Gunning for the government

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 12:00am

The American writer William S. Burroughs believed that guns were bad, but government was worse. Why is it, he asked, that after a shooting spree, the state always wants to take the guns away from those who didn't do it?

It is a pity that Burroughs was not around in 1995 when Canada passed a law that required citizens to register their guns. It was presented as a noble undertaking, meant to save lives and reduce crime. And it would be cheap: bureaucrats said the registry would cost the Canadian taxpayer about C$2 million (HK$11.3 million).

Nine years later, the law is one of the most unpopular, ineffective and expensive projects in the history of western government. The cost is now approaching C$2 billion, it has resulted in exactly one prosecution and there is no evidence that it has saved a single life or prevented a single crime.

The reason the law does not work is laughably self-evident. 'People who shoot people do not join lineups to tell police where they stole, smuggled or bought their guns,' said commentator Rex Murphy. Chris Delaney, a Vancouver man who likes to take his son target shooting at the weekend, puts it another way. 'A lot of people feel that a government that doesn't trust its citizens can't be trusted itself,' he said.

Thousands of Canadian duck hunters, weekend target shooters, and other law-abiding gun owners were so upset by the legislation that they ignored it. They claim that of the 1,000 gun deaths in Canada every year, the vast majority were caused either by guns smuggled across the Canada-US border or in domestic situations where a gun registration would not have made a difference.

The Coalition for Gun Control argues that you have to start somewhere. 'All illegal guns begin as legal guns,' it says, so the government has the duty to keep a record of who owns which firearms. Nonsense, replies Vancouver professor Gary Mauser, who has made a study of gun laws his life's work. He says the law was passed by a government cynically trying to win votes from urban eastern Canadians who believe guns and gun owners are, by definition, evil. Gun murders have actually increased 21 per cent since the registry started, he adds.

Many police chiefs think the law is a joke, Native Canadians challenged it in court and won, and the provinces refuse to prosecute citizens who refuse to register. It is an embarrassment to the Liberal government, but too much money has been spent to abandon it. So Prime Minister Paul Martin, facing an election, has promised reforms. He will toughen laws against gun offenders, and reduce the registry workforce to save money. Too little, too late, say the critics. They have their ammunition ready for the political campaign.