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Gun Registration in Canada: A Model for California?

by Sugi Sorensen


California Assembly Bill 35 (AB 35), the new handgun licensing scheme from California's benighted legislature, is slowly grinding its way through the Sacramento gears of government. Next up in the legislative machinery, the Assembly Appropriations Committee will hear testimony and decide the fiscal merits of the bill on Wednesday. A companion bill, SB 52, is making its way through the California State Senate. If AB 35 and SB 52 pass, Governor Gray Davis will likely sign the combined version into law. More importantly for Americans living outside of California, if it passes, AB 35/SB 52 is likely to be used as a model by other state legislatures.

As Californians and spectating non-Californians peer into their crystal balls to assess the potential costs of handgun licensing, they need look only to our friends north of the border in Canada to see what can happen.

The Canadian Firearms Act (Bill C-68), which requires all Canadians to obtain a license if they own a firearm, was passed in 1995, and took effect in 1998. As background, it should be remembered that Canada has had some form of handgun registration in effect since 1934. When the Firearms Act of 1995 was proposed, the Canadian Department of Justice estimated it would cost no more than C$85 million over the five years it took to register all guns. The Department of Justice has since retreated form that initial estimate, stating that it included only "start-up costs."

One rule of government gleaned from several thousand years of human history is that actual implementation costs of a government program always exceed estimated costs. How did the experts in the Canadian Department of Justice fare? The Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank, used Access to Information acts to estimate the real tab at closer to C$600 million for the first three years the registry was in effect. Unfortunately, the Canadian government, embarrassed by the sky-rocketing costs of the scheme, now actively hides the numbers by refusing to release documents which detail costs.

Even before the law had taken effect, the Canadian government was lying to its own skeptical Parliament Members and citizens about the true costs of the program. MP Garry Breitkreuz of Saskatchewan formally asked the Department of Justice in 1997 to state how much it had spent implementing C-68. The government answer was C$34 million, well below the C$146 million the Department of Justice's Canadian Firearms Centre had said several months earlier.

The Fraser Institute's Gary Mauser estimates the final costs will be between C$1 billion and C$1.5 billion by January 2003. That number doesn't include the estimated C$60 million additional dollars required each year just to keep the registry running.

And what will these billions of Canadian's taxpayers' dollars have bought? The number of employees at the Canadian Firearms Center, which administers the registry, and associated government agencies have grown from a handful of employees in 1995 to 600 employees in mid-1999, and over 1,700 by July 2000.

All of this growth in Canadian gun bureaucrats has come at the expense of other government agencies. During the same period the Canadian Firearms Center grew from nothing to nearly 2,000 employees, the total number of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers declined.The RCMP budget stayed roughly flat. RCMP salaries were frozen for seven years and training was reduced.

And in spite of this impressive new bureaucratic machine, there were over a million backlogged firearms registration applications as of late 2000. The system is in utter chaos, in spite of the rosy picture portrayed by government officials. Three Canadian provinces have openly declared they will not comply with the law. The non-compliance rate is as high as 60% in Alberta. Hundreds of thousands of Canadian citizens have been denied licenses because of confusion over eligibility and the type of license they need. Over one million otherwise law-abiding Canadian citizens became criminals on 01-Jan-2001, the deadline for which they had to have applied for a firearms license.

To quell growing dissatisfaction with the new Gun Registry in its first years of operation, the government rubber-stamped hundreds of thousands of applications without performing required background checks as mandated by law. Canadian Firearms Center employees now actively encourage frustrated Canadian citizens to break the law and lie on their forms to expedite processing.

And how has gun registration helped Canada? Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray admitted that the gun registration system has never helped solve a single firearms crime.

Over C$1 billion will have been spent by year's end to register the firearms owned by the estimated 2.5 million Canadian gun owners. That works out to about C$400 per gun owner. At current exchange rates, that's about $260 per gun owner for the first four years of registration. Are California taxpayers willing to spend $3.5 billion registering California's estimated 13.5 million gun owners over just the next four years? The majority of these costs will have to be borne by local law enforcement agencies, which are the front line of AB 35's utopian registration scheme.

How much do California legislative experts predict AB35 will cost? AB35 declares that "the department shall charge the applicant a license fee sufficient to completely cover the costs incurred by the department in administering the ... program, but not to exceed $20 per license application." Elsewhere in the same bill, other language says registration fees shall not exceed $25 per handgun, or $125 per licensee. With an estimated 13.5 million gun owners in California, that would be somewhere between $270 million and $1.7 billion to license California's gun owners.

If California's registration experience follows Canada's example, the real cost to administer the program could balloon to $3.5 billion in its first four years. Would California gun owners be willing to pay over $250 each just for their license fees, not to mention hundreds more dollars in training and other fees required to pass the state's safety requirements? Is it any wonder Canada's gun license fees have increased from $10 to $60 per license with more increases likely and hundreds of millions of dollars probably being paid out of the general treasury fund?

Constitutional, efficacious, and moral reasons aside, Californians and Americans alike should reject firearms registration from a purely economic point of view.