For the gun registry, a good time to die by Don Martin (National Post)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

OTTAWA - As it was in the beginning, so the Canadian Firearms Registry was at the end: A bottomless money pit. A slab of fiscal fudge. Another federal government program loaded with commendable intent which is going down firing a blaze of blanks.

The federal gun registry is dead. The Auditor-General who gave it last rites in her scathing 2002 report delivered an appropriate eulogy on Tuesday. The government is expected to officially bury it today.

In completing an audit she was unable to finish four years ago in the face of yawning information gaps, Sheila Fraser revealed how a concept flawed in logic from conception -- the idea being that bad guys would actually register firearms intended for criminal use -- should be axed as a 10-year, billion-dollar, police-assisting folly.

The final act of registry recklessness was an underhanded attempt by fearful bureaucrats to shield a computer cost over-run of $39-million from the parliamentary spotlight.

They knew their nervous Liberal masters were on the eve of a federal election when registry spending soared above their authorized maximum in early 2004. Senior officials huddled. No records of their meeting were kept. The option of doing a cap-in-hand return to Parliament, begging for another cash dump into their money pit, was deemed an unpalatable electoral liability.

So the Firearms Centre, with assorted bureaucratic accomplices, crafted a shell game, deferring the overrun until the next year to prevent their chronic budget-buster from seeking a public infusion of emergency cash to struggle through another year of ineffective operation.

Damn the relatively modest amount at issue. Fraser sees it a galling and rare affront to political accountability. And it should serve as the perfect tombstone for the registry's demise.

A conspiracy to muddle the numbers and befuddle the auditors is what started Fraser's relentless search for meaning in a firearms balance sheet which, she discovered, had broken every rule in the book.

But while she steers clear of commenting directly on the registry's value as a crime-prevention tool, Fraser unleashes a final paint-by-numbers profile of a program plagued to the end by chronic operational failures, contracting anomalies and questionable benefits.

As hard as it seems to believe, being nailed by a Fraser shotgun blast four years ago did not motivate registry brass to improve efficiency or effectiveness. A database which demands a high degree of reliability to have any law-enforcement integrity is still firing off low-calibre information, Fraser warned. Half of the most dangerous types of firearms did not make the transfer from an established handgun registry to the new firearms registry. Of those which were registered, only a quarter were physically inspected. Of those which reached the databank and had been visually verified, a surprisingly large number had erroneous makes, models and serial numbers.

The registry's tracking of firearm-owner addresses is so systematically flawed that 23% of those who had their licences revoked had notice of their weapon-surrender status returned as undeliverable mail.

Meanwhile, the same old, same old persists in runaway operational spending. The cost of the initial computer system more than doubled to $190-million. And under the new, allegedly prudent management, an upgraded computer scheduled to be in operation by early 2003 remains unplugged, even as its cost tripled to $87-million.

The bottom line, beyond the scary number of squandered dollars, is that a registry of dangerous weapons fails its most basic test of legitimacy. How should a police officer approach a suspicious house whose owner doesn't appear in the registry? Very, very carefully. No officer can have confidence in a tracking system Fraser has twice audited and found so seriously wanting.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day pledges to fix the problem, but won't reveal details until later today. He's expected to declare an amnesty for all those with unregistered firearms. The minute that happens, a registry which has backfired every time its bang for the buck has been tested will be officially useless.

This firearms registry was placed under house arrest by MPs for four years and told to prove its value. But it still breaks the rules. It still loses money. It still hasn't been credited for saving a single life.

For the Canadian Firearms Registry, that makes now a good time to die.
© National Post 2006

Copyright 2006