A phony gun battle

Killing the long-gun registry won’t be the folly critics suggest. But it won’t be the liberation gun owners may be hoping for either.

If he had his way, John Hipwell would spend more time selling guns, and less filling out paperwork. His store in Virden, Man., Wolverine Supplies, sells everything from deer rifles to semi-automatic handguns—a trade that requires him to wade through import permits, sales records and registration certificates on a daily basis. So when Candice Hoeppner, the Conservative MP from a neighbouring constituency, drafted a private member’s bill that would relieve one small part of his burden, Hipwell cheered. Canada’s long-gun registry has been “a waste of time and money,” he says, and Hoeppner’s proposal to shut it down would make life easier for merchants like him. As for concerns about public safety, Hipwell dismisses them with a wave. “The bottom line is that anyone wishing to acquire a firearm is going to have to get a possession and acquisition licence,” he says. “He’s going to get checked.”

It is the least publicized aspect of legislation that has resurrected a stubbornly undead issue, and one worth considering as the bill faces a crucial vote in the Commons next week. Yes, Bill C-391 would be a death sentence for laws requiring gun owners to register every single one of their hunting rifles and shotguns. But if they pass into law, Hoeppner’s amendments will leave the other, arguably more onerous, component of the Canadian Firearms Program intact—namely, the licensing regime through which the government assembles personal information on gun owners themselves.

Acquiring a firearm would still mean sending a photograph verified by a friend, along with two character references from someone who’s known you for three years or more. Background checks? Still required. Phone numbers so your spouses can be notified that you’re getting a gun licence? Keep ’em coming. All of that detailed personal information would live on in the existing electronic database, along with registration data for restricted weapons like handguns, where it will be at the fingertips of police attending complaints or investigating crimes. That may come as a surprise to the farmer who thought the government was about to leave him alone with his rusty .22. The gun registry is about to become a registry of gun owners.

All of which invites a question: if the bill would leave the most invasive components of the Liberal-made gun-control system in place—and if it leaves most safeguards for public security in place too—exactly what is this fight about?

Votes, is the short answer. For years before they were elected, Conservative members representing rural constituencies promised to scrap the gun registry should they ever get to power. Hoeppner’s legislation offered the Tories their best chance to fulfill that obligation, explains political scientist Tom Flanagan, because they needed opposition MPs from other parties to get it through the minority Parliament (unlike on government-sponsored legislation, MPs from other parties are typically allowed to vote their conscience on private member’s bills). The bill’s capacity to sow division within opposition parties has proven to be a bonus, Flanagan adds: last fall, with the legislation in second reading, fully 12 NDP members and eight Liberals voted in favour, pitting these mostly rural members against their urban colleagues. That in turn has put pressure on their leaders to take a stand, with Liberal boss Michael Ignatieff whipping next week’s vote, and NDP Leader Jack Layton working hard to sway his members who voted in favour of the bill last autumn. So far, two have agreed to switch.

Still, to some long-time observers, any short-term political gains for the Tories can’t justify the wounds reopened by Bill C-391, which as a country we may find hard to mend down the line. “The way the debate [over Bill C-391] unfolds reinforces this notion of a rural West versus an urban East,” says Roger Gibbins, a political scientist and head of the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation. “As somebody who lives in a large western city, it frustrates me. And I don’t think it’s particularly good for the country.”

Indeed, say observers, the whole conversation may serve only to strengthen stereotypes of the Tories among urban Canadians as the party of rubes. Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper who now teaches at the University of Calgary, acknowledges that risk, noting that it’s the sort of issue that stands between the Conservatives and a breakthrough among suburban and urban voters in southern Ontario that would propel the party to a majority.

“Every poll has shown, in terms of national public opinion, a majority in favour of the gun registry,” he says. “I think they’re willing to take a hit in the polls now and by the time an election rolls around, say next spring, the budget will be the issue and most swing voters won’t be thinking about it.”

That’s a lot of risk to take on for the sake of pleasing 1.8 million gun owners, who may not be so thrilled by the legislation when they realize it spares them little in the way of federal intrusion. It certainly fails to spare them much expense. While it costs $60 to obtain a licence for possession and acquisition of a gun, the actual registration or transfer of firearms ownership is currently free. Nor would it be much benefit to taxpayers: the RCMP, which operates the firearms program, estimates the annual cost of the long-gun portion of the registry at about $4 million, about six per cent of the cost of the entire program.

Then again, gun control has always been an issue of symbolism, meaning the details of any change matter less than the perception the government is doing gun owners a favour. And one of the enduring curiosities of anti-registry types is the fact that many are more rankled at the idea of their guns being tracked than the fact that they themselves are being watched over via the licensing system. “As far as I’m concerned, the licensing provisions aren’t rigorous enough,” says Hipwell. “My son is an RCMP officer. I have a wife and daughters. Nothing is more important to me than their safety and security.”

Perhaps no one grasps this sort of nuance as well as Hoeppner, who this week embarked on a nationwide tour aimed at pressuring Liberals and New Democrats who voted in favour of her bill at second reading. Hoeppner is as happy to tout what her legislation doesn’t change as what it does, rejecting fears raised by the country’s police chiefs that ending the registry would endanger police officers and inhibit firearms investigations. “You won’t be able to just walk into Canadian Tire and buy a gun,” she says from her riding of Portage-Lisgar, in southern Manitoba.

But she’s not about to apologize for striking a blow in favour of gun owners, either. “This has been our policy the entire time our party’s been in existence,” she says. “People support us because that’s what we believe in.”

Hoeppner, suffice to say, doesn’t see herself as an agent of political discord. If all goes according to plan, her bill will survive next week’s vote (on a Liberal motion to kill the legislation), then pass third reading. With licensing provisions still in place, she says, police attending calls would have information to warn them of the possible presence of guns; at the same time, the system would help keep firearms out of dangerous hands. In her best-case scenario, it would produce detente over an issue that since the firearms program’s inception in 1995 has exposed regional and political fault lines like few others.

It’s a pleasing outcome to contemplate. Yet even at this early stage it seems overly optimistic.

Four years ago, the federal government announced an amnesty allowing people with unregistered long guns to bring themselves into compliance without prosecution. Critics predicted a dramatic drop in registrations (why do it if there’s no penalty?), but it was the actual licensing that slid instead. In 2007, according to RCMP numbers, about 1.9 million people had licences for possession, acquisition or ownership of non-restricted firearms. By June of this year, that number stood at 1.83 million, while the number of guns registered had increased five per cent, to just over 6.8 million.

Are unscrupulous owners making a cold calculation, figuring they don’t need licences if the government doesn’t know they have guns? Hard to say. But if licences are to be the primary safeguard in the absence of registration, it’s an obvious red flag, and you can bet the first heinous crime committed by the unlicensed owner of a long-gun will produce a wave of recriminations over Hoeppner’s bill. That in turn will reignite the war over gun control that a decade ago drew battle lines between us—rural and urban; conservative and liberal; West and East. Not exactly an attractive prospect for those who got enough the first time around, and an awful lot of trouble just to save some paperwork.