Thursday, February 16, 2012

Springtime Comes Early

Today the skies are bluer in Canada. The clouds are fluffier, puppies can resume wagging their tails, the flowers can bloom again (in a few months, one presumes), and the coffee at Tim Horton's tastes a little better. Our long national nightmare is over. Last night I learned that I've been living under the crushing thumb of tyranny for the last decade or so. My goodness, I had no idea. Forget minor inconveniences like ethnic cleansing in Darfur - after listening to last night's speeches, I now understand that firearm registration was the true injustice of our time. Who knew?

Before we continue, a couple of housekeeping items. First up, I've written about my position on firearm registration before, and it hasn't changed. I'm in favour of it, because I'm in favour of firearms licencing and there's no effective way to separate the two. I've explained that before, and won't be doing so again here. I'm not particularly enthusiastic about registration, but understand its necessity. Bear in mind that I like guns - rabidly, by Canadian standards. I have a firearms licence that I carry in my wallet at all times, because you never know when you might need it. I believe that an armed society is a polite society, understand that violent crime rates drop as concealed carry permit holders increase (and more importantly, why), and am generally as big an all-round supporter of the moral right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms as you're going to find. This makes me something of an enigma on firearms matters, with various aspects of my position outraging zealots on both sides. So be it.

I'll also give advance warning of some language in this article that's a little harsher than I usually use. I figured the joke was worth it, especially since there aren't many in this post. The harsh language is nothing you can't find in the King James Bible. Oh, and I engage in a little comic-strip cussing in point 12, in case that kind of thing is too intense for your sensibilities. Be forewarned.

On to the actual topic at hand.

Canada's Parliament last night voted to pass a bill to eliminate the requirement to register non-restricted firearms, which means most rifles and shotguns. That's fine. Politicians bicker and laws change all the time, and the logical or reasonable position doesn't always carry the day.

My problem isn't with the outcome of the vote, which barely merits a shrug. My problem is that I made the mistake of tuning in the Parliamentary access channel last night, and heard some of the speeches given before the vote. Some Tories (members of the Conservative party, my usual philosophical compatriots) spoke on why the long-gun registry needed to be eliminated, and I can't remember the last time I endured such a pathetic litany of hyperbole and lies.

As a firearms enthusiast, I've made a point of educating myself on Canada's firearms laws. For the most part, they're pretty straightforward. There are some complexities and a couple of jaw-dropping idiocies (mostly loopholes) buried deep in the annals of the Firearms Act. Honest, good-faith arguments can be made against parts of the Firearms Act, but that's not what happened last night. I hate seeing bad arguments used even when I agree with the speaker's point, so listening to sheer babble about a topic on which I'm ambivalent tends to push me toward the opposite side from the speaker.

There are real arguments to be made, using real facts and logic, against long gun registration. There's no need to engage in the time-honoured rhetorical technique of Making Crap Up, but that's precisely what the empty suit opponents of registration did last night. Let's enumerate the lies and absurdities for the sake of my mental organization, which needs all the help it can get.

1. I heard a member of Parliament complain that he knows someone who was never sent notification that it was time to re-register his long guns, and so he "became a criminal" without doing anything wrong. OK, without knowing anything else about this claim, let's play fact-and-logic-check.

Q: How often does a firearms owner have to re-register their non-restricted firearms?

A: Never. Registration is a one-time process, valid for life. As long as you do not allow your firearms licence to expire - which results, logically, in your registration certificate being invalidated - you never need to re-register non-restricted firearms. Oh, and letting your licence expire while you still own firearms will still be a federal offense, even after registration is gone.

Q. OK, so let's say I let my licence expire and will eventually need to re-register. Will someone let me know?

A. Yup. By the time your licence expires, you'll already have been sent at least two previous pieces of mail: a renewal notice, including the application form, followed by a reminder a few weeks later. If you ignore both of those - and again, remember that this part all remains the same under the new law - your licence will expire, and you'll later be sent a letter explaining that because your licence expired, you'll need to dispose of your firearms (unless you get a new one).

If you get your new licence, you may later get a letter explaining that you now need to re-register your firearms. This is the only way anybody ever gets asked to renew their non-restricted registrations. Note that it requires that they ignore both of the first two letters about their licence being about to expire. It requires deliberate, active, assertive stupidity, not just an oversight.

Q: What if the MP just misspoke, and it was the licence renewal that didn't get sent to the client? Wouldn't that mean that his not renewing, and later needing to re-register, wasn't his fault?

A: First of all, if the MP was talking about the licence renewal, then his story had no place in a discussion of registration. They're two different things, and until you understand that distinction you have absolutely nothing to add to a discussion of Canadian firearms laws. Especially since, "he said yet again", the licence requirement isn't changing under this new law.

Second, no.

Any reminder sent to me that something of mine is expiring is a courtesy, not a legal requirement. If I don't receive it, it's still on me to make sure I follow the procedure to stay valid. I know it's not considered cool these days to assume any sort of personal responsibility, but a few of us still do. We're like the people at the Renaissance Faire, pining for a different era.

Q: What if he moved since getting his licence? Then it's not his fault that he didn't get his renewal form, right?

A: I can't believe I have to address a question this stupid (especially since I'm the one asking it to maintain the Q&A format), but I've actually heard this argument.

When you move, it's your (here comes that word again) responsibility to notify anybody who needs to reach you. And, lookie here, when you get a firearms licence it explains right on the letter that comes with it that you MUST, by law, report any change of address within 30 days. Your driver's licence probably came with a similar letter. I know mine did. Try moving without notification, having your driver's licence expire as a result, and explaining to the next policeman who pulls you over that it's not your fault that you're driving without a valid licence, because the DMV should have been able to psychically sense that you had moved. Good luck with that.

2. Some MPs bloviated about long gun registration treating all firearm owners like criminals.

Then motor vehicle registration treats all drivers like criminals. Unless you stand in front of the DMV whining and waving a sign about that, shut up.

3. Several references were made to "law-abiding" people who refused to register their firearms out of principle.

If they own unregistered firearms, then they are, by definition, not law-abiding. By that standard, Al Capone was a law-abiding citizen who refused to declare some income on his tax returns out of principle. He was probably protesting the war in Iraq well in advance. He had a lot of foresight, that Capone.

4. The same doofus as in point 1 said that he knows people who wound up criminalized over typos in their address or phone number.

First up, name some names or you're making this up. Second, nonsense. To be "criminalized" implies that you were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted. Find me one person who now has a criminal record over a typo in their phone number.

5. The point was made that hunters shouldn't have to pay these outrageous registration fees.

Q: How much does it cost to register a firearm?

A: That would be zero dollars and zero cents. Free, gratis, thank you, come again.

Q: What about when I transfer the firearm to a new owner? There's a charge then, right?

A: Nope.

Q: Ahhh, but I need a licence. Is that free?

A: Nope. $60 if applying for non-restricted firearms, $80 for restricted. Good for five years.

Q: Ha! Gotcha! Registration might be free and permanent, but if I need to renew my licence every five years, then I'll still have to pay -

A: Nothing. Renewals are free. You only pay for your first licence.

Q: Umm.... never mind.

A: Okey-dokey, then. Let's move on.

6. It was asserted that failure to file paperwork - for example, not registering a firearm - should not be a criminal matter.

Ahh, now we're getting somewhere. If you're arguing that an unregistered firearm should be treated as a much less dire matter than the Firearms Act allows, then we can find some common ground. Right now, you can theoretically go to jail for owning an unregistered non-restricted firearm. No one has, but the possibility is there. I'd have no objection to that being reduced to a fine with no criminal record, akin to a speeding ticket. If the firearm got used in a dangerous way, then that's a separate matter that can be addressed separately.

On the other hand, the "not bothering to file paperwork isn't a crime" argument may not carry much weight with, say, the Canada Revenue Agency, Internal Revenue Service, or Securities and Exchange Commission...

7. The Tories have long hammered on the program's cost overruns, and last night's speeches upheld that tradition.

No argument here. The program cost far more than it was initially expected to. Although the oft-quoted initial estimate of $2 million and final cost of $2 billion are both somewhere between guesses and outright fabrication, there's little doubt that the intial cost estimates were, shall we say, ludicrously optimistic.

However, that $2 billion, even if you believe that figure (which you maybe shouldn't), is over the 17 years since the Firearms Act was passed. Under $120 million per year. That's a rounding error in the federal budget. Besides, that money is spent and gone, and the fact that it was spent has nothing to do with whether firearm registration is intrinsically a good idea.

The question now is not "is long gun registration worth the money that was spent on it?" The relevant question now is whether it's worth the amount still being spent on it. The problem is that no one seems to know quite how much that is, beyond "not much".

Oh, and you don't get to complain about the cost of the program unless you also object to the fee waivers alluded to earlier. When the registration law first came into effect, firearms owners were supposed to pay for their registrations (a flat rate of $18, regardless of how many firearms) and licence renewals ($60 every five years). Spineless politicians decided to appease the scofflaws by waiving those fees, because we all know how well appeasement works. The waiver was originally temporary, of course, but it's been extended repeatedly, and there's no reason to believe that the fees will ever be reinstated.

8. I don't remember whether one of the MPs mentioned this - probably, it kind of blurred together after the first couple of hours - but an ongoing anti-registration theme is that registration is bad because, hackers. I know a Sun News correspondent claimed the other night that the RCMP has admitted that they don't know how many times the registry database has been hacked.

I've got a pretty good idea that, once again, that number is zero. I'm betting that if the Sun News guy actually bothered to ask the RCMP, the conversation went like this:

Sun News Guy: "How many times has the registry database been hacked?"

RCMP Guy: "None."

Sun News Guy: "How do you know?"

RCMP Guy: "The security logs don't show any unauthorized accesses, and there's never been any evidence of a breach. No unauthorized person has actually produced proof that they've gotten in, for example by posting something online that they could only have gotten by getting in."

Sun News Guy: "But what if the hacker was smart enough to get past your firewallmacallits without you even knowing, and they just never told anybody? Huh? What then? How would you know then, Mister Policeman?"

RCMP Guy: "I guess you have a point, kind of. Sort of like if I asked how you'd know if somebody broke into your house every night and replaced all your stuff with exact duplicates."

Sun News Guy: "Exactly! So you admit you don't know!"

More seriously, I used to work in IT. I know people who still do, and some of them work for government agencies. They get security bulletins about hacks and hack attempts. Some of them are in positions where they would definitely have heard about a major RCMP security breach. I've made the calls and asked. It has never happened, to the best of anyone's knowledge.

Oh, it's been claimed. A Canadian hacker website I used to read had a guy loudly announce, several years ago, that he had hacked into the registry. He said he'd post again soon explaining how, and proving it by presenting some of the data he'd accessed. He never came through with any such explanation or proof, and ignored questions about it afterward. He was lying.

When it comes to claims of the registry having been hacked, the correct response is Internet mainstay, "Pics or it didn't happen."

My personal info is in there - under my real name, even - and I couldn't care less.

And once again - it bears repeating, because so many people just don't get it - repealing gun registration and destroying the registration data doesn't get your name out of that RCMP database. As long as you have (or ever had) a licence, you're still in there. And you needed a licence to register. So, guess what, privacy freaks? This changes nothing.

9. Sing the chorus with me. Come on, we all heard it 736 times during these speeches, and continually from certain quarters over the last several years: "Criminals don't register their guns!"

The only problem is, sometimes they do. Criminals aren't your brightest specimens.

There have been lots of examples in the news over the years, for those who weren't blind to them. Here are three easy ones that spring to mind.

In Mayerthorpe, a couple of guys loaned James Roszko some registered guns and dropped him off to ambush and kill four RCMP officers. The presence of their guns led to their arrest and conviction as accomplices.

Guess how the police knew the guns weren't all Roszko's? Without registration, everyone would have assumed that all the guns at the scene were his, and there would have been no further investigation of them.

A smuggling ring was importing legal non-restricted receivers (actions - the actual workings of the firearm, that the barrel and stock attach to), then modifying them into illegal configurations by adding illegally smuggled short barrels, or illegally modifying the actions to fire as fully automatic. They were importing the receivers legally, registering them in the process.

When those illegally modified firearms started turning up at crime scenes, guess how the police were able to trace them to the initial importers?

Earlier this month, a gun store employee in British Columbia was arrested for embezzling firearms from his employer. He was transferring the firearm registrations from the business (which he was authorized to do as an employee) to himself, and taking the guns home for his collection, without paying for them of course. When the business owner figured out that a bunch of firearms were missing from his inventory, he called the police to investigate.

Guess how the police were able to figure out who the thief was and how many firearms they were looking for when they arrived with the arrest warrant?

There's a related issue in that sometimes formerly law-abiding people become criminals later. But we'll come back to that.

Of course, there is one element of truth in the constant bleating of "Criminals don't register!". Right, sometimes they don't. Habitually breaking the law, or at best picking and choosing which laws to follow, is pretty much a defining characteristic of criminals. Thinking that "criminals don't register!" is an argument against the idea of registration is like thinking that "Criminals still rob banks!" is an argument against anti-robbery laws. No. "Epic fail", as the kids say, and I could smack them in the back of the head every time they say it.

10. Let's move on to the related second mantra, heard again last night many times over: "Gun registration has never prevented a single crime!"

Good luck proving that negative.

I can easily disprove it logically, beyond any reasonable doubt. Before I do that, though, let's examine the logic of using that statement as an argument against gun registration. Once again, arguing against gun registration by claiming it doesn't stop criminals is a lot like arguing that laws against rape are pointless because rapists still commit rape.

The simple fact is that laws don't stop determined criminals. They deter casual offenders, give a legal means for penalties after the fact, and send messages about what we consider unacceptable as a society, but they do not stop determined criminals. This is true of any law.

This argument - "people are going to do it anyway, so legalizing it must the the right thing to do" - shows up all the time in discussions about drug laws, abortion, and firearms. It's mindless every single time. If you use it, please stop. If you know better than to use it, please mock those who don't until they stop. Even if you're on their side of the issue, shame them into using better arguments.

But let's move on to logical consideration of whether it can even possibly be true that long gun registration has never prevented a single crime.

First of all, we know it isn't true because of the examples I gave in the last point. Do you suppose that the firearm smugglers would have stopped on their own if the registry data hadn't gotten them busted? Or that the embezzling store employee was going to suddenly decide he had enough firearms in his basement?

Consider this scenario. Bubba the Good Ol' Boy registers his guns. He's an OK guy, maybe with a DUI or two, but not what you would call a career criminal. He would certainly never see himself as one. Bubba occasionally likes to shove the Missus around after a few beers. One particularly spirited Friday night, the cops get called. Eventually a judge decides that Bubba can't have guns anymore. The cops go by Bubba's trailer to collect them. His registration records tell them how many they're looking for. Without registration, they can only ask Bubba how many he has and take his word for it. If he "forgets" to mention that one 12-gauge in the crawlspace, well, too bad. Now Bubba has both a gun and a grudge.

Think this scenario is unrealistic, or too rare to consider? You're wrong. I was blessed to have grown up in a home that was nothing like Bubba's. However, I've known people who lived this sort of life. Bubba has kids all over, and some of them are friends of mine.

Now, do you really think that not one of any Bubba's family members, neighbours, or arresting officers have ever been spared a close encounter with a 12-gauge because the cops knew that it was there, and so they took it? The close encounter doesn't need to be someone actually getting killed. It can be as "minor" - the quotes really don't do the understatement justice - of Bubba reminding Missus Bubba that he's still got it handy in case she feels like getting mouthy again.

Prohibition orders, when a judge decides that a Bubba can't have guns anymore, simply cannot be enforced without registration. If the police don't know how many guns Bubba has, they can't be sure they got them all.

At this point, if you're reading this and thinking, "Nuh-unh! Bubba might have only registered some of his guns, so the cops don't know to take the unregistered ones", scroll back up and start re-reading at point 9. When you get back here, if you still don't get it, repeat until comprehension dawns.

Oh, and a fun response to this argument is that fire hydrants have never prevented a single house fire, ergo we should get rid of them. Just as hydrants prove their worth after a fire breaks out, firearm registration is far more useful as an investigative tool than as a preventative tool.

11. This relates to points 9 and 10. A nitwit MP from Manitoba said, and I quote (don't ask me how I can remember this verbatim, it's uncanny), "Criminals don't register their firearms." A minute or so later, after changing focus somewhat, he rather proudly announced, without a hint of irony, that he refused to register his own firearms.

Dude, you totally just called yourself a criminal. Explicitly.

That would be embarrassing to a person smart enough to be capable of self-reflection. Fortunately for you....

12. "Registration is always a precursor to confiscation." Again, I don't remember any specific MPs saying this last night (and if they did, I doubt they used the word "precursor"), but it's one of the standard Bad Arguments Against Gun Registration.

My reply to this is always the same. I've said it to so many people in so many situations over the last decade that I can say it all in one breath now. My wife calls it Standard Rant # 53.

My car is registered. My house is registered. My freaking dog is registered. In fact, I have to re-register the car and dog on a regular basis, and pay for the privilege. And yet, no one has ever once shown up to confiscate my car, my house, or my dog. Unless you stand outside the DMV whining about vehicle registration, shut the *&%^! up about the evils of firearm registration.

Yes, at some times, in some places, under some circumstances, registration of various things has lead to confiscation of some of those things, but it's certainly not a universal maxim.

This leads nicely into point

13. "Hitler liked gun registration."

Yup. He liked dogs, sunsets, walks on the beach, and tall men with straight teeth and a good sense of humour too. Your point?

Firearm registration has sometimes been used as a precursor to governments doing Very Bad Things. So have curfews and restrictions on speech that the ruling elite don't like. The (urban legendary) "fact" that Hitler made the trains run on time doesn't make adherence to transit schedules the work of Satan.

That's the end of my points. I could, believe it or not, write a lot more on this topic. I'm an obsessive geek who likes guns, so I know a lot about them and the laws pertaining to them. I could go on about legitimate arguments against firearm registration, why Canada's firearms law failed, and what gauge shotgun makes the loudest BOOM when I pull the trigger, but those are all for other days. On to the conclusion. You're welcome, dear reader.

These speeches were absolutely appalling. Not because I disagreed with the basic philosphical positions of the speakers, but because they were using criminally stupid arguments. The ignorance expressed should not have been tolerated in our national Chamber of Parliament. The speakers, legislators who have a moral duty to understand the facts pertaining to the subject of their voting, were wrong about basic, easily verifiable facts. The logic on display wouldn't pass muster in a kindergarten discussion of which Pokemon is most awesome. No one who actually knows anything about Canada's firearms laws would have been able to sit through those speeches without having their blood pressure raised enough to burst a few capillaries.

I have to wonder whether I was seeing the chicken or the egg. Were these Honourable Members just pandering to the assumed pre-existing ignorance of their viewers, or were they actively fueling it? Either way, was it inadvertent or deliberate? Did they honestly not know any better themselves?

Dear reader, if you want to know the truth about anything, please choose your sources wisely. Don't listen to the loudmouth at the barbershop, the sensationalist "reporter", or the pandering sycophant in the legislature. Certainly don't blindly trust some pseudonymous Canadian dork with a blog. Check facts. Go to original sources.

In the case of Canada's firearms laws, it's pretty easy. Although they aren't much help with statistics or philosophies behind the law, the folks at the Canadian Firearms Program have a toll-free line (1-800-731-4000) and a website complete with an e-mail contact form ( One call or e-mail to them from one of last night's speechmakers would have demolished the first point I railed against above.

For me, I have a set of rules for debating Canada's gun laws with someone who wants to argue (as opposed to actually discuss, and - gasp! - maybe learn something):

-If you don't know the difference between licencing and registration, don't waste my time.

-If you want to talk about the financial costs but don't know the price (to the applicant) of licence renewals and registrations, don't waste my time.

-If you think it's somebody else's fault that they couldn't reach you after you moved without telling them, don't waste my time.

-If you think it's anyone's responsibility but your own to keep track of when your licence (or anything else) expires, don't waste my time.

-If you think that firearm registration is an infringement of your rights but haven't a peep to say about car registration, don't waste my time.

-If you think that "criminals don't register" or "Hitler!" are arguments against the idea of firearm registration, don't waste my time.

-If you don't get that "law-abiding unlicenced (or, until this bill passes into law, unregistered) firearm owner" is an oxymoron, don't waste my time.

In all of these cases, check some facts and take a basic logic course, then get back to me. Heck, I'm quite willing to try explaining some of these things to someone who honestly just doesn't know. In fact, I just spent 23,000 or so words doing it.

Let's close, for real this time, with a tasteless joke.

Vic Toews is one of the head Tory cheerleaders against firearm registration, and I've seen him use all 13 of the silly arguments above at various times. As background, after voting to pass this bill to overturn this very mild form of gun control, letting people sell firearms into the criminal black market at will and effectively removing all gun control as I mentioned way back at the top, he and many other MPs attended a self-congratulatory cocktail party to celebrate. I like to imagine that his day planner looked like this:

6:00 PM - Vote to repeal gun control

7:00 PM - Piss on the graves of victims of gun violence

Enough rambling. Here's a picture, cribbed from the Web, that eloquently expresses some of my other feelings about firearms legislation. Three cheers for acknowledging the complexity of multifaceted issues!

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