H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. P.O. Box 320, South Hero, Vermont 05486-0320 (802) 372-5236
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Research on Firearms Registration: A Presentation to the Parliamentary Justice Committee
8 May 1995

E-Mail: taylor@buckner.cc


H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Sociology Concordia University, Montreal

I appear before you today as a sociologist who has followed the gun control debate for the thirty years since I was a police officer, as an expert in survey research which I have practiced and taught for 35 years, as a member of the Quebec Shooting Federation, an instructor for the Canadian Firearms Safety Course given by the Quebec Wildlife Federation, and, apparently, as one of the 5,000 reported members of the Coalition for Gun Control.

I will confine my comments to a few points that I have researched.

Under-Estimation of Number of Firearms In Canada

On December 3, 1990, I wrote the Director of the Firearms Control Task Force, proposing a study based on 10,000 interviews, to determine the distribution of firearms ownership in Canada. Many months later, with no response from the Firearms Control Task Force, and only after a freedom of information request by Southam News, I discovered that the study had been carried out in February 1991, with a sample of 10,000, using a slightly cheaper, but defective, methodology. This study (Reid) became the foundation of the Government's estimate of the number of firearms in the country.

According to estimates I calculated from the 1995 Gun Control Survey, organized by Professor Gary Mauser, with my assistance, the Reid study under-estimated the number of firearms in Canada by at least 24%. This is a result of women not reporting firearms ownership (which has been found in other surveys), and not taking into account those who refused to answer the question. There are also people who lie, which makes the total an unknown percentage higher. Similar problems have been reported in U.S. surveys (Erskine; Kennett; Kleck). Thus, the cost estimates for Bill C-68 based on the number of firearms to be registered are many, many millions of dollars too low.

Registration - Compliance

Universal firearms registration is justly controversial. Personally, I routinely send a list of all my firearms to the Surete du Quebec so that they will have it on file in case my guns are stolen or destroyed, along with my records, in a fire. But is universal registration good public policy?

Even those who support universal registration can only say they hope it will reduce firearms accidents, suicides and homicides by forcing gun owners to be more careful, and by providing the police with a list for Prohibition Orders, or for seizure in case of domestic conflict. There is certainly no research that suggests that either of these hopes is realistic, but for the sake of argument let's say they are. For either to work, the weapons likely to be misused would have to be registered, and in the case of prohibition orders, the registration would have to be current, complete, and correct.

In the 1995 Gun Control survey, a national study carried out by Canadian Facts in which 1,505 Canadian adults were interviewed, we asked gun owners, "If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?" Overall, only 71.1% ( 6%) of gun owners said they would register all their guns. In other words, roughly two million firearms belonging to over a quarter of firearms owners will remain unregistered. Of course, over time with great expenditure of funds and criminal prosecutions, more than 71.1% registration could probably be achieved.

As Table 1 shows, among the small number of female gun owners who admitted gun ownership, only 40% said they would register all their guns. There is less than one chance in one hundred that this difference in willingness to register between the two sexes was a result of sampling error.

Propensity to register also varies widely by region of Canada (Table 2), with 86% of Quebeckers and only 58% of prairie gun owners saying they would register all their guns. There is less than one chance in twenty-five that the differences in willingness to register among regions was a result of sampling error.

The reasons for reluctance to register are not hard to understand. Many farmers have an old Lee-Enfield rifle, worth about $60, and they may be reluctant 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 have a firearm for self-defense. Still others are concerned that their firearms will become prohibited - after all the government just prohibited by Order in Council over half a million legally owned and registered handguns, and says it wants to prohibit two kinds of rifles commonly used for hunting and sporting purposes as soon as Bill C-68 comes into force - so this concern comes from seeing what has already happened, and what has been proposed.

No one seriously argues that criminals will register their guns. The black market appears to be large enough to replace those few guns that cannot be stolen because registrants store their firearms more securely (Criminal Intelligence Service Canada).

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 people in this situation will register their firearms seems unlikely, as Table 3 demonstrates, because only 46% of persons in common law unions, where the rate of uxoricide is eight times higher and the rate of slain husbands is 15 times higher than in registered unions (Wilson and Daly, p. 9), said they would register all their guns. Also, single people, who account for 45% of those accused of homicide (Fedorowycz p. 15), are significantly less likely (61%) than the average (71.1%) to say they will register all their guns. Thus the people most likely to misuse guns are those who are least likely to register them. There is less than one chance in fifty that the differences in willingness to register by marital status was caused by sampling error.

As a former police officer, I cannot imagine a rational police officer placing any trust in a system that is likely to be ignored by the most dangerous elements in society.

Registration - Logistics

Let's take as the registration goal an estimated 8 million firearms in Canada. In any given year there are just over 4,000 misuses - just under 3,000 firearms lost or stolen (which would include the legal arms used in criminal acts), 1100 suicides, just under 250 homicides and about 60 fatal accidents. Taken together this means that 1/20th of 1% of the firearms are misused, 99.95% are not of interest to the legal system. Registering the 99.95% which are of no interest, to find the 0.05%, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack by registering every piece of hay.

Over the last five years only 1% of applications for the Firearms Acquisition Certificate have been refused (R.C.M.P). People who are likely to be refused don't apply (Scarff, et. al.). If people who have criminal records, mental instability or domestic conflict have a gun, (perhaps inherited, perhaps bought before 1978, perhaps stolen) they are unlikely to apply for a possession licence, because, upon investigation, it would be refused. Without a possession licence they could not register their guns. If the government is proposing to issue licences to all present owners without serious investigation, then many who are likely to misuse their guns will become licensed owners, and registration will come to be seen to be a failure.

The police will be required to record and approve every transaction between firearms owners (C-68, 30-33), who they have already, presumably, investigated and approved. This will necessarily require a great deal of time and paper work. There are only 56,774 (1991 - Campbell) police officers in Canada, who are already fully occupied. Investigating millions of Canadians, almost 100% of whom will prove to be law abiding, may be a less efficient use of police resources than targeting those most likely to misuse firearms (Wright).

Even if 95% of owners registered, an astounding and probably impossible success rate, the guns most likely to be used for domestic and criminal homicides will be significantly under represented in the system.

The notion that suicides and accidents will be reduced by registration depends on a convoluted and unproven chain of logic. First the owner has to register. Then, because he has registered he will be inspired to go out and purchase locks or a safe which he would not have purchased had he not registered. Then, because he has registered, he has to consistently keep the firearms out of the hands of other people in his household who might misuse them, which he would not have done if he had not registered. One or two potential suicides may have to find a plastic bag, or a car in the garage, or a high place because they can't get into the gun safe, but the overall suicide rate will probably not be affected. There might possibly be one or two fewer accidental deaths with safer storage occasioned by registration, but this is only conjecture. Most of the benefits which might be expected from registration have already been achieved by the Firearms Acquisition Certificate system and the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. The diversion of police resources into the registration system, for marginal additional benefit, may well mean that there is less time for investigating and preventing problems, so, overall, it is unreasonable to expect registration to produce any net saving of lives.

It is also unreasonable to expect any great number of real crimes to be solved, or weapons to be usefully traced because of registration. All but the most careless and dim witted thieves will drill out the serial number on any gun they steal, making it untraceable. Instead we can expect a host of technical charges against gun owners who have not followed this complex law to the letter.

In the last 20 years the firearms homicide, accident and suicide rates have all declined, and firearms use in crime is not increasing (Roberts, p. 19). There is no evidence that a registration system would, on balance, make Canadians any safer. There is a great deal of evidence, from the mail you have received, that the implementation of a registration system will profoundly alienate some members of Canadian society. Registration appears to me to be a lose-lose proposition.

Finally, I would like to quote the Chairman of this Committee on the subject of universal registration, "... for the ten million long guns in Canada I believe that a registration scheme would be unworkable and impractical in comparison with its potential benefits. (COMMONS DEBATES, April 8, 1976, p. 12627, Mr. Allmand)

APPENDIX

Questions from the 1995 Gun Control Survey, organized by Professor Gary Mauser of Simon Fraser University. A national representative sample of 1,505 interviews carried out by Canadian Facts in January 1995. The overall margin of error for a survey of this size is 2.5%, nineteen times out of twenty. The margin of error for the sub-sample of gun owners is 6%.

TABLE 1 - GUN OWNERS ONLY

If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?

  SEX OF RESPONDENT
REGISTER MALE FEMALE
SOME NONE DK 26.8% 60.0%
ALL 73.2% 40.0%
Total Percent 100% 100%
Number of Cases (224) (15)

Chi-Square Significance = .00599 (c2 p<.01)

TABLE 2 - GUN OWNERS ONLY

If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?

  REGION OF CANADA
REGISTER ATLANTIC QUEBEC ONTARIO PRAIRIES BC
SOME NONE DK 31.7% 13.6% 25.5% 42.4% 27.1%
ALL 68.3% 86.4% 74.5% 57.6% 72.9%
Total Percent 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Number of Cases (41) (44) (47) (59) (48)

Chi-Square Significance = .03014 (c2 p<.04)

TABLE 3 - GUN OWNERS ONLY

If the government's proposal to register all firearms becomes law, do you plan on registering all, some, or none of your firearms?

  MARITAL STATUS

REGISTER
SINGLE MARRIED COMMON LAW SEPARATED DIVORCED WIDOWED
SOME NONE DK 39.3% 23.5% 53.8%   33.3% 60%
ALL 60.7% 76.5% 46.2% 100% 66.7% 40%
Total Percent 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Number of Cases (28) (170) (13) (3) (15) (10)

Chi-Square Significance = .01645 (c2 p<.02)

REFERENCES

Buckner, H. Taylor.

1994. "Concordia's 'Gun Control' Petition: Ignorance of the Law is the Only Excuse." Presented in the Firearms and Society section of the Law and Society annual meeting, Calgary, 14 June 1994.

Campbell, Gayle and Bryan Reingold.

1994. "Private Security and Public Policing in Canada." Juristat: Service Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 14:10. March.

Criminal Intelligence Service Canada.

1994. "Smuggling Activities in Canada," Organized Crime Committee Report, Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

(p.5) "Weapons smuggling is developing into a serious problem. The demand for and use of illegal Weapons on the streets of Canada has increased dramatically. This commodity is readily available through legal and illegal sources in the United States.

A recent undercover investigation in Ontario, named Project Gunrunner, revealed that most guns used by Canadian criminals are smuggled in from the United States."

Dansys Consultants Inc.

1992. "Domestic Homicides Involving the Use of Firearms." Research And Development Directorate, Department of Justice Canada. WD1992-20e. March 1992.

(p. 26) "Respondents were asked if the accused was violating any laws, regulations, or court orders by possessing a firearm. ... In over three-quarters of the cases the police responded that they had no knowledge of any gun violation. More than one-half of the handguns used, however, were not in the legal possession of the accused prior to the incident." Note, the police did not investigate whether the long guns were legally owned, they just did not know.

Erskine, Hazel.

1972. "The Polls: Gun Control." Public Opinion Quarterly. 36:455-469.

(p. 456) Survey respondents incorrectly deny gun ownership.

Fedorowycz, Orest.

1994. "Homicide in Canada - 1993." Juristat: Service Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 14:15. August.

Kennett, Lee and James LaVerne Anderson.

1975. The Gun in America: The Origins of a National Dilemma. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

(p. 253) Survey respondents incorrectly deny gun ownership.

Kleck, Gary.

1991. Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

(p. 457) "At this point, it seems reasonable to conclude that true rates of household gun ownership [in the U.S.] could easily be 10 to 20% higher. That is, the rates might be 5-10 percentage points above the reported rates averaging around 46%."

R.C.M.P., Commissioner of.

1983 - 1993. Annual Firearms Report to the Solicitor General of Canada, R.C.M.P.

Annual reports.

Reid, Angus.

1991. Firearm Ownership in Canada. Research and Development Directorate, Policy, Programs and Research Sector, Department of Justice Canada. TR1991-8A, March.

Survey of 10,103 Canadian households, with interviews in the 2,341 households where the person answering the phone said there was a firearm in the house, and the 1,271 owners in the sample.

Roberts, Julian V.

1994. Public Knowledge of Crime and Justice: An Inventory of Canadian Findings. Technical Report, Department of Justice Canada. TR1994-15e.

(p.19) "Another widespread belief is that the incidence of crimes involving firearms has increased recently. There are no statistical data to support this view."

Scarff, Elizabeth, Ted Saharchuk, Terrence Jacques and Michael McAuley.

1981. "Evaluation of the Canadian Gun Control Legislation. First Progress Report. Research Division, Solicitor General Canada. js 22-56/1981E.

(P. 86) "Perhaps the most critical reason for the low refusal rates [for FACs] is that FAC applicants consist of those individuals most likely to meet the screening criteria. The 'criminal element' is not applying."

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly.

1994. "Spousal Homicide." Juristat: Service Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 14:8. March.

Wright, Christine.

1992. "Homicide in Canada 1991." Juristat: Service Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 12:18. October.

(p. 8) "Approximately 46% of all homicides in 1991 occurred during the commission of another criminal offense. (p. 10) "Consistent with other years, 64% of all victims of homicide were male and 36% were female." (p. 13) "in 1991, 45% of homicide victims had a criminal history: 20% for violent offenses; 12% for property offenses; 4% for drug offenses, and; a further 8% had a criminal record for other Criminal Code or Federal Statute offenses. Fifty-seven percent of male victims and 21% of female victims had a previous criminal record." "In 1991, 44% of all immediate family related homicides involved a previous history of domestic violence." (p. 15) "Seventy percent of male accused and 40% of female accused had a previous criminal record."

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