I was at my local gun range the other day when my shooting partner told me a secret. He thought the long-gun registry was actually pretty useful.
It turns out he uses the registry as a kind of insurance when he buys guns online. He doesn't send money to a seller until the registration is transferred into his name. The arrival of the registration card means that the seller actually had a gun to sell and that it matches the description in the ad.
This is a use of the long-gun registry we never hear about. But then our current debate is not really about the registry or long guns. Rather, it is the worst kind of wedge politics: an argument designed to pit Canadians against each other by appealing to stereotype and ignorance.
Both sides of this debate have been very misleading about the issues involved.
For example, the most common argument in favour of the registry is that it allows police to discover whether there are guns in a house before they answer a call.
As every gun owner in the country knows, this is silly. Canada already maintains a registry of all legal gun owners in the country through its acquisition licensing system. That database is far more complete and up-to-date than the long-gun list will ever be because gun owners need to prove they are in it every time they buy basic supplies such as ammunition. Rather than checking a potentially incomplete gun registry to see whether a specific firearm is registered at an address, police would be far better off checking the more complete acquisition list to see whether anybody has the right to even own a gun legally.
Another false argument is that the registry will help to prevent tragedies such as the shootings at the École Polytechnique or Dawson College. As it is currently structured, the registry is not a tool for gun control. It can be used to tell whether a particular gun was stolen or otherwise legally or illegally acquired after a crime has been committed. But it is not set up to prevent people from acquiring guns.
In fact, it is relatively easy to buy guns in Canada. U.S. federal law requires a background check for most types of gun purchases. Many states also require a waiting period before a firearm is delivered to a customer or restrict the number of guns an individual can buy in a given period of time. It is illegal in the U.S. for individuals to sell firearms through the mail across state lines to anybody other than a licensed firearms dealer.
In Canada, in contrast, owners of a valid gun licence can buy as many guns as they want whenever they want them. There is no waiting period on gun purchases or additional background checks beyond that required for the original acquisition licence. There is even a lively cross-country market for second-hand guns sold by individuals through the mail.
Opponents of the registry have also overstated their case. Like most aspects of the firearms program, the registry runs with a speed and ease most of us have never experienced in registering our cars or renewing our driver's licences. New guns are registered automatically when you buy them. Even classes of firearms such pistols, which require a special permit, can have their registration transferred within hours.
More important, gun owners know that firearms can be dangerous. The shooting community is fanatical about safety. Ranges have very strict, and strictly enforced, rules governing conduct. In competitions, even the smallest technical infringement of safety rules results in immediate disqualification.
The registry debate has created a false sense of mistrust between urban and rural Canadians and between gun owners and gun-control advocates. We all have an interest in ensuring gun safety. The only winners in this argument are the politicians who are creating this unnecessary division for short-term political gain.
Daniel Paul O'Donnell is an English professor at the University of Lethbridge.