By Dave Kopel
America's 1st Freedom. July 2012. More by Kopel on Canadian gun control.
One of the most important events in the history of global gun control took place this April, when Canada's long gun registration law was repealed. The battle over registration has lasted nearly two decades, and the victory for Canadian rights will be a shot heard 'round the world.
The father of Canada's long gun registration was born Gamil Rodrigue Gharbi, and later changed his name to Marc Lépine. Gharbi/Lépine was the son of an alcoholic, wife-beating child abuser who had immigrated to Canada from Algeria.
Like his father, Gharbi/Lépine responded to his own failures by perpetrating violence against women. In 1989, he murdered 14 women (13 by gunshot, one by stabbing) and wounded eight more women and four men in the engineering building of a school affiliated with the University of Montreal. An incompetent response by police dispatchers to 9-1-1 calls gave Gharbi/Lépine the opportunity to murder at leisure.
It was billed as the most shocking crime in Canadian history and is still memorialized every year as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Canada's government at the time was controlled by the Progressive Conservative Party, a party which would be center-left by American standards, but which was on the right wing of Canadian politics. Like some U.S. Republicans of the late 1980s, the Progressive Conservatives thought they could increase their popularity by cracking down on gun owners.
So the Progressive Conservative government reclassified a large number of semi-automatic firearms as "restricted weapons." In Canada, a "restricted weapon" is a firearm that can only be owned pursuant to an especially stringent licensing and registration procedure. The closest American analogue is the National Firearms Act (NFA), under which the ownership of certain guns (machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns and a few others) requires federal registration in a process that can take months.
Politically, the crackdown on guns did not work out very well for the Progressive Conservatives. They were decimated during the next election and, not long after, the party went out of existence.
While Americans are used to the stable two-party system of Democrats and Republicans, which has existed since the 1850s, Canadian political parties tend to come and go more rapidly. The one Canadian party that has endured is the Liberals. It was the Liberal Party that, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in the 1970s began the culture war on Canadian gun ownership.
The Trudeau regime created the law under which Canadians could only buy long guns if they first were granted a Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC) from the police. The FAC was good for five years, and once acquired, allowed the purchase of long guns with no additional procedures or registration. (Handguns have been subject to a more restrictive licensing system since the 1930s.)
Thanks to the self-immolation of the Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals swept back into power in 1993. This time, they aimed to finish the job that Trudeau had started and that the Progressive Conservatives had partially advanced. For the Liberals, the Montreal Massacre was their favorite story, to be repeated endlessly as the irrefutable proof that draconian gun restrictions were necessary. It provided a good model for how American gun-ban groups would attempt to exploit the Columbine High School murders.
At the heart of the Canadian culture war (and its American counterpart) was the belief that the national character needed to be fundamentally changed. The image of the sturdy Canadian farmer or hunter with his rifle or shotgun was appalling to the urban elites. They were certain that Canada needed to be a much more top-down, centrally controlled society, with a managerial "new class" organizing how ordinary Canadians would live their lives.
To the elites, draconian controls on gun owners had the added benefit of extending the reach of Canada's government deep into the personal lives of Canadians. For example, the Liberals' new gun laws allowed Canadian police to enter the home of any gun owner during the daytime, without a search warrant or any evidence of wrongdoing, to "inspect" whether the individual's guns and ammunition were properly stored.
The Liberals also calculated that while their anti-gun agenda might cost them votes in rural areas, any losses would be far outweighed by gains among urban and suburban women who were frightened of guns.
In the United States, many advocates for women's rights have worked to liberate both sexes from constricting stereotypes and legal barriers--so that every individual can achieve his or her fullest potential. Great American markswomen such as Annie Oakley and Elizabeth "Plinky" Toepperwein have provided inspiring examples of women who refused to be constricted by stereotypes of female roles.
But during the 1990s in Canada, much of the feminist movement fell under the power of spokespersons whose aim seemed to be less about liberating women and more about suppressing men. These feminists eagerly promoted the Liberals' anti-gun agenda. For these feminists, the Montreal Massacre was simply an example of what typical men did every day.
In the book The Montreal Massacre, published by gynergy books in 1991, eminent Quebec feminists expressed their fury and insisted that the only solution was the elimination of traditional masculinity. They argued that masculinity was pro-death and misogynist, with its evil tendencies cultivated by activities such as aggressive sports and violent entertainment.
Most Canadian politicians who supported gun control did not, of course, embrace the man-hating agenda of the most radical feminists. But the (supposedly) feminist element surrounding the gun control question helped to suppress genuine debate. As Calgary Sun columnist Ian Robinson later recalled, gun control became "part of the nation's ongoing gender wars and was framed in precisely those terms." So "anyone who objected to the content of the legislation--citing practicality, lack of efficacy, civil rights--was written off as some kind of psychopathic redneck."
The mainstream press also had plenty of angst about the (supposedly) violent "gun culture" in Canada. The truth is Gharbi/Lépine had nothing to do with Canada's traditional culture of sportsmanship. He didn't grow up on a farm in Saskatchewan and go deer hunting with his father and cousins. He was the son of an immigrant from a country where wife beating is common, and the father brought his Old World barbarisms to Canada. But to say this (or even to mention his birth name) was off-limits in Canada, a guarantee of being branded as racist--with the branding being done by the very same people who were insisting that Gharbi/Lépine manifested exactly what was wrong with Saskatchewan farmers.
So the Liberals' gun control plan became law. Now, to own any firearm requires that the individual first obtain a license through a system that is more cumbersome and privacy invading than the New York City process to obtain a handgun permit.
Further, the Liberal law mandated that all long guns would have to be registered with the national government. They promised that accomplishing registration would cost only 2 million Canadian dollars.
Meanwhile, on Canada's western prairies, a new political movement was forming. Eventually, it coalesced into the Conservative Party. One of its earliest members to win election as a Member of Parliament (MP) was Garry Breitkreuz, from Saskatchewan.
Initially, Breitkreuz supported the registration system. He figured that it would do no harm and might sometimes provide the police with useful information to solve a crime.
But when many of Breitkreuz's gun-owning constituents asked him if gun registration had ever resulted in a reduction in crime, he decided to look into the issue. And he found that it never worked.
Gun registration advocates in Canada and the United States assert that gun registration protects law enforcement officers because officers who are going to a home will know whether there is a gun in the home. Breitkreuz could tell that was nonsense. Criminals do not register their guns, and the officers going to a house where there are no registered guns cannot know whether that home contains unregistered guns owned by criminals.
So freshman MP Breitkreuz became Canada's leading parliamentary advocate for repeal of long gun registration.
The Canadian gun registry that was supposed to cost $2 million instead cost $2 billion--a waste of money that could have been invested in genuinely effective public safety programs.
The registry's computer system was a disaster. It was breached hundreds of times. Nobody knows how many times those breaches provided gun thieves with the information that they used for one-stop shopping.
Many otherwise law-abiding Canadians simply refused to register their guns. So Parliament allocated millions more dollars for a public education campaign to convince people to register.
The taxpayer money was given to a public relations firm, which diverted much of the money into a slush fund for the Liberal Party.
For many Canadian voters, this was the last straw. After years of debate, the majority of Canadians had come to see the long gun registry was useless. It no longer seemed that compiling a list of all the shotguns in Manitoba was the proper reparation for the Montreal crimes of Gharbi/Lépine.
In December 2005, with elections scheduled for a few weeks later in January, the Liberal government announced that if it returned to power, it would ban all handguns. The handgun ban would, of course, be facilitated by Canada's long-standing system of handgun registration.
Registration opponents have always pointed to the danger that registration lists can be used for confiscation. In Canada, they were ridiculed. For example, during a registration debate in Parliament on Sept. 22, 1998, Anne McLellan, the Liberal minister of justice, said "We're not interested in confiscating their guns, as long as they are legitimate gun owners, as long as they store them appropriately, transport them appropriately and so on. …"
Opposing a motion to repeal the registry, Liberal MP John McKay insisted, "A proper registration system gives security of ownership and enhances value. Far from confiscating, it does the exact opposite and legitimizes the owning of firearms. Certainly property registration does wonders for land titles and land values as it does for motor vehicles and other forms of property. Why would it not be true with firearms?"
Canadian Justice Department spokesman Jean Valin insisted in 1999 that gun owners "have nothing to fear from this government. They like to invent bogeymen, and this is one of them."
In 2004, Canada's commissioner of firearms spoke at the annual meeting of the Canadian Professional Police Association. He declared: "For years, firearm owners have expressed fears regarding the confiscation of firearms. This is a concern I heard loud and clear when we held consultations with firearms organizations last fall. But, in fact, those fears have not materialized."
The mainstream press agreed. The Hamilton Spectator informed readers that, "There is no evidence that gun registration will ever equal arbitrary seizure, or a law against ownership."
Maclean's, Canada's leading news magazine, told its readers about an NRA video that warned Americans about what was going on in Canada. The magazine dismissed "the old slippery slope argument: once the feds know where the guns are, it's just a matter of time before they take them away."
In using registration for confiscation, the Canadian Liberals were following the same strategy as the Brady Campaign. In 1976 (when the group was called the National Council to Control Handguns), the group's head, the late Nelson Shields, explained to The New Yorker:
"The first problem is to slow down the number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. The final problem is to make possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition--except for the military, police, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors--totally illegal."
In the January 2006 Canadian elections, handgun prohibition lost and the Conservative Party, running on a platform that promised repeal of long gun registration, won.
But the Conservatives did not win an outright majority in Parliament. To accomplish repeal, they would need the support of at least some members from other parties.
A repeal bill passed the House of Commons on a "second reading" by a vote of 164-137. The 143 Conservatives were joined by 21 members of other parties who represented rural, pro-gun districts (or "ridings," as Canadians call them).
That victory sent the bill to a committee for public hearings. While the bill was in committee, the Liberal leadership sprang into action. Before, they had allowed Liberal MPs to vote their conscience. Now, Liberals would be "whipped" to follow the party line and keep registration. Failure to obey the Liberal leadership would result in excommunication for the rural Liberals. So registration stayed on the books.
Finally, in 2011, Conservatives won a majority in Parliament. Repeal passed the House of Commons on Feb. 15, 2012, and then, on April 4, the Canadian Senate voted 50-27 in favor of Bill C-19 to abolish the long gun registry. The bill received unanimous support from Conservative senators, as well as from some Independents. It became the law of the land the next day, with the Royal Assent of Canada's Governor-General (the Queen's representative in Canada).
The bill does not change Canada's registration system for handguns, which has been in effect since the 1930s. Nor does it change the registration system for certain long guns that have been classified as "prohibited" or "restricted." Likewise unchanged is Canada's complicated and burdensome system for licensing gun owners.
The registration changes, however, are tremendous. Registration records for 7 million ordinary long guns are to be destroyed.
The government of the province of Quebec immediately filed suit to attempt to obtain custody of the 1.5 million registration records pertaining to citizens of Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois party, which governs the province, is highly authoritarian and anti-gun, and a reliable ally of the Liberals on all anti-gun legislation. As this article goes to press, the results of the lawsuit are not yet known.
For the last two decades, Canada has been the test bed of the international gun prohibition movement. Repressive ideas from Canada have been exported around the world by the international gun prohibition lobby, whose George Soros-funded employees are very skilled at international coordination. Canadian gun owners know that much more needs to be done to undo the damage caused by the culture war that Trudeau began, and which has burdened Canadians with laws that do nothing to enhance public safety, but whose purpose and effect is to harass and persecute law-abiding gun owners. Bill C-19 is a good first step--and a monumental one.