Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The real cost of the Canadian Long Gun Registry

In 1994, when Liberal Minister Allan Rock introduced legislation for the long gun registry, I sat a few feet from him in the House of Commons, serving as a member of the Reform Party caucus. Before question period one day I asked him privately for information that I required to assess the merit of the bill. He promised that he would provide it to me. He never did. Nor was it produced or considered in the public debates the preceded the vote in parliament that decided to continue the gun registry.

The information that I had requested of the Minister was: “What will be the cost per life saved as a result of the existence of the registry?” Knowing this cost does not imply a callous disregard for lives. To the contrary. It allows one to judge whether this cost is higher or lower than that of other ways in which lives could be saved through government spending programs.

The economic issue is clear. Resources used for one deserving cause are not available for other deserving causes. Economic benefit – cost calculations rationally should be used in the evaluation of all proposed government programs.

For example, if it costs $10 million to save one life through the registry but it costs only $5 million to save one life by improvements to road intersections or the provision of better medical equipment in hospitals, an enlightened government should spend that money of the improvement of roads and health services, not on the gun registry. More lives would be served through spending of a given sum of money, a result everyone would welcome.

With the resources available to the federal government, reasonably reliable estimates of such costs and benefits could be made by civil servants and academic specialists. In fact, after I had my conversation with Allan Rock, I asked a colleague in the Criminology Department of Simon Fraser University about the feasibility of such a study. He assured me that it would be possible to do one.

The arguments presented by gun owners on one side and by defenders of the registry like police chiefs on the other, basically are about costs and benefits presented with much emotion but virtually no empirical content.

Gun owners deplore the costs incurred by the government in setting up the registry, the fees they have to pay, the time lost completing registration forms and the inconvenience and cost of meeting the registry’s requirements for the storage and safe keeping of guns.

The police chiefs defend the registry on the grounds that it saves the lives of law enforcement officers, potential victims of crime and domestic violence and that it saves time in responding to emergency calls. Some Canadians argue that the registry prevents a repeat of massacres like the one at Montreal's École Polytechnique in December 1989 that lead to the death of 24 women.

In principle and in the final analysis, the costs borne by the gun owners and the general tax payer can be expressed in terms of dollars with relative ease. The benefits of the registry are more difficult, but not impossible to estimate. Needed is, for example the comparison of the number of police officers and private citizens killed before and after the registry, adjusted for the secular downward trend observed in recent years.

Similarly, it would be possible to estimate the number of innocent people killed by long guns used by emotionally disturbed persons and what effect the registry would have on this number. The needed calculation would be difficult since Montreal-style mass murders are very rare in Canada, but some estimates could be based on comparisons of such incidents in US states and other countries that have and do not have strict long-gun registration systems.

The recent vote in parliament will not make the issue of registry go away. It would be most helpful to all Canadians if future discussions would be based on the kind of information suggested above and lead to voting decisions based on real facts and much less on emotion.

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