My Own Personal Flip-Flop (Maybe)

I’m the sort of person that shouldn’t really like the gun registry. I’m a gunowner. I’m a hunter. I generally dislike the idea of the government having a ton of information about me unless there’s a good reason. I don’t like wasteful spending. In short, I’m a bit of a redneck.

For a long time I’ve been firmly against the gun registry. It cost a whole bunch of money ($2 billion apparently) and doesn’t really do that much; after all, most people using guns for crimes aren’t registering them, because…well…they’re criminals. It seems like there are only a few uses for a gun registry: compiling ownership statistics, making law enforcement more careful when entering residences with many registered firearms, and finding out where a stolen registered firearm was stolen from. Sure, it isn’t nothing, but it isn’t $2 billion worth of effectiveness either.

With the benefit of hindsight, I really doubt there are many people who would say this was worth $2 billion. But that isn’t the question anymore. In the language of economics, that $2 billion is what we call a sunk cost. In the language of normal humans, that $2 billion is what we call “you can’t change the past.” A rational policymaker doesn’t care about things that can’t be changed, only things that can. What matters to the future of the gun registry is what it costs right now, and right now that isn’t something that’s totally clear.

Recent news reports (CBC, National Post) have stated the cost at between about $1 and $4 million per year. The $1-3 million range appears to come from a recent RCMP audit (PDF), while the $4 million appears to come from statements by Toronto Police Chief William Blair and possibly the audit report as well. If we actually take a look at the RCMP audit, it does indeed make mention of a $1-3 million range.

“This serves to validate the rationale given in 2006 for moving the CFP [Canadian Firearms Program] to the RCMP, with a $10 million reduction in the overall budget. An exercise that was recently completed to separate out the costs of registration from its supportive link with licensing has demonstrated that portions of the program are actually operating at a much lower cost program than first presumed, even by the RCMP itself. For instance, the gun registration portion of the CFP has been determined, by independent sources, in terms of cost savings to the CFP, at a range of $1.195-$3.65 million for the initial year, and subsequent years will range from $1.57-$4.03 million depending on the classification certification that will still be required.”

Not the clearest paragraph ever written. It looks like it could either mean:

  1. of the $10 million saved for the entire CFP, $1-4 million is savings from the registration program, or
  2. registration costs $1-4 million per year

Elsewhere (p. 13) in the same audit report, we find a cost breakdown of the CFP program for 2008/2009. This lists total program spending at $86.5 million, a number which was incorrectly cited by the Montreal Gazette as the cost of registration alone. This is broken down into non-registration costs of $48.4 million, registration costs of $22.3 million, and contribution (provincial transfer) costs of $15.8 million. So the registry either costs $4 million or $22 million. I really have no idea which.

Here’s where my possible flip-flop comes in. Having experienced the registry as a gunowner, it’s not that onerous at all. You buy a new rifle, the vendor sends in all the forms, you get a certificate from the RCMP to throw in a drawer. That’s it. Gunowners don’t actually need to do anything. Even transferring a firearm between two people takes about 10 minutes on the phone with a very nice customer service rep. Neither of these cost anything. So as long as I can still own guns, I don’t care about registering them. What I do care about is cost.

Bottom line: if it’s $4 million, we might as well keep it. If it’s $22 million or more, maybe we should look at scrapping it and putting the savings into clear writing courses for the RCMP.

– Brent Barron

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Guint says:

    You’re looking at the gun registry from one particular angle: cost savings. While that’s an important perspective, that’s but one side of the coin. Public safety should be paramount when crafting gun control legislation (or scrapping it, in this case). The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have called the gun registry an “essential tool” that allows law enforcement to “protect the lives and interests of Canadians”. Similarly, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians endorse the gun registry. The financial mismanagement of the gun registry is well documented. But like you said, rational public policy-makers should care about those things that can be changed, not those that can’t. The real question then becomes, what price do we attach to greater public safety?

  2. Chong says:

    Rational policymakers should also care about what the net contribution to a stated objective is for any given policy, financially mismanaged or not. Hiding behind the “it’s for public safety” shield is policy cowardice.

    I don’t doubt that gun violence is one – albeit statistically growing (?) – of many public safety issues. The question is “does the gun registry actively contribute to the lessening of gun violence in Canada (thereby improving public safety)?”

    The Auditor General doesn’t think so (2006: 4.38).

    Granted, licensing should theoretically weed out potential problems at the application stage. Registering firearms also serves the three purposes Brent listed above.

    But licensing and registry are two niche solutions to an issue that arguably has deeper socio-cultural roots. Should we not focus our efforts on those areas? Policy-wise do they not also have greater, farther-reaching, more permanent impacts on public safety?

    I don’t doubt that such policies are underway. I don’t doubt that those policies are probably also under quite a few microscopes, fiscal or otherwise. Here’s where your cost savings comes in. Government spending is a finite pie. It’s a big pie, but it’s finite nonetheless. More often than not, program spending is found by robbing Peter to pay Paul. This fiscal calculus is front and centre now given the need for austerity. You’re right in saying it’s only one angle – but at this particular moment in time, it’s THE angle everyone is forced to take.

    Moreover, I doubt perpetrators of gun violence would be deterred by the legal requirement to register their illegal firearms. And if they can’t obtain those, well, to butcher a fighter pilot idiom, “too close for guns, switching to knives?” Surely the United Kingdom example shows that human ingenuity in finding ways to visit violence upon others will continue unhindered, registry controls or not.

    As for the endorsements, three dubious associations do not a glowing endorsement make. The Chiefs of Police can call it an “essential tool” in protecting “the lives and interests of Canadians” insofar as it serves the previously mentioned three purposes. Politically there was also probably little maneuvering room.

    Both the CPHA and CAEP stress that the firearm registry is instrumental in reducing gun deaths in domestic murder-suicides. As per the United Kingdom case, and in any scan of morbid stories in the media, the results are no less tragic or violent if there are no rifles and shotguns.

    My bottom line – keep the registry if it’s reasonably affordable, but spend in other public safety policies that have a greater impact on the reduction of gun violence. While public policy will probably never be fiscally sound, there remains an obligation to assign spending to where it will make the greatest impact. Greater bang for buck, if you will.

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