The final House of Commons vote to end the federal firearms registry was greeted Feb. 15 on Parliament Hill with a low-key cocktail party. Long-time opponents of the 1995 Liberal gun control bill, still spoken of hissingly out West as C-68, gathered to celebrate with the Prime Minister. Perhaps surprisingly, there was little visible jubilation on the Prairies about the end of a nearly 20-year fight. The streets of Alberta and Saskatchewan did not live up to Torontonian fantasies of whooping cowboys discharging rifles into the air like Pashtuns at an Afghan wedding.
Gun owners, sellers and political advocates know the private member’s bill to end the registry must still traverse the Senate. Quebec has promised litigation to prevent the destruction of the information in the database. And while the registry radicalized a generation of sportsmen, the gun control debate did not begin with C-68; with a vast array of social networks and institutions now in place for the political defence of gun ownership, it won’t end there, either.
“The vote against the registry was a historic day, no two ways about it,” says National Firearms Association spokesman Blair Hagen. “But we’re still opposed to a licensing system that makes paper criminals out of peaceful firearms owners.” The NFA’s ongoing complaints with guns laws range from “possession-only” certification introduced in 1998—which forced all gun owners to acquire a licence, when previously you just needed a licence to purchase a gun—to still-standing provisions in C-68 for warrantless searches of homes by firearms inspectors. “We’re not so much celebrating the defeat of part of a particularly hated law, as we are coming to the realization that reform is possible,” says Hagen.
From the introduction of the original Firearms Acquisition Certificate in 1977, down to the safe-storage laws created by Progressive Conservative justice minister Kim Campbell, passed in 1991, gun owners have been largely on the defensive. (Many may not recall that the polarizing École Polytechnique spree shooting took place in 1989, and that it was a Tory government that first responded with a round of reactive legislation.) Though when the Chrétien government upped the ante in 1993, with an ambitious step toward registration and tracking of all individual weapons, the Liberals failed to anticipate what they had unleashed.
Dave Tomlinson, an Edmontonian who had been a student of gun laws since the 1970s, and who founded the National Firearms Association in 1984, was quick to see how things would play out. “The faster the gun registry gets started,” he said in 1998, “the faster it goes under.” As things turned out, Tomlinson would not live to see the demise of the registry, dying of cancer at age 73, in 2007. “He was a visionary,” recalls Hagen. “It was one thing for Liberal and PC governments to chip away at the rights of firearms owners, but he saw that with universal registration the Liberals had bitten off more than they could chew.”
Business schools are still studying the gun registry as one of the great IT bungles, observes Gary Mauser, a retired Simon Fraser University political scientist whose academic placing and quantitative skills made him, like Tomlinson, a bête noire of gun controllers. The goals and details of the registry changed again and again after the contractors were hired, and the cost exploded. Mauser, still active in research at his home in Coquitlam, B.C., knew little or nothing of guns when he became interested in gun-control law at the time of Campbell’s political battle.
“I started with the question, ‘Does any of this crap work?’ ” Mauser says now. “I’m quite typical of a lot of people who weren’t interested in the political dimensions of gun ownership.” And that included gun owners. “C-68 made them sit up and say, ‘They want to do what?’ ”
The gun registry did not just make Mauser into a gun advocate; over time, his involvement with owners and sellers turned him into a gun collector and black-powder shooting enthusiast. He attended the party in Ottawa as a VIP and witnessed the decisive Commons vote from the gallery, but he has no celebration planned in B.C. Mostly he is watching the muted emails of relief and happiness circulate amongst firearms communities, clubs and mailing lists. “Canadians should feel about 10 per cent less cynical about their government today,” he says. “Apparently there are politicians who are capable of keeping a promise.”