The long-gun registry’s value is only symbolic

COYNE: It’s not much use, for not much cost. If it’s worth keeping, it’s probably worth killing as well.


One thing all the parties agree on is the vital importance of the long-gun registry. Whether it’s a costly and intrusive waste of time, as the Tories maintain, or an effective tool of law enforcement, as the Liberals insist, or both, as I gather is the NDP’s view, it’s widely seen as a critical, make-or-break issue.

And like most critical, make-or-break issues in politics, it’s of little actual importance to anyone. Whether the registry lives or dies will have no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of Canadians, and scarcely more on the minority that pay it close attention.

Take the cost, first. It is certainly true that the costs of setting up the registry were substantial, and outrageous. If the issue were whether it was worth spending $2 billion just to draw up a list, not of handguns or newly purchased rifles (both are subject to separate procedures), but of the rifles people already owned, I doubt there’d be many takers.

But the registry has been set up. The $2 billion is a sunk cost: it’s gone, and nothing we can do will get it back. The relevant factor in any decision we make now is not what we paid in the past but what we’ll have to pay from here on, that is, the annual cost of maintaining the registry, which the RCMP informs us is less than $4 million a year.

Not terribly costly, and not terribly intrusive either: as its defenders point out, we are obliged to register many other of our possessions, most of them far less capable of havoc than a gun. As Charlie Gillis reports elsewhere in this issue, whatever forms gun owners must fill out on account of the registry are barely noticeable amid the mounds of paperwork to which they are already subject.

On the other hand, there’s not much evidence of the registry’s effectiveness, either. Its boosters among the nation’s police forces say it can be useful, when answering a domestic disturbance, say, to know how many guns are in the house. Which is no doubt true—if the householder has been so good as to register them all. But the best gun registry tells us relatively little about unregistered guns. In sum, the registry is not much use, for not much cost. If it’s probably worth keeping, it’s probably worth killing as well. It just doesn’t matter a great deal either way. That is, if actual costs and benefits are your thing.

But as for its symbolic value, ah, that’s another story. Rightly or wrongly, many people in rural Canada have come to see the gun registry as a sign of the disdain with which they are viewed by blinkered city snobs. The Conservatives know this, and cater to it. Equally, many people in urban Canada have come to see it, not only as the antidote to gun crime, but as a token of credibility on urban issues. The Liberals know this, and cater to it in their turn. (As have the Bloc, though in Quebec the registry is less controversial.) Which leaves the NDP, and the 12 anti-registry MPs in its ranks who will decide this month’s crucial parliamentary vote on the issue. (Sorry, did I say crucial? Not exactly. The vote is on a Liberal motion to scotch a Tory private member’s bill, C-391, that would abolish the registry. But the bill itself does not come to a vote at third reading for some time yet. So even if the motion is defeated, that doesn’t guarantee the bill will pass.)

The wavering MPs, all from rural or small-town ridings, are under enormous pressure, given the registry’s unpopularity with their constituents; two have already recanted under the heat. But that’s nothing compared to the abuse their leader, Jack Layton, has taken. The Liberals have been especially scornful of him for his refusal to whip the vote, painting this as a failure of “leadership.” That’s their privilege, I suppose, but that’s no reason the rest of us should buy into it.

I had some fun at the top of this column with the NDP’s position, or positions, on the issue. But in fact the party is handling it exactly as it should. This needs to be said, and should be repeated every time this comes up: there’s nothing wrong with a caucus being “divided” on a vote. That is simply another name for MPs doing what they were elected to do: represent their riding, either as their conscience or their constituents dictate.

The gun registry shows up nowhere in the NDP’s 2008 platform. The party did not run on it, and MPs cannot be said to owe their seats to the party’s stand on the issue. So there’s no failure of leadership here. Layton may not have much choice—the NDP has many more dissenters in its caucus, proportionately, than do the Liberals, so any use of the whip risked inciting a revolt—but he’s doing the right thing all the same. You take a stand as a party where you have a consensus as a party. If there’s no such consensus, what is the point of pretending there is?

So maybe there is something important at stake here after all. The NDP are taking a principled stand on behalf of parliamentary democracy and the rights of MPs, right? Er, no. When the Liberals were “divided,” as in the vote to extend the Afghanistan mission in 2006, the NDP leader was among the first to criticize them. As usual in our politics, any resemblance to principle is purely coincidental.

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