Professor Gary Mauser

One thing's for sure, crime causes gun laws

Globe and Mail -- September 17, 2006 There are many ways to kill: bombs, knives, poison and guns, to name just a few. How effective would it be to limit the availability of any one of these tools if we want to reduce the incidence of murder? The answer, quite simply, is that it would not be very effective at all.

As comforting as it might seem in the wake of last Wednesday's shooting spree in Montreal, proof is lacking that more restrictive gun laws will make society safer. In fact, it's time to ask if the money spent on stringent gun laws might be better spent on other programs.

And make no mistake, gun laws impose very high costs on citizens, both through compensation for confiscating outlawed weapons and by stimulating the growth of government bureaucracy.

When Canada's gun registry was introduced, it was claimed that it would cost $2-million, but the Auditor-General found that the costs of only part of the registry were more than $1-billion. And she did not examine the entire sprawling program. Estimates of the total cost to taxpayers now exceed $2-billion.

Yet, the firearms registry has not saved any lives. While gun homicide numbers are indeed down, the total homicide rate has increased.

This suggests that crime rates are driven by sociological factors rather than availability of just one method of murder.

In Canada, as in other countries, recent changes in firearms policy were precipitated by a media frenzy over a multiple murder. In 1989, Marc Lepine went to the University of Montreal, where he killed 14 women before he finally shot himself. The Montreal coroner stated that the type of weapon used was not a significant factor. Nevertheless, Canada twice introduced sweeping changes to its firearms laws, in 1991 and again in 1995. These changes included prohibiting over half of all registered handguns, prohibiting a wide variety of semi-automatic firearms, licensing gun owners and requiring the registration of rifles and shotguns.

But to what effect? Since 1998, when firearms were required to be registered, the homicide rate has increased by more than 3 percent. Despite the outrageous cost of the registry, the percentage of gun homicides has remained fixed at 27 per cent. The percentage of family homicides involving firearms has remained at 23 per cent.

Canada is not the only country that has introduced such gun laws.

Both the United Kingdom and Australia brought in stringent firearms laws following garish media coverage of shootings in the 1990s.

But despite the effort, police statistics show that the U.K. is enduring a serious crime wave. In contrast to the U.S., where the homicide rate has been falling for more 20 years, the homicide rate in the U.K. has been growing.

Nor did the introduction of stringent gun regulations in Australia make the streets any safer. The country's homicide rate remained basically flat from 1995 through to 2001. And the destruction of the confiscated firearms cost Australian taxpayers the equivalent of $420-million Canadian, with no visible impact on violent crime.

(The costs of the confiscation do not include the costs of bureaucracy, which, as has been shown in Canada, can be considerable.) Would a more thorough firearms ban have been more effective? In the 1970s, both the Republic of Ireland and Jamaica passed legislation to prohibit virtually all firearms. In neither country has the attempt to ban and confiscate firearms reduced the homicide rate.

So shouldn't that $2-billion-and-counting be better spent on things that might actually improve public safety? For example, the country's police budget has been effectively frozen since the 1990s. At the same time, public policy changes have left too many mentally ill people and violent criminals on Canadian streets. Perhaps we would have been better off had the money wasted on the gun registry been invested in better treatment of the mentally ill or longer prison terms for violent offenders.

It is an illusion that further tinkering with our gun laws will protect the public, and it's about time we realized this and spent our resources more wisely.

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Gary Mauser