Gun Control System Targeted in Canada

Times Staff Writer

Police began kicking down doors before dawn on a chilly May morning while gang members in Toronto’s Jamestown neighborhood still slept. By lunchtime, officers had made 106 arrests, collected 33 guns and announced that they had broken an international gun ring run by the notorious Jamestown Crew.

The raid was a shot across the bow from newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who says his Conservative Party government is going to spend its money on crime control, not gun control.

The sweep came two days after Harper announced plans to dismantle Canada’s controversial gun registry -- a system reviled by conservatives and gun owners, but lauded by others for reducing homicides and helping police.


Canada’s low crime rate and unique gun-control system has played into the country’s identity as a peaceful, progressive place, in contrast to its neighbor to the south. The Canadian Constitution does not specify the right to bear arms, so the policy debate is much less heated than in the United States.

Canada created the gun registry in 1995, the result of persistent lobbying after 14 female students were killed at l’Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, in an attack known as the Montreal massacre. Handgun owners had been required to license their guns since the 1930s, but the registry put new restrictions on who could have them, required all guns to be recorded and banned assault weapons.

Catherine Bergeron, whose sister was gunned down in the Montreal massacre, is fighting the repeal of the registry.

“I find it incredible this debate still persists,” she said. “Possessing a gun is a privilege, not a right.”

Compared with the United States, where there are 220 million guns among 300 million people, and 10,800 gun-related homicides in 2004, Canada is a peaceful backwater, with 7.1 million registered guns and only 175 gun homicides that year. Los Angeles alone had 416 gun-related killings that year.

But Canada’s gang-related killings have gone up fourfold in a decade, along with the growth of gangs largely imported from the U.S. that attract what police and social workers describe as young black males from mostly West Indian immigrant families. And with the gangsta culture come the guns.


“If you want a gun, you can get one in a day, a couple of hours maybe,” said Andrew Bacchus, 30, founder of Toronto’s Vice Lords gang who is now working with Breaking the Cycle, a gang-exiting program. “The gun registry hasn’t made any difference on that.”

Homicide rates have increased, but shootings have mostly been confined to neighborhoods inhabited by gangs, such as Jamestown in the northeast part of the city. But the death last year of a 15-year-old girl caught in gang crossfire in a downtown shopping center the day after Christmas -- and in the middle of an election campaign -- was a turning point.

Fighting crime became a part of nearly every stump speech, a theme that hit home not just with Conservatives, but with middle-class voters across the spectrum. Harper promised stricter sentencing, but also a repeal of the gun registry, saying the millions it cost a year to track hunters would be better used for cracking down on gangs.

The registry isn’t the only thing Harper is gunning for. He is serious about changing hallmark Liberal Party policies that had long distinguished Canada from the United States. In his first 100 days as prime minister, the conservative, free-market economist from Canada’s west began to dismantle the Liberal platform plank by plank: He bowed out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, dropped legislation to decriminalize marijuana and backed out of expensive Liberal social programs for indigenous groups and child care.

The registry was an obvious target. When it was created a little more than a decade ago, it was expected to cost only a few million dollars, and to be largely self-sustained by user fees. The expense of creating an extensive computerized database spiraled out of control, however, and an auditor general’s report this month estimated the cost to be nearly $1 billion over 10 years. It also showed that officials with the former Liberal Party government buried budget overruns so they wouldn’t have to go before Parliament to seek more money.

A poll released in May showed that though 67% of respondents want gun control, they don’t want the current system. The poll also illustrated the geographic split in Canada: Support for some form of control reached 71% in the eastern, more urban provinces of Ontario and Quebec, but only 51% in the western provinces, a traditionally conservative stronghold with more hunters and farmers.


“The gun registry registers legal guns,” said Toronto’s deputy police chief, Tony Warr. “Gangsters don’t register their guns.”

In a grim twist, gangs have been obtaining information from the registry about owners of legal guns and stealing caches of firearms from collectors.

Police groups say they check the registry 5,000 times a day, whether as part of a routine traffic stop or before officers enter a home to stop a dispute, though one analyst says that the database is full of errors.

“Over 60% of records have errors or omissions,” said Gary Mauser, a business administration professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who became a critic of the registry after studying it. “If the police trust it, it will cost lives.”

Although the Ontario Police Chiefs Assn. supports the registry, Warr said that the money spent on registering shotguns should be used instead on stricter law enforcement and social programs to keeps kids out of gangs.

“The $1 billion could be better spent elsewhere,” he said. “It really has done nothing to solve the crime problem.”


But across the country, other police associations, safety groups and women’s organizations say it’s a mistake to get rid of the gun registry.

Although it doesn’t directly address the problem of illegal handguns, the registry helps create a culture in which guns are seen as dangerous and owners are held accountable, said Wendy Cukier, a professor of justice studies at Ryerson University and the co-author of the book “The Global Gun Epidemic.”

The screening process, for example, makes it harder for anyone with a criminal record to buy any type of gun, and those who apply to buy a handgun must show why they need one.

“Gun control is one piece of an integrated strategy,” Cukier said. “Controls on rifles and shotguns were never targeted towards gang violence. They are more likely to be used in domestic violence and rural suicides. But as you increase the registration of firearms, you make it harder for people who shouldn’t have them to get access to them.”

Along with his planned legislation to repeal the registry, Harper waived the $60 licensing fee, a move that will eliminate about $120 million in revenue, canceling any savings from cutting the registry.

“It’s not about the money. It’s not about public safety. It’s about payback for the gun lobby,” Cukier said.


Citing relatively small number of firearms in the country, she said, “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for politicians to be tripping over themselves to accommodate them.”

One of the effects of the gun registry was to reduce the number of rural suicides and the toll of women killed during domestic disputes by men with legally owned shotguns and rifles. Since 1991, the number of women killed by guns has gone down 62%.

“That shows that taking guns out of people’s homes and making them think twice has had a real effect,” Cukier said.

“Why change that now? Why do anything that makes it easier to get guns?”