In March, Stephen Harper’s government reversed decades of increasing restrictions on civilian firearms, scrapping the controversial long-gun registry on grounds that it was wasteful and ineffective. Gun laws, the prime minister correctly said, should focus on criminals rather than law-abiding citizens such as farmers and hunters.
Some claim that this Conservative policy flies in the face of a mountain of evidence, and even represents an assault against reason. Canadian voters seem divided on this issue, as well as some basic related questions: Are firearms in the hands of ordinary citizens a serious threat to public safety? Is registration an effective approach to controlling misuse? How useful was the long-gun registry to police? This article will answer some of those questions.
Gun laws generally tend to be passed during periods of fear or instability, and only occasionally reversed afterwards. In 1913, for instance, a fear of immigrants prompted Ottawa’s first serious handgun legislation, requiring civilians to obtain a police-issued permit to acquire or carry handguns. Non-British immigrants found it difficult to get a permit.
Fearing labour unrest as well as American rum-runners, Ottawa mandated handgun registration in 1934. In 1941, concerned about possible Japanese sabotage, the government prohibited all “Orientals” (including Chinese) from owning firearms. (After the war, these restrictions were rescinded.) Terrorism in Quebec swayed opinion in the 1960s and ’70s, spurring Ottawa to limit handgun permits for “protection” to a handful of people, such as retired police and prospectors. In 1977, a Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC) was required to obtain ordinary rifles and shotguns. (The police decided to refuse an FAC to anyone who indicated a desire for self-
protection. This is shocking given that in a typical year, tens of thousands of Canadians use firearms to protect themselves or their families, mostly from wildlife.)
The 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal prompted the Mulroney government to introduce Bill C-17 in 1991, prohibiting a large number of military-style rifles and shotguns. FAC applicants were now required to provide a photograph and references, and to submit to police screening. (Typically, vetting involves telephone checks with neighbours and spouses or ex-spouses.)
In 1993, the Liberals brought in additional changes to gun laws, passing Bill C-68 in 1995 (the Firearms Act). Over half of all registered handguns in Canada were prohibited. No evidence was provided that these handguns had been misused.