Gun owners not breathing easy yet
by Lorne Gunter

PUBLICATION: Edmonton Journal
DATE: 2006.06.23
SECTION: Opinion
COLUMN: Lorne Gunter
BYLINE: Lorne Gunter
SOURCE: Freelance

Gun owners not breathing easy yet: Conservatives may substitute a paperless registry for the existing one

"Ding Dong! The Witch is dead (...) The Wicked Witch is dead!"

Huh!? She's not dead? Just napping?

With the introduction this week of Bill C-21, the federal Conservatives appear to have set in motion the death of the Liberals' long-gun registry. But have they really? It's not yet possible to tell, for sure.

I hope they have. Yet the devil will be in the regulatory details that follow the passage of C-21 -- if it passes -- sometime this fall or next spring.

Until then, the legislation introduced by Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day looks like an improvement over the Liberals' universal gun registry, perhaps even a significant improvement.

But it could also turn out to be merely a tinkering at the edges, more spin than substance.

Kevin Staines, president of the Responsible Firearms Owners Coalition ofB.C., believes the bill is "the least any political party could do" to keep its campaign promises, "the minimum required to keep gun owners on side."

If that is all it is, it would still be an improvement over the Liberals' law. There remains a good chance, though, Day's bill will fall far short of ending gun registration. Day says his legislation will amend the Firearms Act and Criminal Code so law-abiding Canadian hunters, farmers, gun collectors and target shooters no longer have to register their rifles and shotguns. Handguns would still have to be registered. And all owners, whether of handguns or long guns, would still be required to take federal firearms safety courses, agree to criminal background checks and obtain licenses before acquiring guns or even buying ammunition.

The only Liberal boondoggle the Conservatives appear to be getting rid of is the demand that the Canadian Firearms Centre be given detailed information on every long gun in the country and where it is. Seemingly gone is the need to register individual guns, the most expensive, useless and error-prone part of the Liberals' gun-control regime.

But the Conservatives want to add the requirement that the details of every gun sale be registered. So depending on the regulations they bring in to accomplish that, we might still end up with registration via the backdoor.

We won't know, though, for some months after C-21 is passed and the regulations implementing it are released, whether the need to identify and register each and every firearm is well and truly gone. If it is, then C-21 will be a huge step back from the Liberals' catastrophic registration policy.

But there is some chance that all the Conservatives are doing is substituting a paperless registry for the existing one.

I know police brass across the country, and even some frontline officers, have convinced themselves that registering individual guns increases police safety, and also possibly public safety.

They theorize that if police have access to reliable data on which houses contain guns, how many and what kinds, then when officers answer emergencies calls they will be better able to protect themselves againstbeing shot.

But any officer who goes into a dangerous situation trusting in the registry's data to keep him safe is reckless or foolish, or both. And there is no proof registration cuts down on gun crime, or even on the number of guns available to crooks, by encouraging safe storage by lawful owners. As the government pointed out Monday, according to Statistics Canada "of 549 murders recorded in Canada in 2003, only two were committed with long-guns known to be registered."

Neither of those were prevented or solved because of the billion-dollar registry. So the Conservatives are not endangering the police or the public by getting rid of the registry.

But are they really getting rid of it?

As Staines points out, registering the sale of each gun, as the Conservatives propose, could easily amount to the same thing as registering each gun. The only difference for gun owners and buyers would be that they themselves might not have to obtain a federal certificate for each firearm in their possession. The paperwork would be held instead on Ottawa's computers. Owners would not face jail time for failing to have registration documentation for all their firearms - a nice change from the current setup -- but they would nonetheless still, effectively, have to register any new guns they acquire.

"If the new regulations require that each gun being transferred be uniquely identified, and that that identity be filed with Ottawa before the transfer goes through," Staines explains. "Then you still have registration. It's just paperless registration."

Let's hope the Conservatives don't attempt such a slight-of-hand.

There are positives signs they will not. For instance, a lot of gun owners were worried that Monday's legislation would reclassify pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles -- the bulk of so-called long guns -- as restricted weapons. Both are currently non-restricted. Had they been reclassified, though, they would still have had to be registered, despite Day's new bill.

But the Conservatives did not make that change, so there is reason to hope they will not also attempt to turn their new proposal to register all gun sales into a registry-by-default. Still, gun owners aren't -- yet -- breathing easy.