Background for non-Canadians and Canadians who were, until recently, living under rocks: This is regarding Bill C-391, currently passed second reading in the Canadian House of Commons. Bill C-391 would eliminate the federal long gun registry, which was created by the Chrétien government in the early '90s. Under Canadian Parliamentary procedure, the bill now goes to committee to be studied, before going to third reading in the House. The third vote -- which is the final vote -- cannot change the bill in a substantial way. However, once being passed by the House, the bill must be passed by the Senate, which can also study it. As far as I know, the Senate can make significant changes. There has been serious reaction to the passage of this bill through the House, with many commentators calling for those who voted to send the bill to committee -- rather than killing it on the floor -- to resign from their parties and even from the House.
I really don't understand the near-hysteria around the long gun registry.
I mean, I get why people, especially people who have grown up and live in urban areas, are afraid of guns. It's a combination, I think, of the unfamiliarity with something potentially dangerous and the anti-gun propaganda distilled rather effectively through the mass media. The first time I saw an actual gun -- not a prop, but the real thing (which, for what it's worth, was a long gun; I have also seen handguns) -- I had a pretty visceral reaction of fear to it. It was similar to the reaction I had when seeing a bandsaw in operation for the first time -- that is, this is a weird thing that looks rather dangerous. So, that's the first part of the general reaction, I think: many urbanites have never seen, let alone handled, guns. Thus guns are foreign and potentially harmful, so we instinctively recoil, much as we might recoil from a welding torch.
But it was also more extreme than that. I knew that a bandsaw could be used safely; indeed, my shop teacher proceeded to show us how to do that after showing us how to turn the thing on. I also know that a gun can be used safely. But, for some reason, I found the gun more frightening than the bandsaw. And that is what I tend to attribute to anti-gun propaganda: the broad depiction of guns as threatening items and objects of death. The association of the classic shape of a gun -- either a rifle or a handgun -- with fear, intimidation, pain and death strikes me as well-established in our culture, and these are powerful negative emotions. I find further confirmation of this in the tearful testimonies CBC News Network (to pick one) was broadcasting yesterday: crying women, especially mothers, elicit a strong emotional reaction in most people.
So, I understand the fear. I really do. And I think the fear makes sense: it's not crazy or a sign of illness to feel this fear.
But I don't think it's a good ground for sensible policy. Guns are scary, therefore everyone who owns one should be put in some government database? Well, what if you live in a rural area and regularly hunt, thus owning multiple long guns? Or, for that matter, what if you happen to be experienced with guns and own several handguns for your own enjoyment and protection? You would thus not find guns scary, and thus surely conclude there should not be registration in a government database. Emotional reactions generally, because they are utterly subjective, do not make for a productive political discussion -- or a discussion of any kind. They also don't serve, on their own, as reasons for any action.
Of course, the fact that there are emotional reactions is slightly different. That many people find guns upsetting and frightening is something to take into consideration, as is the fact that many people do not. These are potential reasons. But is the fact that people find guns upsetting and frightening good enough reason to make people generally register their guns? Unfortunately, the answer has to be "no". People certainly shouldn't be needlessly frightened or upset, but most who are frightened and upset by guns will never see them, handle them or have to deal with them. For the most part, guns can just be avoided -- at least in the urban areas where there is, I suspect, a greater proportion of negative reaction to guns.
So, the principle I'm working with here is that the fact that people have emotional reactions to something is not in itself good reason to adopt any particular policy. If these reactions are unavoidable, then perhaps there is good reason. In this regard, think of people in minority ethnic groups who live in a society which casually demeans their ethnicity. These reactions are ex hypothesi unavoidable, and so should lead us to try to reduce them. (This will fail at the margins, of course; some emotional reactions are so minor that we expect individuals to deal with them on their own. It's one thing if you're black and everyone calls you "boy"; it's another if you're Jewish and people think the yarmulke is a little silly.) But surely it's reasonable to expect people to avoid deliberately upsetting themselves. Consider people who find it deeply upsetting to see gay couples kissing or holding hands. We shouldn't expect a government policy to be developed in a way that would undo the occurrence of these emotions. Instead, we should demand the offended individuals look elsewhere and not deliberately upset themselves. Everyone has to take at least some responsibility for their own condition, after all.
I tend to think the reactions to guns fall in the latter camp. If you don't like guns, don't look at them. Don't own one. Avoid gun shows. Don't go hunting. And so on.
Once you do that, you'll find that you no longer have these negative, difficult emotions. It just seems like good sense: if guns are upsetting to you, just don't think about them or go near them.
There is, of course, another argument in favour of gun registration, which is the crime argument. It's a little confused, though. We're told both that the long gun registry reduces the occurrence of crimes and that it makes it easier to prosecute crimes. The former is relatively easy to assess; and, from everything I've read, it just isn't true. Since the registry has been in place, crimes involving long guns have not gone down, and may even have increased. We could also consider the impact of similar registries (if there are any) in other jurisdictions to confirm this, but I suspect it's a robust result. There's, after all, no particular reason to think that registering anything will reduce the possibility of crime. The causes of crime have little or nothing to do with whether the object that is used in the crime is legally registered or not. (Has dangerous driving -- a crime -- gone down because all cars are registered?)
The latter cimre-related point in favour of registration is just odd. Many things would make it easier to prosecute crimes, but they are nonetheless unjustified. A national DNA or fingerprint database, for example. Indeed, an international one would make it even easier. National ID cards would help. Implanting everyone with a microchip that could be tracked using a GPS system. And so on, further into the realms of science fiction. But so what? Security is not the only value in society, and it's not the only thing we should expect a government to ensure. And we certainly shouldn't expect a government, or believe a government is justified, to sacrifice anything in the name of security. The things a government is permitted to sacrifice are the things that are less valuable than security: where security is sufficiently important that we will trade in order to achieve it. Think of things like random roadside stops for drunk driving: the inconvenience and loss of freedom are quite minor; the gain in security is, to my knowledge, rather great; hence is it justified.
On this line, then, if there were a significant gain in security from registering long guns, then there would be a good reason to go ahead. After all, registering a gun is a relatively easy matter -- no more painful or expensive than registering a car. So no one could reasonably object. Unless -- and I want to emphasize this -- there is no good evidence to show that we're actually getting more security. And I'm not convinced that we are. Police and prosecutors claim the registry is useful, but that's anecdote -- not data. Are we getting more convictions (successful prosecutions) since the registry than before? Are we successfully arresting and charging and convicting more criminals since the registry than before? If not, the registry is as much a boondoggle as rural MPs (and the Conservative caucus generally) charge it is. If so, then it does have a purpose and should be maintained.
I can only hope that this is the issue that will be discussed in committee before the third reading of the bill, rather than flooding the room with emotionally-charged, but ultimately pointless, grandstanding. (Well, I would so hope, if I weren't already so utterly cynical about the sort of "debate" that's currently in progress.)