Friday, September 03, 2010

On things that aren't like the long gun registry.

[My original thoughts on the long gun registry, dated in November 2009, are here. I have seen nothing in the past few months that changes my mind one iota.]

The Press Release

There was a press release making the rounds yesterday, allegedly released by the Liberal Party of Canada. I'm not sure if it was legitimate or not; the link I had expired, and it doesn't appear to be on the web anywhere. Here's a screengrab I got (click the image to view it larger; sorry it's so small, but Blogger keeps reducing it):

In any event, let's assume it's legitimate -- it seems to be -- and work with it.

[Edit: 3:06pm EST: It's legit. See here for the version on the LPC website. Interestingly, the part of the original release which came after the list of things you have to register has been chopped. Wonder why.]

The main argument of the release is that anti-long gun registry arguments don't work when targeted against other things that you register. This is a really, really stupid argument. Logically, it's an attempt at an argument by analogy: the long gun registry is like the (fill in the blank) registry; argument X doesn't work against the (fill in the blank) registry; hence, argument X doesn't work against the long gun registry. That kind of reasoning can work, but it hinges on a lack of relevant disanalogies -- and, unfortunately, the examples given are rife with disanalogies.

The truly funny part is that the release acknowledges that there are disanalogies here, in the following paragraph:
Do the Conservatives and the NDP also think that we shouldn't register dogs and cats to keep strays from roaming the streets? Should we no longer register cars to help us enforce our motor vehicle laws? Perhaps Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton think that people should be able to receive government funding without having to register for it. Would they be comfortable receiving professional services from a doctor or a lawyer who has not registered with their professional association?
In other words, according to the LPC, there are various different reasons why all these things are registered. So, why they think their analogy is going to fly is just beyond me. This is why I despise the Conservatives and have contempt for the Liberals (while respectfully disagreeing with conservatism and liberalism). The Liberals clearly think we're too stupid too see through their bullshit.

Here's the complete list:
  1. Owning livestock
  2. Driving an ATV
  3. Owning dogs and cats
  4. Owning and driving motor vehicles
  5. Getting married
  6. Having a baby
  7. Going fishing
  8. Going boating
  9. Owning a corporation
  10. Owning land
  11. Being a lobbyist
  12. Providing professional services as a lawyer, doctor, engineer, architect and accountant
  13. Owning copyright and intellectual property
  14. Being a member of the Conservative Party of Canada
  15. Having a healthcare card
  16. Voting
  17. Qualifying for Old Age Security
  18. Qualifying for the Canada Pension Plan
  19. Qualifying for the Canada Child Tax Credit and Universal Child Care Benefit
  20. Having a Registered Retirement Savings Plan
  21. Having a Registered Education Savings Plan
  22. Having a Tax Free Savings Account
  23. Getting a Permanent Resident Card
  24. Qualifying for Employment Insurance
And here's the arguments that are supposed to be analogous:
  • Criminals won't register their dogs anyway, so what's the point?
  • The government wants you to get a fishing license so they can seize all of your fishing poles!
  • The car registration scheme in this country costs millions a year and does nothing to prevent road accidents!
  • You already have to pass a driver's test to be able to drive a car, so what's the point of having to register your car?
  • There was a boating accident last week, and the boating registration scheme did nothing to prevent that from happening!
Debunking the List

Most of the listed items can be dismissed entirely as utterly irrelevant to the point at hand.

For example, some are cases where the registration is done for tax purposes. Can't tax something (or not tax something) unless there's a record. So, that deals with 5, 9-10, 17-23 and 24. I don't believe there's a tax benefit to registering guns.

Some are done for what we could call "purely legal" reasons. 6, for example, is done to create a person's legal identity. Consider the other legal documents you couldn't get without a legal birth certificate. The same applies to 9, which creates the corporation's legal identity. And to 12, which demonstrates that one has the professional skills and training necessary to work in certain occupations. (I note that not all professions that are important actually require registration. Anyone can be a contractor, for example.) And to 13, which serves as proof that some intellectual creation was yours rather than someone else's. And to 15, which demonstrates that one is entitled to government health insurance. And to 16, which demonstrates that one is entitled to the franchise. And to 23, which demonstrates that one has fulfilled all the various legal requirements (and they are legion) for permanent residence. In other words, these cases are all cases where registration is done to prove that one has passed certain requirements in order to have a certain legal status. If there is an analogy here, it's to licensing firearm owners, not to registering guns.

2, 4, and 8 all relate to motor vehicles. I don't know the rules for ATVs or boats. I do know that this misrepresents the rules for motor vehicles. You don't need to register a motor vehicle if you aren't operating it on a public roadway. If that vehicle is never driven, or stays entirely on private property, you never need to register it. The reason is that vehicle licensing fees exist to offset (partially) the cost to the government of maintaining the roads. If that cost is yours, then you should not pay a fee to anyone but yourself. The same could clearly apply to ATVs and boats -- if you're using them on public land, such as in parks or woods or in a public lake or river (respectively, obviously), then they should be registered to offset the costs of maintaining those public spaces. However, if the laws for ATVs and boats require you to register them regardless, then that, to me, looks entirely unjustified. Since long guns are being registered regardless of how one uses them -- even if they just hang on the wall -- this clearly isn't relevant.

Note, by the way, that 4 combines owning and driving motor vehicles. The long gun registry is just about the guns; there's a separate licensing process for being able to own them in the first place. When it comes to being licensed to drive, that's analogous to being licensed to own guns at all. That seems justified to me. If you're going to drive, you are putting other people at risk, so you need to show that you are competent. Similarly, you should have to demonstrate that you are competent to own a firearm. But, as said, this is irrelevant to the point: no one is talking about removing the system for licensing firearm owners.

I also note that the system of licensing pilots and registering planes isn't considered here. I suspect this is probably because it would be very obvious that the second is about the costs of monitoring air traffic, while the first is about public safety. (The air is a public resource, after all, and thus private use of the resources needs to be tracked.)

7 seems justified on a similar basis as 2, 4, and 8. If you're fishing in a public waterway, you should be licensed to offset the costs, and also to be able to monitor what you're doing with regards to the publicly-owned wildlife. So, it's a maintenance fee, to make sure that you're using the resource responsibly. I'm surprised, by the way, that hunting licenses aren't on the list; the justification is the same. Perhaps the LPC was worried that this would expose how distinct this is from registering a long gun: hunting licenses relate to particular seasons (bow season vs. rifle season, buck season vs. doe season), and are clearly about wildlife management. Which has no parallel to registering a long gun.

13 is actually optional. I have copyright over anything I create. Registering copyright just creates a legal trail. It's not necessary, although it may be a good idea. I'm not sure that this is the kind of thing that the LPC wants to be comparing the long gun registry to. IP law more generally is more complex, and there may be some aspects -- such as patents -- where you must register in order to hold them. But then we get back to the "legal status" point raised earlier, which is more relevant to licensing gun owners than registering guns.

14 is similarly optional. (No, really. You don't have to join the CPC.) The CPC is a private organization, like the LPC or the NDP or the Greens or the Boy Scouts. They have decided that, if you want to belong, they want to know who you are. Lots of organizations are like this -- even the public library. Gun owners are hardly a formal organization, however, so this is irrelevant.

What's left, then, are 1, owning livestock; 3, owning dogs and cats; and 11, being a lobbyist. I'm not sure why livestock have to be registered. I suppose it might be a management of public safety kind of thing -- the livestock has to be registered in order to check for and track disease in the food supply. If so, then it seems justified. If it's just any old livestock, even if it's just my pet cow, then I don't see the reason for it. So, the only possible analogy here is to public safety, but no one has proven that registering guns -- rather than licensing gun owners -- has any significant impact on public safety. Indeed, it would be surprising if there were any impact. If you've managed to get yourself a firearms license, then there's hardly going to be more insurmountable barriers to registering any guns you purchase. Furthermore, you're unlikely to not purchase guns after you've got the license -- I mean, really, why get the license otherwise? So, it seems clear to me that the licensing of gun owners is the only factor that could possibly contribute to public safety. And, again, no one's talking about doing away with that.

When it comes to owning dogs and cats, I don't think this is at all justified. The only basis I can see for it is if the animal is let outside, in which case there may be costs associated with its being in the neighbourhood. (That would address the release's expressed concerns with strays.) But that doesn't get us to total registration, only registration for outdoor animals (which would seem to exclude most cats, at the very least). As is, it looks like a pure cash grab by municipalities. If that's the analogy the LPC wants, then good-bye registry.

When it comes to registering as a lobbyist, I've never been able to follow the arguments here. Most of the arguments are financial, and that sort of reasoning always puts me to sleep. It's not that I can't do the math -- I'm fairly good with math -- it's rather that I just don't care. Money's a fiction, and I find it hard to take it terribly seriously. I can see lots of ways this could be justified, though. It might be for tax reasons. It might be because lobbyists have some special legal status. It might be that lobbyists have professional standards which they have to live up to. (Okay, maybe not the last one.) It's certainly not for public safety, though, nor is it for consumption of a public resource. So, this one is unclear to me. I don't see how it could be analogous to registering a long gun, though.

So, here's what we have in terms of possible bases for registering something:
  • Tax reasons, wherein the tax authority needs a record of something to provide a benefit or assess a tax
  • Legal reasons, wherein the registrant does so in order to obtain some special legal status, which has fixed and important requirements
  • The consumption or use of public resources, wherein the registration fee is used to offset the costs of managing the resource or the costs to the resource
  • Public safety, wherein registration is done to ensure that registrants are capableof behaving in a manner that does not endanger the public
  • Optional registration
  • Unjustified or unclearly justified registration
The only one which might be relevant in terms of justifying the long gun registray is the public safety point. And, I repeat, no one has shown that there is any more gain to public safety from registering long guns as opposed to licensing firearm owners. If that could be shown, then there would be a pro-registry argument I could respect. But as of right now, it looks like this works better as an argument for licensing gun owners -- just as we license drivers on the same basis -- not for registering their guns.

Debunking the Arguments

Let's go back to those arguments the LPC offers as supposedly analogous to anti-long gun registry arguments, in an attempt to show that they are ridiculous. What's shown, in my view, is that the LPC thinks we're all stupid.

Criminals won't register their dogs anyway, so what's the point?

In my view, there is no point to registering dogs, unless the dogs are let outside. Furthermore, even this could only be justified on the basis of use of public resources. No public resources are used in owning a firearm.

The government wants you to get a fishing license so they can seize all of your fishing poles!

The government wants you to get a fishing license because fish are a public resource, and have to be shared amongst us when we take them for private use. Firearms are entirely private property. My owning a long gun makes no difference to your ability to do the same; my fishing in a river or lake could seriously inhibit your ability to do it.

The car registration scheme in this country costs millions a year and does nothing to prevent road accidents!

The car registration scheme has little to do with preventing road accidents. (Indeed, it's hard to see how it could do anything for it.) Instead, it's to do with managing the public roads, particularly with funding the same. Licensing drivers seems to be justified on the basis of public safety. But, obviously, licensing drivers is not analogous to registering long guns but to licensing firearm owners. And, as said, there is no public resource consumed when I own a long gun, so the justification used for registering cars is simply irrelevant.

You already have to pass a driver's test to be able to drive a car, so what's the point of having to register your car?

As said, these are separate issues, just as licensing a firearms owner is separate from registering a long gun.

There was a boating accident last week, and the boating registration scheme did nothing to prevent that from happening!

Once again, it wasn't supposed to. The best justification I can see for registering boats is for the costs of maintaining the public waterways. Once more, the analogy here is entirely irrelevant.

Other Points

"Supporting Police"

The release also comments that the long gun registry is necessary in order to ensure that the police "know who owns lethal weapons, which helps them to protect public safety". And it refers to the "Harper-Layton anti-cop coalition" who don't "care about what the police need to do their job."

It is, frankly, an even stupider argument than the one dismantled above.

First, licensing firearm owners already tells you who owns firearms. Registering guns adds no new information.

Second, there are many more lethal items in the average household than just firearms, and we don't have to register most of them. (Knives are an obvious example, as are chainsaws, axes, picks, sickles, scythes, crowbars, various toxic and caustic substances, and the components of explosives.)

Third, casting this as a pro- vs. anti-cop argument is a very bad idea in light of police abuses during the G20 and the Dziekanski tasering. If the choices are pro-cop or anti-cop, then, given their recent conduct, I'm anti-cop. Nice to know that the LPC supports police no matter how badly they abuse their authority and power.

Fourth, the police could probably do their job with more ease if we had a CCTV network like they do in the UK. Is the LPC proposing this as a new policy? (Which would be funny because, like the gun registry, there is zero evidence it actually helps deter or solve crimes.)

Fifth, if police are stupid enough to walk into a potentially dangerous situation -- such as serving an arrest warrant -- and they aren't already suspicious of the possibly presence of firearms, then they need much better training. It doesn't take much to realize that, in a country with as many privately-owned firearms as Canada, any police action on a private residence could end in a shootout. (This is particularly true given that both firearms licenses and long gun registrations are tied to physical addresses. Without some sort of GPS tracking system, police have no way of knowing who's in the building.)

Sixth, if police tend to get shot at, I don't see how this isn't partly their fault. Again, consider the G20. Policing is becoming more and more militaristic in this country. But that simply doesn't work as a police tactic. Police are outnumbered massively in any given city. The Toronto Police Service, for example, has 5710 sworn members and 2500 unsworn, for a total force of 8210. The city itself has a population of about 2.5 million. That means that every cop is outnumbered 304 to 1. You can't win that kind of fight. So, police need to rely on the respect of the populace. If that's failing because of police abuses -- and thus police are being attacked with greater frequency -- then there need to be better efforts to ensure that the public respect their police force. I don't see how giving police yet another crutch -- in addition to their tasers, which are already used to that effect -- is going to help.

"Layton and the NDP"

There's also a slide in the release from talking about the Conservatives and NDP, to talking about Harper and Layton. Harper is, we're told, whipping the Conservative vote (he probably doesn't have to). The NDP vote is not whipped. And Jack Layton has said he will vote to retain the registry.

So, trying to hang this on Layton in the same sense as it hangs on Harper is just bizarre. Layton has clearly decided -- and correctly, in my view -- that it's more important to allow caucus to vote their consciences on an issue on which the party has no official position than it is to defend a policy that he himself agrees with. It's worth noting that the Liberals used to believe in this, too, and didn't whip the vote on same-sex marriage. One wonders what has changed; I suspect it's just the leader.

And that's the final point that needs to be made here. The structure of the NDP is such that the leader is not that central. He or she doesn't have nearly as much authority over the party as the leader of the LPC or of the CPC. And that's deliberate -- the NDP is supposed to be a more democratic organization, driven more by the grassroots than the party brass. Thus, disagreement with the leader is entirely permissable. What follows, then, is that the LPC's press release has inadvertently revealed something fundamental about their political culture, something Liberals probably don't even realize is present. The Ignatieff Liberals are much more like the Harper Conservatives than the NDP -- which is probably why the former have kept the latter afloat for so long. Disagreement with the leader is simply not allowed.

But why either thinks this is a good thing is beyond my understanding.

7 comments:

Catelli said...

In my mind what would make this whole argument (pro-registry) more credible is if:

A) proponents patiently explained each component of the registry (owner licensing, handgun registry, long-gun registry) etc.
B) Costs of registry include all above items
C) registering long-guns helps in investigations and has increased conviction/crime solving rates.

I'm really surprised at the lack of C). Its ludicrous to claim registering guns prevents crime, but having more data to solve crimes makes sense. Maybe all long-gun crimes are so obvious additional evidence is not needed....

Catelli said...

Soory, B) should state: proponents point out costs cover all aspects of the registry, not just long-gun registration.

ADHR said...

(A) is a pretty serious oversight. As seen in that press release, the LPC is gleefully conflating registering long guns with obtaining a firearms license. The RCMP report at least kept the two straight, IIRC.

(B) would be very interesting to see. We keep having this four million dollars figure thrown around, but I really don't know what that pays for.

The lack of (C) is shocking, I agree. Particularly at this stage. I've said somewhere this week that, given the lack of evidence after so many demands and so much heat, there probably isn't any such evidence. If someone had it, it would've been brought up. (Somehow, the Montreal Massacre keeps getting mentioned, though.)

BTW, it may be ludicrous, but I've seen people claim that registering guns prevents crime. The person I'm thinking of tried to claim it as part of an argument to the effect that registering guns decreases the number of guns in society. It makes no sense, though: licensed firearms owners aren't likely to not buy any guns to use with their shiny new license, so the only thing that could reduce the number of guns would be the original firearms license. Registering can't have any additional effect beyond that in terms of reducing number of guns.

Catelli said...

The RCMP report claims that the long-gun registry reduces crime by making people more aware of the responsibilities of gun ownership. (I'm paraphrasing). That was the only concrete claim I found.

That only has any credibility if it can be shown to be part of the invisible god in the room effect (https://twitter.com/michaelshermer/status/22893696966)

Even so, that's a very tenuous claim.

Catelli said...

According to the report, total program costs for the entire program average 62-67 million per year.

I can't find a part that breaks it down between the different parts of the registry.

ADHR said...

Think about it, even if it's the invisible god in the room that's doing it, then that should work equally well if there's just firearms licensing. Shouldn't it? There needs to be some serious engagement with the question of which part of the registration and licensing structure is actually effective and which is invasive overkill.

So, even that $4 million a year claim was bogus? Nice. It's still a drop in the bucket -- but only justified if there's a real benefit to having the registry. Otherwise, keeping it is a sort of sunk costs fallacy: we've already spent so much, how can we stand to give it up?

Catelli said...

Well the $4 million might apply to the maintenance costs of the long-gun part only. But I can't find confirmation of that. It could be true, it could be bogus.

On the effective front, I mean to do a very rough cost analysis of how many reported incidents we're trying to prevent based on the reported costs to maintain the records.