Canada's cops rethink gun control

The Canadian Police Association may withdraw its support for gun

In a move that may have ramifications for the gun-control debate in the United States, the Canadian Police Association (CPA) is considering reversing its stand on gun registration.

Like police in the US, Canadian police have long been a bedrock of support for stricter gun control. But yesterday at the CPA's annual meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan, members took up a resolution to withdraw their support for the Firearms Act, which many say in hindsight has become too expensive and unworkable. The controversial Firearms Act, which took effect in late 1998, requires all rifle and shotgun owners in Canada to register their weapons by 2003.

The resolution, which will be voted on tomorrow and which has been brought forward by the executive committee of the Saskatchewan Federation of Police Officers (SFPO), has a 50-50 chance of passing, according to some police officials.

If the CPA passes the resolution, the officials say, the Firearms Act's standing with the public would be seriously undermined. "It will sound the end bell," says Murray Grismer, a 13-year veteran of the police force in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

"The federal justice department has sent a deputy minister to Regina this week to lobby the national association to support something that is already a law," says Mr. Grismer, who serves as SFPO's spokesman. "To me, that says the government knows that there is no concrete support for the bill with the public and that it needs groups like the CPA in order to sell the law to the public."

The Firearms Act is the latest major piece of gun-control legislation in Canada, the first of which was passed in 1934. The country has been far ahead of the US on such measures and can serve as a sort of test case for Americans as they consider their own legislation.

A move in Canada toward less gun control could thus impact the direction of lawmaking in the US. In September, a US congressional conference is expected to hammer out new gun-control legislation in the wake of such tragedies as the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

So far, about 90,000 Canadians have complied with the new law. The government estimates that about 28 percent of Canadians own firearms, a figure somewhere between 7 million and 9 million. By comparison, one-third of US households are estimated to have a gun. Statistics Canada, a government agency in Ottawa, says there were 193 homicides that involved firearms in Canada last year - 77 with a rifle and 99 with a handgun. Overall, homicide figures in Canada hit a 30-year low. In the United States, an average of 87 people a day are killed by firearms.

Grismer says many police are reexamining their initial support for the Canadian act because it has turned out to be far more expensive than originally forecast. Original estimates were about $85 million to create the infrastructure to support the act; some people now say the total cost could be about $200 million or more. Creating an accurate, accessible database for police to track firearms has also proved to be much harder than expected, especially since "criminals don't register their guns," says Grismer.

"The government's own audit says the system is 80 to 90 percent inaccurate. What value is that to me as a police officer? If I go into a domestic dispute and use the system to do a check and it tells me that there is no firearm in the dwelling, then even subconsciously, I let my guard down. And if the system is wrong, then that's trouble."

The CPA resolution is just the latest move to undermine the act. Several national gun-owner groups and six of the 10 provinces are challenging the constitutionality of the law before the Canadian Supreme Court. They argue that the federal government overstepped its authority when it imposed the Firearms Act on the provinces. Many national firearms groups, such as the National Firearms Association, are also calling on their membership to ignore the law.

But those who support the act, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, say that many of these arguments are misleading and that the act is working as intended.

"Much has been said about the problems of smuggled handguns in crime, and it may be true that 'criminals' will not register their guns," Dave Cassels wrote in an opinion piece in the Edmonton (Alberta) Journal last month. He is former chief of the Winnipeg, Manitoba, police and deputy police chief of Edmonton.

"However, the fact remains that most criminals get their guns from so-called 'law-abiding' gun owners and that without mechanisms to track firearms, we have no way of controlling the illegal gun trade or enforcing existing safe storage laws."

Mr. Cassels also credits the rise in cost of implementing the law to the federal government's need to fight costly battles to defend it in court.

And Jean Valin, director of public affairs for the Canadian Firearms Center in Ottawa, which handles all requests for registration forms, says many gun owners support the law. In a survey of 3,300 Canadians last year, 50 of gun owners supported the mandatory registration of all firearms; 80 percent of all respondents said that they were in support.

Mr. Valin also notes that the gun lobby represents an increasingly small number of Canadians. "The dynamic is that the sport aspect of owning a gun is in steady decline. People want to do other things - go rollerblading or hiking. In fact, even 46 percent of Canadians who do own a gun say they never use them anymore."

Both sides can show support for their positions. Pro-gun-control forces won an important battle late last year when the Alberta Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Firearms Act by a 3-2 margin. But on the other hand, Grismer points to the recent election of new premiers in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, who both took strong stances against the law.

Grismer says he is also aware of what the CPA vote could mean for the gun-control debate in the US, and recent suggestions by some politicians that the US needs a similar gun-registration law.

"I don't think it would ever happen anyway. But if the CPA reverses its opinion, then yes, I do think it will make an impact on the debate in the US. It means [a gun-registration system] will never, ever happen."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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