H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
Home Page E-Mail: taylorbuckner@earthlink.net  

 

Chapter 7. Registration of Firearms

An official record containing the purchaser's name, address, and Firearms Acquisition Certificate number is kept for all firearm sales by licensed dealers in Canada. All restricted firearm transfers must be registered. Sales, gifts and loans of non-restricted firearms (mostly rifles and shotguns) among individuals are not registered.

Parliament has now mandated universal registration in C-68. Various rationales for registration were advanced: it will make owners more responsible; will encourage them to store their firearms safely; registration will allow the police to enforce prohibition orders, taking guns from dangerous individuals; registration will let the police know what they face in hostage taking situations. Analogies have been offered: cars, dogs, and trees (in Toronto) are registered, so why not guns? Proponents of registration did not claim that registration will affect the criminal use of guns, except in domestic situations, but expressed the hope that it will reduce suicides and accidents.

If all firearms in Canada were actually registered, (although compliance is unlikely to top 60%) there might be some instances in which police would find the data useful. Compliance, however, is likely to be at a low level overall, and at a still lower level among the most troublesome members of Canadian society. All analogies are imperfect, but cars, dogs and trees are all large objects exposed to public view. Failure to register them is neither a Criminal Code offense, nor subject to a ten year prison sentence.

Firearms are relatively small objects which, legally, have to be hidden from public view most of the time. At home, regulations require that they be locked away out of sight. When they are being transported, they must be locked and concealed from public view. When they are in use, they are either in isolated fields or woods, or within the confines of a shooting club. It is rare that the police will be able to check firearm registrations, except in homes, cars and clubs, and only then if they intentionally decide to do so. The licence plate on a car is considerably larger than almost all handguns. Dogs wear their licences around their necks. Trees do not move around much. It is fairly easy and unintrusive to check to see if these large objects are registered. Moreover, prominent government officials have not been heard to remark that nobody in Canada needs cars, dogs or trees.

In some ways a more apt analogy would be a requirement to register jewelry. Diamond rings are small, high-value objects that can be concealed easily, though they are sometimes worn in public. Imagine the success registration of jewelry would have if the government first seized diamonds over one carat, then banned diamonds under one half carat except for people who already owned one, then proposed registering all jewelry, reserving the right to prohibit any unreasonably ostentatious types, while saying, "We do not want to take your wedding rings, but no one really needs jewelry." One would reasonably expect that universal jewelry registration would be less than completely successful, even with draconian enforcement. Universal registration of firearms will be just as problematic as this hypothetical registration of jewelry.

Registration

In all public opinion research, a distinction must be made between mass opinion and public judgement. In an abstract way almost everyone agrees that poverty should be reduced. On the other hand, no one likes paying the heavy taxes that support a generous social welfare system. Most people realize that public issues always involve trade­offs. This is also true with registering firearms. A good idea is not quite so good when one realizes that it will cost a fair amount of money and tie up a number of police officers in paperwork (Wade and Tennuci 1994).

Numerous surveys funded by the Coalition for Gun Control and the Department of Justice have found that over 80% (86% in the Coalition for Gun Control study conducted by Reid in September, 1993 and 86% in this January, 1995, survey) of Canadians support universal firearms registration. These studies are accurate reflections of the response to the abstract question, but they reflect "mass opinion" rather than "public judgement."

To determine the real support for registration, six questions were asked. First, "Do you agree or disagree that all firearms should be registered?" This is essentially the same question the Justice Department cited to show public support for registration. Then five further questions were asked of those who agreed with registration, in the general form, "If ... would you still (agree strongly or somewhat) that all firearms should be registered." This wording was perhaps not as felicitous as it might have been. It tends to encourage a "response set," wherein the respondent continues to "agree" to avoid cognitive dissonance with the first response - as if he or she had considered all the complexities when answering the first question. Thus these questions are likely to over-estimate support for registration. If people had been asked to consider the costs or trade-offs in the first question, overall support might well have been lower.

The Six Questions on Universal Registration of Firearms

  • 11.3 Do you agree or disagree that all firearms should be registered? IF 11.3 (AGREE STRONGLY OR SOMEWHAT TO ALL FIREARMS SHOULD BE REGISTERED), ASK:
  • 12.1 If it would cost $100 million over the next five years to set up and maintain a firearms registry, would you still (AGREE STRONGLY OR SOMEWHAT) that all firearms should be registered?
  • 12.2 If it would cost $500 million, would you still (AGREE STRONGLY OR SOMEWHAT) that all firearms should be registered?
  • 12.3 If you ,knew that it would increase your taxes, would you still (AGREE STRONGLY OR SOMEWHAT) that all firearms should be registered?
  • 12.4 If you knew the police were opposed to registration, would you still (AGREE STRONGLY OR SOMEWHAT) that all firearms should be registered?
  • 12.5 If registration would force the police to pull constables off the street in order to deal with the paperwork involved, would you still (AGREE STRONGLY OR SOMEWHAT) that all firearms should be registered
Responses 11.3 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5
Agree Strongly 75.7 47.4 32.4 29.8 49.5 27.3
Agree Somewhat 9.9 16.5 17.5 20.8 16.3 16.0
Disagree Somewhat 4.9 8.4 12.5 18.8 8.3 17.9
Disagree Strongly 7.3 9.5 17.3 12.7 5.3 18.3
Don't Know 2.1 3.8 5.9 3.6 6.3 6.2
Total Percent 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Total Responses 1,505 1,505 1,505 1,505 1,505 1,505

Support for universal firearm registration declined in every situation where costs or trade-offs had to be considered. The greater the cost or reduction in public services, the less the support. The respondents may not have been ready for the question. "If you knew the police were opposed ... ," because the support of the Association of Chiefs of Police had been in the headlines, and the Chiefs steadfastly resisted efforts to survey working police officers. Several surveys taken during the summer and fall of 1995 indicated that police officers' support for registration is far from universal.

If it were possible in a public opinion poll to consider combinations of options, such as the cost being $500 million (a low overall estimate), and necessary attendent reductions in policing, support would probably fall further,among those willing to make a "public judgement." There are, in essence, three opinions being expressed by our respondents. The first is opposition to registration; the second is support or opposition to registration depending on the cost or other trade-offs; the third (which, in some cases, may reflect a "response set"), support for registration regardless of the cost or whatever else is involved.

Index of Attitudes Towards Universal Registration: Number of registration questions in which the respondent agrees with registration.
Responses CATEGORY Number Percent
Does not agree with registration NONE 215 14.3
Agrees with one to five questions SOFT 919 61.1
Agrees with all six questions HARD 370 24.6
Total Responses   1,505 100.0

The first category, "none," are those who did not agree or did not have an opinion on universal registration. The second category, "soft," are those who agreed in the abstract, but disagreed in one or more of the "trade-off" scenarios. The third category, "hard," are those who support registration in every instance without regard to cost or public-safety trade-offs. The "none" are highest in the Prairie provinces (28%), the "hard" highest in Quebec (31%). Interestingly, Quebec also has the highest number of "soft" responses (65%). Rural regions had the highest level of "none" responses (25%), and large cities had the highest level of "hard" responses (26%). Interestingly, almost two thirds (64%) of those in small and medium sized cities, and large cities, had "soft" responses.

Men were highest in the "none" category (20%), women highest in the "hard" category (29%). Both were roughly equal in the "soft" category. The oldest age group was least likely to accept registration ("none," 23%), the youngest most likely ("hard," 30%), but the young were also most open to public judgement ("soft," 63%). People with the lowest level of education were most likely to reject registration ("none" 21%), while high school graduates were the most likely to accept it under any circumstances ("hard" 28%). Increasing levels of education lead to increasing willingness to consider trade-offs ("soft"), 57% for those with less than high school, to 65% for university graduates. People in the lowest income group were most likely to be "hard" (37%), while people in the highest income group were most likely to reject registration, "none," (15%).

Gun owners had the highest level of rejection of registration ("none" 47%), while non-gun owners had the highest level of complete acceptance ("hard" 28%). Interestingly, non-gun owners were also the most open to considerations of trade-offs ("soft" 65%). The intransigence of many gun owners toward registration will be considered later in this chapter.

Those who hold "Right and Hunt" values are most likely to reject registration (29%), while those who hold "No Right No Hunt" values are the most likely to support it ("hard" 36%). Knowing two or more factual items of the law is not significantly related to attitudes on registration. Those who say they are "very familiar" with the current law are most likely to reject registration (42%), while those who are less familiar are just average ("hard" 25%) in their support. A similar pattern is found with those who discuss firearms and gun control "frequently" being the most opposed to registration ("none" 35%), while those who discuss the topic less frequently are just average. Those who spontaneously mentioned some type of "gun control" as a method of reducing violent crime are very likely to support registration under all circumstances ("hard" 36%).

The "Values, Effectiveness and 'Hard' Support for Registration graphic gives another way of looking at this relationship. Respondents with "No Right No Hunt" values support registration at any cost whether or not they believe gun control will be effective. Perhaps they see registration as a first step towards eliminating all guns. On the other hand, if a respondent who does not have anti-gun and hunting values thinks that stricter gun control is ineffective, then they tend to oppose universal registration ("none" 35%).

Values Effectiveness, and Support for Registration (Graphic)

Background   VALUES   EFFECTIVENESS   ACTION
Prairies   Right and       Do not
Rural   Hunt   Ineffective   Register or
Male           Confiscate
    Mixed   Neutral    
Quebec            
Urban   No Right   Effective   Register,
Female   No Hunt       Confiscate

In general, those who think gun control effective are more likely than those who think it is ineffective to support universal registration. There are, however, some people who favour registration and confiscation whether or not they think gun control is effective. The path diagram shows an outline of this relationship.

Attitude on Registration BY Basic Values BY Perceived Effectiveness of Gun Control (Graphic)

  Attitude on Registration Perceived Effectiveness of Stricter Gun Control
Basic Values   Not Effective Neutral Is Effective Total Percent
Right and NONE 49% 16% 5% 29%
Hunt SOFT 45% 65% 66% 56%
  HARD 6% 20% 29% 15%
  Col% 100% *101% 100% 100%
  Row% 45% 39% 16% 100%
  n = 237 209 83 529
Mixed NONE 19% 7% 2% 8%
  SOFT 70% 69% 58% 66%
  HARD 12% 23% 40% 26%
  Col% *101% *99% 100% 100%
  Row% 21% 45% 34% 100%
  n = 129 271 209 609
No Right, NONE 5% 4% 2% 3%
No Hunt SOFT 73% 58% 61% 61%
  HARD 22% 38% 37% 36%
  Col % 100% 100% 100% 100%
  Row % 10% 43% 47% 100%
  n = 37 157 174 368
Total Row % 27% 42% 31% 100%

Overall, support and opposition to universal firearms registration is a reflection of individual values. Those who would like to see a Canada without guns support registration regardless of whether they really believe it will be effective, and regardless of the cost. The majority, who are not ideologues, are more concerned with costs and trade-offs. Those who support the right to own firearms, or favour hunting or are gun-owners, are least likely to support registration, though many of them would do so if they thought that it would provide worthwhile results.

Compliance with Registration

For universal firearm registration to provide any benefits beyond harassing gun-owners, there must be a high level of compliance. If there is not, the police will not be able to use the data with any certainty. They cannot inspect gun owners for compliance with storage regulations, or be notified of the theft of unregistered firearms. Without nearly absolute compliance, millions of guns can and will be sold on the gray (not registered, for non-criminal use) or black (not registered, for criminal use) markets. The government has already confiscated various kinds of registered firearms on at least five occasions between 1978 and 1995. Only irretrievably naive and hopelessly optimistic gun owners believe that they are not vulnerable now that the Federal government has the right to prohibit any firearm thought to be not "reasonable" for hunting and sporting purposes.

When the survey was administered in January 1995, details of the registration system had not been tabled in Parliament. Many gun-owners were willing to go along, in principle, since the Minister of Justice had assured them that it was going to be inexpensive and as easy as mailing in a postcard. After the legislation was actually tabled, it became clear that it was not to be so simple. Every hunting trip to the U.S. will require the exporting and re-importing of each firearm. Anyone found without their registration card can be charged with an offense. Failure to register can bring a ten year sentence. Short barrel and small calibre pistols are to be prohibited. A semi-automatic hunting rifle widely used for varmint shooting is to be prohibited. A semi-automatic rifle used in every "military" match in Canada is to be prohibited - these were run under the aegis of Rifle Associations which had a century-long partnership with the military in encouraging marksmanship. The costs are still not known, but it will hit either taxpayers or gun owners (probably both) for a great deal of money. As the gun owners who were not involved in the debate become aware of what is involved, opposition appears to be growing.

The question asked in January 1995 has to be considered very general. Now that some details are known, non-compliance may become far more likely.

Gun owners are generally law-abiding. Since 1978 all legal owners have all been checked out by the police before being granted a FAC. Some, however, are a higher risk than others. If the low risk people register in great numbers, and the higher risk people do not register (as is certainly likely), the registration records will be relatively useless - an experience Canada has had twice before with firearms legislation. The first was an effort in the 1920s to register firearms purchases by "aliens", and the second was an attempted universal registration during the Second World War.

Gun-owning respondents were asked, "If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?" For registration to be effective, the only acceptable answer is "all."

Q.18. If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?
  Are there firearms of any kind in your home or garage? Do any of these firearms belong to you personally?

Responses

Yes %
In home, don't

own%


Owner %
Register All 76.7 83.6 72.5
Register Some 4.7 2.7 5.9
Register None 11.7 3.9 16.2
Don't Know 6.9 9.6 5.4
Total Percent 100.0 99.8 100.0
Total Responses 346 127 219

The above table distinguishes between actual gun owners and those who live in a home where there is a gun they do not own. In all the other analytical tables, the non-gun owning resident of a gun owning home falls between the non-gun owner and the gun owner in terms of attitudes. The Coalition for Gun Control exploited this difference in their press release of September 30, 1993, where they claimed that 53% of gun owners strongly supported registration To get this figure Angus Reid categorized everyone in a gun owning household as a gun owner - a bit like categorizing a man who lives in a house with a woman as a woman. (Note: Reids's more recent work has taken this critique into account, they now make the distinction between "Gun Owners" and "Live With Gun Owner" see: (Reid Press Releases on Gun Control) )) As the table above shows, the non-gun owning member of a gun owning household is more likely to say they will register all the guns, or to say they "don't know". While the non-gun owning member of the household may have an influence on the decision to register, the gun owner is the primary decision maker. In analyzing compliance, however, one should deal only with the responses of gun owners themselves.

Propensity to register varies widely by region, with 86% of Quebecois and only 58% of prairie gun owners saying they would register all their guns. There is no significant difference in willingness to register in rural or urban areas, or among gun owners in different age groups. Among the small number of women who admitted gun ownership, only 41% said they would register all their guns, while 75% of men said they would register all their guns. University graduates, surely a low risk educational category, were most likely to say they would register their guns (84%).

People who keep guns for self defense are least likely to register all their guns (48%), followed by those who keep guns for predator control (67%), collecting (67%), hunting (73%), and target shooting (92%). Handgun target shooters, of course, are already registered. Among those few gun owners (14) who feel strongly that Canadians should not have a right to own a gun, 100% say they will register all their guns.

The more different types of firearms (rifles, shotguns, pistols) a person owns the less likely he or she is to say they will register all of them. This would seem to suggest that the total number of firearms which will be registered will be even less than one would estimate from a compliance rate of three-quarters of owners.

Percent of Gun Owners who will register all their firearms, buy number of different types of guns (rifles, pistols, shotguns) they own.
  Number of Types
Responses One Two Three
Register All 81% 70% 62%
Total Responses 72 121 21

People who own several types of firearms are obviously more involved with firearms than people who own just one type. The sixty-two percent compliance rate among these owners is considerably below the average.

The argument has been made that before domestic conflict arises, the participants are law abiding and will register their guns. But, "Husbands who kill their wives typically have criminal records and/or substance abuse problems and/or are experiencing economic difficulties. They have a history of violent disputes with their wives that has not been made known to the police. (Dansys p.47)" That many in this situation will register their firearms seems unlikely, because only 41% of persons in common law unions said they would register their guns. Note that common law unions feature a rate of uxoricide eight times higher and a rate of slain husbands 15 times that of registered unions (Wilson and Daly, p. 9). Also, single people, who account for 45% of those accused of homicide (Fedorowycz 1994:15), are significantly less likely (60%) than the average (73%) to say they will register all their guns. Thus, the people who are more likely to misuse guns are those who are least likely to register them.

These responses came before any details of the registration system were known. They indicate that the system will fail to have any significant impact on firearm homicides (criminals will not register, nor will many of the high risk households). However, it will create close to a million outlaws, most of whom have never before done anything illegal in their lives and should send millions of guns into the gray and black markets. In the meantime, police will be spending considerable effort registering the guns of law-abiding citizens.

Conclusions

The values driving the registration debate are deeply felt, but not often discussed. For some who support universal registration it is only a step toward the elimination of all firearms, for others, it is a policy they believe will produce benefits, worthwhile as long as the costs are not too high. Those who oppose registration often see the costs, which they will likely wind up paying, as greater than the benefits. It is important to realize that the depth of feeling, while great at both extremes, is more personal for the gun owner. Public opinion may support building a new highway, but the opposition from people who will forfeit their homes to it will be tenacious, long lasting, and divisive.

The strongest proponents of registration are those who think Canadians should not have a right to own a firearm. For many of them matters of cost and trade-offs are irrelevant. Whether or not it will be effective is irrelevant. They feel it to be a moral decision, something like the prohibition of alcohol used to be. They rarely have a personal stake in the law. It is not their property which will be prohibited, and it will not produce any direct benefit to them in most cases. They will probably not be completely satisfied so long as any Canadian is still allowed to own a gun.

The reasons some gun owners are reluctant to register are not hard to understand. Many farmers have an old Lee-Enfield rifle, worth about $60. They may not want to pay $60 every five years for a possession licence, plus registration fees, to register their $60 rifle. Others, perhaps including a fair number of women, do not want anyone to know they possess a firearm for self-defense. Many others are concerned that their firearms will ultimately become prohibited, and then confiscated.

It is also unreasonable, in the view of gun owners, to expect any great number of real crimes to be solved, or weapons to be usefully traced because of registration. Instead, gun owners expect a host of technical charges to be laid against those among them who do not follow an extremely complex law to the letter.

It is safe to predict that passage of C-68 is not the end of the conflict, but the beginning of a wider conflict between government and some of its heretofore most compulsively law-abiding citizens.

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H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
Home Page E-Mail: taylorbuckner@earthlink.net