Meet the Man Responsible for the Death of Canada's Gun Registry

Frank Miniter, Forbes, 2012-02-29

Looking north across the border, American gun owners may well see the fall of Canada's long-gun registry with relief. This, after all, lessens the odds that the anti-gun movement will be successful in its attempt to install a gun-owners database in the U.S. However, before American gun owners forget about Canada all over again, there's an incredible story here not being told outside Ottawa political circles that needs to be heard by every American who cherishes their freedom.

The way the press is telling it, the Conservatives finally gained control of the House of Commons and the Senate and then used, as they said they would, their majorities to begin the repeal of Canada's long-gun registry. Their first big step, taken on February 15, was the House of Commons vote to kill the long-gun registry. They accomplished this by 159-130. Next up is Canada's Senate, where repeal is inevitable because Conservatives also have a majority there. Finally, it'll make its way to the Governor General of Canada where it will receive Royal Assent and be passed into law. So sometime this spring law-abiding Canadians will no longer have to fill out forms and pay fees in order to keep authorities aware of what's in their gun cabinets.

All that seems to say that the political winds simply shifted and blew over the registry. The problem with that assumption is it isn't quite true.

The true story is actually much more interesting; in fact, it needs to be heard by every American, as the arguments used by the anti-gun groups in Canada are the same ones being promoted in the U.S.

The story begins on an evening in January in 1994 in a little town called Preeceville, Saskatchewan. Garry Breitkreuz (pronounced Bright-Krites) was then a new member of Canada's Parliament. He had been elected in October of 1993. Preeceville has about 1,000 residents. Garry was excited. This would be his first town-hall meeting. The topic was about a new gun-control bill, C-68, brought in by the then Liberal Government. It included the creation of a long-gun registry. "I'll never forget that first meeting," says Garry. "Even though it was 39 degrees below zero outside the place was packed and the people heated."

Now it should be noted that Garry was hardly a gun-rights activist. Not yet anyway. Sure, he grew up in a rural Saskatchewan home and had a .30-30-caliber rifle he used to hunt deer with. "But when it came to the gun issue," says Garry, "I was very naïve."

Naïve indeed. Garry started the meeting off by saying to the crowd that "this long-gun registry seems to make sense. Maybe it'll catch a few criminals…." He barely got started in this manner when his constituents made it clear they didn't agree.

"They challenged me," says Garry, "to do some research to find out if forcing people to register their guns will really save lives."

Garry shut up and listened. Before a few more minutes passed he promised to do some research to find out if requiring people to register their guns really reduces crime.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many concerned citizens, police officers, hunters, farmers and sport shooters who have told me their stories over the past years. They have shared their experiences. They have been honest and forthright with their opinions on the long gun registry.

This is where the story behind this repeal takes a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" shift. Garry set out to learn if making citizens register their deer rifles with the police really prevents homicides. "After just a few months of digging into it I did a 180," says Garry, who soon hired a researcher to help. The researcher's name is Dennis Young. Together they started asking the government from the inside how much the gun registry was costing and whether it was really reducing crime. The bureaucracy began stonewalling him, so he started filing "Access to Information" requests (the American equivalent of "Freedom of Information Act" requests). By 2002 he'd filed more than 500 such requests.

He learned that the Canadian government was horribly underestimating the costs of the long-gun registry. In 1995 Canada's Department of Justice told Parliament that the Canadian Firearms Program would cost $119 million to implement and that this cost would be offset by $117 million in fees; however, by 2000 Canada's Department of Justice was already estimating that the long-gun registry would cost over $1 billion.

Meanwhile, the gun-owners database wasn't reducing crime rates. In fact, John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, looked into Canada's long-gun registry recently and couldn't unearth one murder the registry solved. Lott says, "The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Chiefs of Police have not yet provided a single example in which tracing was of more than peripheral importance in solving a case."

Canada's Public Safety Minister agrees with Lott. On the day of the vote to repeal the registry the National Post reported that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the long-gun registry "does nothing to help put an end to gun crimes, nor has it saved one Canadian life. It criminalizes hard-working and law-abiding citizens such as farmers and sport shooters, and it has been a billion-dollar boondoggle left to us by the previous Liberal government."

Now, back in the 1990s Garry wasn't getting any traction politically or with the press, so he took his research to the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. The government agency agreed to review his data and to do its own audit. The auditing agency agreed with Garry. In 2002 the agency reported: "The Department of Justice Canada did not provide Parliament with sufficient information to allow it to effectively scrutinize the Canadian Firearms Program and ensure accountability. It provided insufficient financial information and explanations for the dramatic increase in the cost of the Program."

"This report blew the lid off," says Garry.

He says that before the Office of the Auditor General report made headlines even many Conservative politicians wouldn't touch the gun-registry issue. They thought it was a losing battle. They said the facts didn't matter, just the demagoguery they'd surely receive. They were afraid of the big media in population centers in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver—sound familiar?

"But the public was ahead of the politicians on this issue," says Garry. "In meetings all over the country I was telling people that with what they were spending on the registry we could hire five or six thousand police officers."

This resonated.

The exploding costs of the registry made headlines even in the city papers. Gary A. Mauser, a Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, has also looked deeply into the costs. He says, "John Lott and I added up the costs and found that, in total, the Canadian government spent about $2.7 billion on this failed experiment." That's more than 20 times what it was forecast to cost.

Even after the 2002 report from Office of the Auditor General came out Garry kept traveling around Canada speaking about the costs of having the government invade law-abiding Canadians' gun cabinets. He also kept citing the crime statistics, which clearly weren't being affected by this massive invasion of Canadians' civil liberties. Criminals, as it predictably turned out, weren't registering firearms they were using for crimes.

Nevertheless, some Conservative politicians still didn't want to tackle the issue. So Garry looked for a new way to pull them together. In 2006 he learned that the U.S. has a Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus (CSC). Nearly 300 members of the U.S. Congress are members of the CSC. Started in 1988-89, the CSC is supported by the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), a group that fights for sportsmen's rights, including wildlife conservation issues and gun rights. (Full disclosure: I do contract work for the CSF.) Garry hopped on a plane bound for Washington, D.C.

According to Phil Morlock, who is the director of environmental affairs for Shimano American Corporation/Shimano Canada and who is a CSF board member, "Garry couldn't believe the U.S. had this large caucus fighting for hunting, fishing and gun rights. He was even more astounded that the caucus is bi-partisan. He met with CSC congressional leaders. He found himself talking to Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the CSC and asked them how they get along in such a partisan and politically charged atmosphere. The American politicians laughed and said that sometimes they think all they really agree on are sportsmen's rights, including the rights of law-abiding gun owners."

Garry flew back to Ottawa and, with the help of Morlock and others, started a nonpartisan caucus called the Canadian Parliamentary Outdoor Caucus. This caucus now is one of the largest on Parliament Hill. "The caucus helped get the information out to Members of Parliament and Senators that the long-gun registry was intrusive and ineffective," says Garry.

At the time Garry wrote an op-ed for various newspapers in which he said, "[We] need to become proactive in protecting our outdoors heritage from an increasing number of large, well-funded, international groups who want to shut down hunting, fishing, trapping and sport shooting. Rural and urban Canadians of all political affiliations, backgrounds, ages and abilities contribute over $10 billion annually to the national economy through these industries. These traditional activities are a key part of Canada's culture and an important component of our history as a nation."

Sportsmen and those who just wanted to protect their families without government interference now had a caucus working for them.

Then, also in 2006, Stephen Harper, a Conservative, became prime minister of Canada by forming a minority government. Harper didn't have the votes then to tear down the registry, but over the next few elections the Conservatives gained more seats. Finally, in 2011, with the caucus, the government, the facts and the public on their side, the Conservatives had the votes and the will to move against the long-gun registry.

Garry says the caucus, along with the blatant fact that the long-gun registry was costing a fortune without solving crimes, even had support from politicians in other parties. Nevertheless, when the vote came only two New Democrats—John Rafferty and Bruce Hyer—broke from their party and voted to repeal. "They're now being punished by their party for doing the right thing," laments Garry.

Then, when the vote came on February 15, something unusual took place. In the Canadian House of Commons members of Parliament stand to signify their votes. After Garry stood to vote to repeal the long-gun registry, they broke into a cheer: "Garry, Garry…." This just isn't done in the reserved atmosphere of the Canadian Parliament. But repealing a government program—no matter how onerous and costly it turns out to be—is a rare thing. It's especially rare to see a database of gun-owners repealed. Throughout history many governments have created gun registries—most recently in Australia and England. Gun registries often end in gun confiscations—again, this has occurred in Australia and England—but as far as Lott knows no registry has ever been repealed.

And the moral of the story is that Canada's experiment didn't end with the government disarming its citizenry because the people stood up and challenged a statesman to represent them by searching out the truth—this, in a nutshell, is what the Tea Party has been advocating in the U.S.

In fact, I asked Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action how this might affect Americans and he said, "Gun registration in the United States has always been the political fantasy of the gun-ban lobby. The clear lesson from Canada is that registration did not and does not reduce crime; in fact, since Canada's long-gun-registration law went into effect, the U.S. murder rate has dropped almost twice as fast as Canada's. A gun registry only infringes on privacy and has led to the confiscation of law-abiding citizens' firearms in countries around the world, and even here in the U.S. That is why the NRA will fight any registration effort in the U.S. with every fiber we have."

Indeed, Americans should be thanking Garry, too. He showed how to use facts, tenacity and a democratic process to overturn bad policy by convincing the government to stop making criminals out of law-abiding gun owners.

The CSSA is the voice of the sport shooter and firearms enthusiast in Canada. Our national membership supports and promotes traditional target shooting competition, modern action shooting sports, hunting, and archery. We support and sponsor competitions and youth programs that promote these Canadian heritage activities