In the late 1980s, after a rash of shootings on the reserve, the Shamattawa First Nation settled on a bold solution to its gun problem: the band council asked everyone to lock their rifles inside the local RCMP detachment. Twenty years later, the voluntary storage program is a resounding success. Gun-related crimes have plummeted, the cost is negligible, and if a person needs his firearm for hunting, all he has to do is flash his ID and sign it out. As a government-funded study later concluded, “misuse of firearms used to be the rule in this community,” located 1,300 km northeast of Winnipeg. “It is now the rare exception.”
A handful of other reserves have followed Shamattawa’s example, but in most cases the concept hasn’t stuck. In Manitoba, for instance, three other First Nations (God’s Lake, God’s River and Mathias Colomb) have launched similar initiatives, only to abandon them a few years later. The Mounties—anxious to know why the lock-up idea hasn’t spread—are hiring an independent researcher to find the answer. “This study is an important component of the RCMP’s commitment to work with Aboriginal communities to support culturally tailored programs and services dedicated to firearm safety in these communities,” the force said in a prepared statement.
The RCMP has the best of intentions: to figure out why some programs have failed, and provide band leaders with a reliable blueprint should they choose to test the idea. But optics are everything, and a study like this has the potential to be badly misconstrued.
“It’s touchy,” says Frank Cormier, a professor of criminology and Aboriginal justice at the University of Manitoba. “First Nations people have been studied to death. All kinds of us head up to remote communities and study these people and then come up with what we think they should do. So it does have a bit of an ‘imposed from above’ feeling to it, which is often not popular. But having spoken to the people in these communities, most of them support the idea.”