns (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1999, p. 54). Department of Justice officials admitted that they could not identify a single instance where handgun registration helped solved a crime (Hansard, 1995, p. 12,259). The RCMP has repeatedly (e.g., in 1945, 1977, 1990) recommended against attempting to register long guns such as rifles and shotguns (Smithies, 1998). The benefits of firearm registration appear elusive. -- Misfire: Firearm Registration in Canada, Gary A. Mauser


Misfire: Firearm Registration in Canada

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