Canada Sets Sights on Gun Registry

TORONTO -- Police began kicking down doors before dawn on a chilly May morning while gang members in Toronto's Jamestown neighborhood still slept. By lunchtime, officers had made 106 arrests, collected 33 guns and announced they had broken an international gun ring run by the notorious Jamestown Crew.

The raid was a shot across the bow from newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who says his Conservative Party government is going to spend its money on crime control, not gun control. The sweep came two days after Harper announced plans to dismantle Canada's controversial gun registry -- a system reviled by conservatives and gun owners, but lauded by others for reducing homicides and helping police.

Canada's low crime rate and unique gun-control system has played into Canada's identity as a peaceful, progressive place, in contrast to its neighbor to the south. There is no right to bear arms in the constitution, so the policy debate is much less heated than in the United States.

Canada created the gun registry in 1995, the result of persistent lobbying after 14 girls were shot at l'Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 in an attack known as the Montreal Massacre. Handgun owners had been required to license their guns since the 1930s, but the registry put new restrictions on who could have them, required all guns to be recorded and banned assault weapons.

Catherine Bergeron, whose sister was gunned down in the Montreal Massacre, is fighting the repeal of the registry.

"I find it incredible this debate still persists," she said. "Possessing a gun is a privilege, not a right."

Compared to the United States, where there are 220 million guns among 300 million people, and 10,800 gun-related homicides in 2004, Canada is a peaceful backwater, with only 175 gun murders that year. Los Angeles alone had 416 gun-related killings that year.

But Canada's gang-related killings have gone up fourfold in a decade, along with the growth of gangs largely imported from the U.S. that attract what police and social workers describe as young black males from mostly West Indian immigrant families. And with the gangsta culture comes the guns.

"If you want a gun, you can get one in a day, a couple of hours maybe," said Andrew Bacchus, 30, the founder of Toronto's Vice Lords gang, who is now working with Breaking the Cycle, a gang-exiting program. "The gun registry hasn't made any difference on that."

Homicide rates have increased, but shootings mostly have been confined to neighborhoods such as Jamestown in the northeast part of the city inhabited by gangs. But the death last year of a 15-year-old girl caught in gang crossfire in a downtown shopping center the day after Christmas -- and in the middle of an election campaign -- was a turning point.

Fighting crime became a part of nearly every stump speech, a theme that hit home not just with Conservatives, but with middle-class voters across the spectrum. Harper promised stricter sentences, but also a repeal of the gun registry, saying the millions it cost a year to track hunters would be better used for cracking down on gangs.

The registry wasn't the only thing Harper is gunning for. He is serious about changing hallmark Liberal policies that had long distinguished Canada from the United States. In his first 100 days as prime minister, the conservative, free-market economist from Canada's west began to dismantle the Liberal platform plank by plank: he bowed out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, dropped legislation to decriminalize marijuana, and backed out of expensive Liberal social programs for aboriginals and child care.

The registry was an obvious target. When it was created a little more than a decade ago, it was expected to cost only a few million dollars, and to be largely self-sustained by user fees. The expense of creating an extensive computerized database spiraled out of control, however, and an Auditor General's report this month estimated the total cost to be nearly $1 billion over 10 years. It also showed that officials with the former Liberal Party government buried budget overruns so they wouldn't have to go before Parliament to seek more money.

A poll released in May showed that although 67 percent of respondents want gun control, they don't want the current system. The poll also illustrated the geographic split in Canada: Support for some form of control reached 71 percent in the eastern, more urban provinces of Ontario and Quebec, but only 51 percent in the western provinces, a traditionally conservative stronghold populated by more hunters and farmers.

"The gun registry registers legal guns," said Toronto's deputy police chief, Tony Warr. "Gangsters don't register their guns."

Although it doesn't directly address the problem of illegal handguns, the registry helps create a culture that guns are dangerous and owners must be held accountable, said Wendy Cukier, a professor of justice studies at Ryerson University and the co-author of the book "The Global Gun Epidemic."

The screening process, for example, makes it harder for people with a criminal record to buy any gun, and those who apply to buy a handgun must show why they need one.

"Gun control is one piece of an integrated strategy," she said. "Controls on rifles and shotguns were never targeted toward gang violence. They are more likely to be used in domestic violence and rural suicides. But as you increased the registration of firearms, you make it harder for people who shouldn't have them to get access to them."

Along with his planned legislation to repeal the registry, Harper waived the $60 licensing fee, a move that will surrender some $120 million in revenue, obviating any savings from cutting the registry.

"It's not about the money. It's not about public safety. It's about payback for the gun lobby," Cukier said. "It's clear that Harper is playing to his base in Alberta," Cukier said. Pointing to the relative paucity of firearms in the country, she added, "There are 2 million gun owners in Canada, so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for politicians to be tripping over themselves to accommodate them."

One of the effects of the gun registry was to reduce rural suicides and the toll of women gunned down by men with legally owned shotguns and rifles during domestic disputes. Since 1991, firearms killing of women have gone down 62 percent.

"That shows that taking guns out of people's homes and making them think twice has had a real effect," Cukier said. "Why change that now? Why do anything that it makes it easier to get guns?"

Please read our Comment policy.