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by Shafer Parker

Billions wasted on useless firearms control while the RCMP lacks men and equipment

March 3, 2005, will be remembered by law- enforcement historians for several reasons, most of them tragic. On that day, four RCMP officers, Constables Peter Christopher Schiemann, 25, Anthony Fitzgerald Orion Gordon, 28, Lionide Nicholas Johnston, 32, and Brock Warren Myrol, 29, were shot to death by James Roszko, 46, as they investigated a marijuana-growing operation on his farm near Mayerthorpe, Alta, some 130 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. It was also the first time since 1911 that so many RCMP officers had died in one operation, and it was the first time in 20 years that multiple Canadian police officers had been killed together.

But the Mayerthorpe tragedy may also come to be remembered as the straw that broke the $2-billion federal firearms program (when enforcement costs, compliance costs and economic costs are added in). From its original inception, the program was designed to, among other things, "provide police with important information to help prevent injuries and investigate firearm-related crimes," as stated by Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan last May. But it did nothing to protect the four young officers who were gunned down at about 10 a.m. on that chilly March morning. In fact, according to RCMP Corporal Wayne Oakes, beyond wearing standard bulletproof vests, the officers were not even taking any extra precautions, as they had no reason to believe they were in imminent danger. This, despite Roszko's being under a court-ordered weapons ban since 2000, and in spite of his publicly stated hatred for police and his known possession of several high-powered rifles.

Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz points out that the registry is essentially useless in protecting police in such situations for many reasons, including the following:

* The government does not require that the 176,000 persons prohibited from owning firearms report any change of address to police.

* Police do not track the 37,000 persons with restraining orders against them, or the 12,000 gun owners who have had their firearms licences refused or revoked.

* The law does not require gun owners to store their registered firearms at their home addresses or tell the government where they are stored.

* The government does not keep track of registered firearms that are loaned between licenced firearms owners.

* As of last August, more than 315,000 handgun owners had failed to re-register more than 600,000 handguns.

* Somewhere between 400,000 and one million gun owners have failed or refused to obtain a firearms licence, meaning their guns remain unregistered.

* According to Statistics Canada firearm import and export records, the government still has more than 10 million guns to register.

* Finally, gun-registration certificates contain too few identifying characteristics, making it almost impossible to verify that any particular gun is registered in the system.

Even worse, a very real possibility exists that over the past 10 years the gun registry's prohibitive costs (including another $97 million budgeted for 2005-06) had depleted RCMP resources to the point that a Roszko-type disaster became inevitable. That no senior officers or emergency-response teams were on the scene at the Mayerthorpe farm was no surprise. Such ranking officers are too few and stretched too thin. Chronic funding shortages have led to a change in RCMP policy in which the force deliberately seeks new recruits with life- and job-related experience who supposedly require less supervision. Rural detachments are particularly hard hit. In 2004, Alberta had the third-lowest proportion of police officers, with 160 per 100,000 residents. Only Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island had a lower ratio.

"The Liberal gun-registry fiasco is much bigger than the Quebec Sponsorship Scandal," Breitkreuz says. "Don't take my word for it. The auditor general has verified that any value Canadians receive in terms of enhanced safety is minuscule compared to the amount of money being spent."

Breitkreuz reports that RCMP officers told him that Roszko almost certainly monitored police radio transmissions, enabling him to know where the officers were as he sneaked back onto his farm to do his deadly business. Encrypted communications devices are available that would have made third-party monitoring impossible, but the RCMP cannot afford them. "The gun registry didn't keep guns out of [Roszko's] hands," Breitkreuz says, "but the money spent on it could have provided a tool that would have prevented him knowing where police were, and possibly saved lives."

The basic problem with Canada's Firearms Act, says Dave Tomlinson, president of the National Firearms Association, is that the people who wrote it were not competent in systems design. Unfamiliar with regulatory law, they gave little thought to how each clause affects all the other parts.

Tomlinson points out that the act's problems are exacerbated by the federal government's intrusion into a provincial area of responsibility. "Firearms control is basically regulatory law," he says. "But regulatory law is a provincial area, so they had to put their law into the Criminal Code." But because the Firearms Act is criminal law, criminal rules apply, which means that criminal intent, or mens rea, must be established in order to convict someone of an offence. On the other hand, firearms control is inherently regulatory and administrative two types of law essentially incompatible with the Criminal Code. "All this is very confusing," Tomlinson says. "It's no wonder police repeatedly screw up when they try to lay criminal charges under the Act."

Not surprisingly, because the Firearms Act is a schizophrenic attempt to combine criminal law and regulatory elements into an administrative framework within the Criminal Code, the result is a hodgepodge of draconian penalties and gargantuan loopholes that allow gun owners to pull such mischief as legally registering their guns at multiple addresses ("Up to 20 if the guy is smart enough," says Tomlinson), and even legally buy and carry a concealed handgun without licence or certificate. (A calibre-455 Webley Mark II handgun, for instance, is classed as an antique and therefore under none of the rules and regulations of the Act.)

Nevertheless, Canada's Liberal government remains committed to its registry, to the point of making claims for it that are at best unverifiable. In an e-mail to MPs last December, the Honourable Roy Cullen, parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety, claimed, for instance, that "important client and public safety results [are] being achieved." "How can that be," asks Breitkreuz, "when strict logic declares that laying a piece of paper beside a gun will never stop someone from pulling the trigger?" He also notes that gun-registry "clients" are not really being "served"; they participate under threat of severe criminal penalties of up to 10 years in jail for failing to register.

In response to Liberal boasts that a January 2003 Environics survey found that 74 percent of Canadians support the current gun-control legislation, Breitkreuz counters that a national survey by JMCK Polling in April 2004 showed that a substantial majority of Canadians (76.6 percent) agreed that the registry should be scrapped if the money were devoted to other law-enforcement priorities. And as to claims that the federal program is much more than a gun registry because it also comprises safe storage, handling and transportation of firearms, safety training and education and effective border controls, Breitkreuz points out that all these things existed before the registry was established the difference being that the whole safety and handgun-registration system then cost the government about $10 million per year, much less than the nearly $100 million now being spent annually.

Cullen claimed that registering about two million firearms licence holders and almost seven million firearms is "a true success story in just over five years." In fact, the gun-registry law, Bill C-68, was passed in 1995, nearly 10 years ago. Yet today, more than 400,000 firearms owners are still unlicenced and, by the government's own count, more than eight million guns remain unregistered, forcing Anne McLellan to admit to Parliament that even the government could not claim the registry will be fully implemented until December 31, 2007.

Moreover, many reputable independent observers deny Canada's gun registry has led to any meaningful increase in public safety. Within the past year, police chiefs such as Julian Fantino of Toronto and Jack Beaton of Calgary have publicly stated the registry has not helped solve or prevent a single crime, but that it has frequently provided police with inaccurate information. Instead, the chiefs said, the wave of gun crime they are currently fighting stems from criminally owned, never-registered guns.

Even government agencies disavow the registry's effectiveness. According to an official statement by Statistics Canada, "The specific impact of the firearms program or the firearms registry cannot be isolated from other factors." Instead, Statscan reported last July that in 2003 the robbery rate increased (+5 percent) for the first time since 1996; meanwhile, robberies committed with a firearm increased by 10 percent.

Ironically, an increase in gun crime may actually lead to a corresponding increase in public safety. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics reports that 48 percent of assaults involving firearms result in the victims being injured, compared to a 53 percent injury rate when knives are involved and a 76 percent injury rate when clubs are used. The same is true for armed robberies, where 12 percent result in injury when firearms are used, 17 percent when knives are employed, and 47 percent lead to injuries when the weapon is a club.

So if firearms control is such a monumental failure, why do the federal Liberals defend it? "It's purely political," says Breitkreuz. "I've never discovered any other reason. They don't care how much it costs so long as it caters to voters in Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Oh, and they love to be thought of as being on the cutting edge of societal development at the United Nations."

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