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Hunting rifles and shotguns sit on the racks at a Toronto gun shop in December of 2002. (KEVIN FRAYER)
Hunting rifles and shotguns sit on the racks at a Toronto gun shop in December of 2002. (KEVIN FRAYER)

Andrew Steele

From gun owners to gun criminals Add to ...

The Canadian Firearms Registry is one of those issues on which it is difficult to engage in rational debate.

Like abortion, firearm policy is what Lawrence Tribe called a " clash of absolutes." Foundational values - of personal liberty and personal safety - are diametrically opposed. The resulting conversation becomes increasingly distorted.

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Proponents of the registry are prone to ad hominem attacks disparaging opponents as witless rubes or overstating the impact of the registry. Opponents of the registry fall prey to over-reaction, citing their hunting rifle as the fountainhead of democracy or dismissing the registry as a tool for police.

The current discussion about the future of the registry is less about policy or outcomes than about its status as a cultural touchstone. Part of the blame for this lays with the birth of the registry in the run-up to the 1993 federal election.

The Mulroney government was made up of a coalition of rural Westerners and urban Ontarians and Quebeckers. Attempting to balance these interests, they responded to the Ecole Polytechnique massacre with a ban on paramilitary style weapons, a 28 day cooling off period and the requirement to pass a firearms safety course. However, some of the survivors and parents of the victims campaigned for further moves, which were adopted by the Liberals in their campaign.

The policy was relatively low-profile in the campaign, but after the election became a rallying point among the Reform Party opposition. Free from any Eastern influence, the proposal of a gun registry hit a nerve among the rural base of Reform, while support for a registry was similarly passionate to the urban-skewed supporters of the Liberal Party.

What had previously been a cross-cleaving issue that the PC Party chose to play down became a front-line issue in the new partisan dynamic. As a result, both parties chose to highlight the issue in media, advertising and fundraising appeals. Making common cause with gun registry opponents was a no-brainer for the Reform Party, who found a new driver for memberships and fundraising.

Similarly, appeals in favour of the gun registry were a turnout mobilizer in urban centres among Liberally-inclined voters. The increasing polarization of the issue invited a knee-jerk response from both sides, exacerbated by civil disobedience against participating in the registry and cost overruns in the IT development.

More than two decades after the tragedy that sparked its creation, the opponent side of the registry issue may have landed a potential coalition in the Commons large enough to defeat the registry.

Should the registry be disbanded?

Philosophically, I think if you have to register your car, it is fair to register your gun. They both have the potential to kill people when mishandled.

More practically, the database is built and used. Certainly, if I were investigating an domestic violence call or other violent disturbance as a police officer, it would be helpful know if I should expect to find a firearm in the home.

There were valid arguments about where to get the best bang for the buck in crime prevention when the database was being built. Frankly, that money would have been better spent on mental-health treatment in prisons, a perennially underfunded program that can directly impact recidivism. However, those same arguments would seem to call for continuing the registry once built, particularly given the relatively low on-going cost for operations.

But I don't expect to persuade opponents of the gun registry with those arguments. The lines are too deeply drawn and the issue reduced to shorthand.

However, I do think there is a very important question to be answered around what next? If the registry is disbanded, or even if it isn't, what should be done to impact gun crime?

I would argue the logical move forward, under either a Conservative or Liberal government, is a Gun Offender Registry.

Gun criminals - people who use a firearm in the commission of a crime - tend to do so again and again. Half - HALF - of those arrested in the United States on homicide charges have prior gun convictions.

The cities of New York and Baltimore reacted to this trend by passing Gun Offender Registry Acts (GORAs). Several other jurisdictions in the United States are examining the policy for themselves.

They require people convicted of gun crimes upon release to register their address with police, verify their location in person every six months and promptly notify police if they change. Unlike dangerous offender status, being placed on the list does not require judicial approval. It is automatic after conviction.

The status ends after a handful of years, balancing concerns around second chances with public safety. A person remains on the registry for three years in Baltimore, four in New York City. Failure to abide by the law is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or a fine of $1000. For those released early, it is also a parole violation.

Both GORAs build on the existing Sex Offender Registries, cutting down on IT costs and start up delays. Baltimore passed their GORA in 2007, and it was up within the year, producing arrests.

In contrast to Gun Offender Registries, the Firearms Registry put the emphasis on the "gun" rather than the "criminal". This generated a obvious reaction from law-abiding gun owners who fear the potential loss of their firearms over time. It also required those same gun owners to participate in the program, making it vulnerable to both abuse and non-compliance.

Operationally, the federal registry required a brand new IT solution that had to be customized. This came at a time when private companies and governments around the world were having trouble with IT management because of a lack of competency, unrealistic demands from the public and elected officials, and big bang approaches to project management.

GORAs are almost the opposite of the gun registry. They require the criminal to register, not the gun; this dovetails with the long-standing gun owner complaint that guns don't kill people, criminals do. Co-operation is mandatory, otherwise the convicted offender faces jail time or a fine. Finally, by piggy-backing on the existing sex offender registry, the GORA is cost-efficient and operating on a proven IT architecture.

The highly successful New York City GORA was tracking 65 career criminals in its first year, expanding to hundreds in its second. Police were able to devote extra attention to these potential recidivists and parole officers welcomed the assistance.

Politically, by adopting such a policy either the Conservatives or Liberals could gain the upper hand on their opponent.

For the Conservatives, a GORA would be a powerful counterattack against the Liberal charge that they are putting politics ahead of public safety. It would allow Stephen Harper to outflank Michael Ignatieff on gun crime, with a new proposal with appeal in the suburban battleground.

For the Liberals, a GORA would amplify their polarization around gun issues, while partially insulating their exposed rural members from charges of caving into big city interests.

Perhaps most importantly, it would finally end the stalemate on gun safety policy and allow a - hopefully - more reasonable debate about what to do with the intersection of privately owned firearms and crime in our society.

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