In 1994, when Liberal Justice Minister Allan Rock introduced legislation for the long gun registry, I sat a few feet from him in the House of Commons, serving as a member of the Reform Party caucus.
Before Question Period one day, I asked him privately for information to assess the merit of the bill. He promised he would provide it to me but never did. Nor was it produced or considered in the public debates that preceded the vote in Parliament that enacted the gun registry.
The information I requested of the minister was: “What will be the cost per life saved as a result of the existence of the registry?”
Knowing this cost does not imply a callous disregard for lives. To the contrary, it allows one to judge whether this cost is higher or lower than that of other ways in which lives could be saved through government spending programs.
The economic issue is clear. Resources used for one deserving cause are not available for other deserving causes. A calculation of the economic benefit should be used in the evaluation of all proposed government programs.
For example, if it costs $10 million to save one life through the registry but it costs only $5 million to save one life by improving road intersections or providing better medical equipment in hospitals, an enlightened government should spend that money on improving roads and health services, not the gun registry. More lives would be saved through spending of a given sum of money, a result everyone would welcome.
With the resources available to the federal government, reasonably reliable estimates of such costs and benefits could be made by civil servants and academic specialists. In fact, after I had my conversation with Minister Rock, I asked a Simon Fraser University colleague in the criminology department about the feasibility of such a study. He assured me that it would be possible.
For the most part, the arguments used by gun owners on one side, and defenders of the registry, such as police chiefs, on the other, are built on emotional appeals and have virtually no empirical content. Gun owners deplore the costs incurred by the government in setting up the registry, the fees they have to pay, the time lost completing registration forms, and the inconvenience and cost of meeting the registry’s requirements for the storage and safe keeping of guns.
The police chiefs defend the registry on the grounds that it saves the lives of law enforcement officers and potential victims of crime and domestic violence, as well as reducing time in responding to emergency calls. Some Canadians argue that the registry is necessary to prevent a repeat of events like the December 1989 massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique that resulted in 24 women being shot dead.
In the final analysis, the costs borne by the gun owners and the general taxpayer can be expressed in terms of dollars with relative ease. The benefits of the registry are more difficult, but not impossible, to estimate.
What’s needed, for example, is a comparison of the number of police officers and private citizens killed before creation of the registry to the number since the launch of the registry, adjusted for the secular downward trend observed in recent years. The recent vote in parliament will not make the issue of the registry go away. But it would be more helpful for all Canadians if future discussions are based on solid, empirical evidence, and voting decisions based on facts, not emotion.
Herbert Grubel is a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University and senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.