Friday 21 May 2010

Canada's long-gun registry cost-effective life saver

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance," said Derek Bok, president of Harvard University president for over 20 years.

A similar analogy applies to the long-gun registry, as activists and objective observers alike are making clear.

In 1995, Ted Miller turned his attention to the costs associated with gun violence in Canada. Miller is an internationally recognized safety economist and leading expert on injury incidence, costs and consequences, with more than 150 studies and more than 200 scholarly publications under his belt.

The cost estimates he produces are used by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Justice Department and several foreign governments.

Miller's look at gunshot wounds in Canada, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, estimated that gunshot wounds in 1991 cost Canada $6.6 billion (in 1993 dollars). That represents about $8.95 billion in today's money.

Miller found about $63 million was associated with medical and mental health costs, $10 million on public services, and that productivity losses exceeded $1.5 billion; the remaining dollar value was attributed to "pain, suffering and lost quality of life."

Clearly, even the dollar costs of gun violence are considerable. Not to mention the non-monetary costs of "pain, suffering and lost quality of life."

Fast-forward to 2003. The CMAJ issues an editorial in support of gun registration in Canada, saying dismantling the long gun registry would be, "a serious mistake ... (because) registration is a key part of the strategy to reduce mortality and morbidity resulting from the misuse of privately owned guns and the legal trade in firearms."

The editorial emphasizes 80 per cent of firearm deaths are due to suicides, 15 per cent to homicides and four per cent are accidental.

So injuries and deaths of just over 200 people per year account for costs of nearly $9 billion.

You don't have to be a Harvard president to understand that gun violence is a significant Canadian social problem. And that successful efforts to curtail it should be lauded, not destroyed.

Whatever overruns may have been associated with the registry's setup, it now annually costs only $3 million to $4 million. If it prevents even one or two gunshot injuries, it may well have already paid for itself.

A new website,, describes the registry's successes and counters gun lobby lies.

Today, as in the days of Miller's analysis, "The vast majority of firearm deaths in Canada are not gang-related, but occur when an ordinary citizen becomes suicidal or violent, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or during a personal crisis such as marital breakdown or job loss. When firearms are available, domestic homicides are more likely to involve multiple victims and end in suicide," says a recent statement from 28 Canadian health organizations and 33 individuals.

The statement "Firearms Control and Injury Prevention: The gun registry is a good investment" also describes the results since the registry's advent: "an astonishing decrease of 43 per cent of all gun deaths since 1991," with the greatest progress being in deaths associated with rifles and shotguns. Most suicides among those 15-35 years old involve firearms "easily accessible in the home"; such deaths decreased 64 per cent between 1995 and 2005, "with no evidence of substitution with other methods."

There is little doubt that Canada's gun lobby is supported and advised by the U.S. National Rifle Association (NRA). Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice-president, wrote recently on the Canadian Sports Shooting Association website, "if all goes well in the Canadian Parliament, Dominion gun owners will be freed from 14 years of living under the crushing weight of a bureaucratic, scandal-ridden, wasteful, invasive, $2 billion, error-ridden and inarguably worthless long-gun registry."

He described the November vote against the registry as "a stunning victory for gun owners" and quotes the research director of the ultra-conservative Colorado-based Independence Institute as saying the registry's repeal "would be of tremendous global significance."

But a majority of Canadians actually believe in the registry: a new poll shows more than twice as many of us want to keep it as wish to scrap it (59 per cent versus 27 per cent), that women support the gun registry more than men (66 per cent versus 51 per cent), that more people living with gun owners support the registry than oppose it (47 per cent versus 36 per cent) and that a substantial proportion of gun owners themselves (36 per cent) support it.

The gun lobby may be louder and better financed, but even among households with guns in Canada, votes are almost evenly split.

While the gun lobby blusters that the licensing provisions of the Firearms Act provide adequate safeguards, the truth is that licensing only functions with registration as its backup. Our Supreme Court even issued a ruling to this effect.

The registry provides police with the number and type of firearms each licensed individual owns. If a gun owner is deemed dangerous to himself (or others), in the absence of the registry, how can a prohibition order be enforced?

Safe storage rules are similarly unenforceable if there's no proof of ownership for a gun in question.

Dismantling the long-gun registry would be a huge blow to the Firearms Act as a whole, undermining public safety.

So if you think gun control is expensive, try gun deaths.

(Published Tuesday May 18th, 2010 in The Daily Gleaner)

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