Canadians defy stereotype and break gun-control rules

Thousands of firearms remain unregistered despite a government deadline to do so by Jan. 1.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Oscar Lacombe hoped to be the first person charged with possessing an unregistered rifle under Canada's controversial firearms law. But after presenting himself to police in Edmonton, Alberta, Monday, he was finally told to go home.

Mr. Lacombe is one of thousands of Canadian gun owners defying the country's National Firearms Program by not registering, or not giving intent to register, their rifles and shotguns by Jan. 1, 2003, risking up to 10 years in prison.

In the United States, where roughly 40 percent of households own a firearm, the gun-control debate is rooted in different interpretations of the Second Amendment. Critics of gun control in Canada, where some 20 percent of households own a firearm, argue that the registry is a step toward government confiscation - as happened in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

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But beyond this debate, the sheer number of angry citizens defying the policy is challenging Canada's reputation as a country defined by respect for the law.

Canadians are undergoing a "sea change ... developing an attitude toward the law which strikes at the very heart of a civilized society," says Garry Breitkreuz, a member of Parliament and a firearms critic.

Lacombe, 70, has spent his life on the right side of the law. A Korean War veteran, former sergeant-at-arms of the Alberta Legislature, and former bodyguard to Alberta's provincial premier, Lacombe is now willing to fight the gun law to Canada's Supreme Court.

"Come and arrest me - please," he pleaded, in front of the Alberta legislature on New Year's Day. His chest bedecked with medals, his unregistered .22-caliber rifle in his hands, he declared the law "unjust and dangerous."

Edmonton police, though, have referred his case to prosecutors. Police elsewhere in the country are also biding their time before launching the first prosecutions.

Estimates about the number of gun lawbreakers in Canada vary wildly. According to the Canadian Firearms Center, which administers the new program, 5.9 million guns have been registered. That's out of the total 7.9 million guns that an independent panel estimated were in Canada two years ago. Center officials figure that "tens of thousands" of Canada's roughly 2.3 million gun owners are ignoring the law. But Mr. Breitkreuz - using older estimates the government now rejects - pegged the number of lawbreakers at up to 500,000.

Canada, which has tougher gun laws than the US, has required owners to register handguns since the 1930s. The current debate over long guns gained momentum after the 1989 massacre of 14 women at a Montreal engineering school. The gunman used a legally obtained Ruger Mini-14 hunting rifle in his rampage. Since then, Canada has adopted two gun control laws, the most recent in 1995, which established the current registry program.

Lately, however, alleged government incompetence and the ballooning cost of the program has given registry opponents extra ammunition. They also say that the registry won't stop crime.

"Criminals do not register firearms," said Richard Holmes, owner of the York Regional Firearms Academy.

"Do I believe it's going to make Canada a safer place? Not really," added Lou Schindler, as the sound of gunshots boomed in the background. Mr. Schindler volunteers at a firing range north of Toronto. He's registered his six handguns, but sympathizes with those who won't list their rifles. "In terms of this particular registry and this particular government, I'm sorry, I have nothing but contempt."

But gun-control advocates say polls show Canadians widely support the measures. Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, points to federal statistics that the homicide rate for shotguns and rifles fell from .78 per 100,000 in 1975 to .15 in 2001, as Canada adopted tougher laws. Suicides and accidents with guns are also down.

Ms. Cukier likens the opposition to past failed protests against seat-belt laws. However, 90 percent of gun owners, she says, are licensed. "Having three-quarters of the guns in the system means we're a lot better off than when we started."

Last month, Canada's auditor general set off a political firestorm for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, when she reported that the firearm program's net cost to taxpayers had mushroomed from an estimated $1.3 million to more than $550 million. The government cited everything from the unexpected costs of legal challenges to a faulty computer program.

Since then, eight of the country's 10 provinces have called for the registry to be suspended, saying the money should have been used to hire more police officers. Despite plans for various legal challenges - including natives who argue the law violates their treaty rights - the legislation has already survived one Supreme Court test in 2000. Opposition critic Breitkreuz hopes to defeat the law politically.

The government, though, insists the registry will stay. "I don't want to criminalize people," says Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, as he advised scofflaws that the de facto moratorium on prosecutions won't continue much longer.

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