Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Parliament's Charlton Heston Moment

From my cold dead hands.

Charlton Heston's infamous statement about his reluctance to part with his favourite killing implement essentially sums up the Conservative Party's view on gun control. Heston was less tactful than our present government. In the wake of the Columbine tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, Heston - then president of the NRA - insisted on holding the pro-gun organization's annual meeting in nearby Denver, a provocative move that drew the ire of survivors and the families of the deceased. Heston, the man who played Moses and once offered water to the Messiah, knew that following the tragedy calls would be made to strengthen the United States' lax gun laws. The NRA would go on the offensive, pushing hard against any restrictions, despite the overwhelming evidence of the deleterious effects guns of all sorts have in the United States. The Second Amendment - a constitutional provision as anachronistic as Heston had become -  was largely intended to ensure that the United States was prepared in case King George mounted an offensive against the fledgling and vulnerable infant American state. This was a product of a specific time and place, in which most able bodied males took part in a militia in case of emergencies. Without large standing professional armies, volunteers were required in case of foreign threats. These were also common in Britain's northern colonies. The constitutional provision has remained static while realities around it have changed. As the state grew, so too did its military and security capacities. Mutual security was no longer common but delegated, locally to police forces to maintain domestic order, and externally to the armed forces. The need for a "well regulated militia" dissipated. The 'right' to a musket in order to ward off an English tyrant had, by the 20th century, morphed into an unalienable right to be armed to the teeth, the 'regulated' portion of the text cast aside. America was no longer am exposed minor state, but a major power with extensive internal and external security mechanisms. The Second Amendment, however, remained stranded in revolutionary stasis.

Canada's experiments with gun control have been varied. The first regulatory attempts came during the Second World War, but were shortly thereafter abandoned. A gun control regime was subsequently strengthened in 1977 and 1991. It was, however, the Liberals under Jean Chretien who pushed for even greater control and a registration regime. Fresh in Parliament's collective memory was the École Polytechnique massacre four years prior, an act of violence which claimed the lives of fourteen. The murder weapon was a semi-automatic rifle. The Firearms Act, 1995 was the political response. The legislation included a host of regulative provisions designed to restrict the availability and, ultimately, use of weapons. It broadly refuted the notion that self-protection warranted gun ownership. In a move that would prove to be a divisive issue for over a decade, the legislation also mandated the registration of all long-guns in the country. This point proved to be particularly unpalatable, particularly for the Reform Party, which sought its destruction ever since. In the coming weeks, the Reform Party will finally realize its dream as the registry is dismantled and its records destroyed.

Much has been made about the overall effectiveness of the registry. The Auditor General has raised questions on numerous occasions, as have the registry's opponents voraciously in the decade since the regime went live. These criticisms are valid. An ineffective registry is a useless registry. Even proponents have acknowledged weaknesses in the system, yet on the whole, they argue, the benefits outweigh the deficiencies. Proponents claim that the registry enhances personal ownership and responsibility for the weapons. A tracking and identification system allows weapons used in a crime to be traced to their owners. The result is supposedly a deterrent. Additionally, the system guards as a safety mechanism, promoting the safe and proper storage of weapons to avoid theft. Certainly these are not minor points. Additionally, they argue that it provides a valuable tool for police to assess the level of danger if they have to enter into a residence. The argument is made, however, that since guns can be moved around, the certainty that a gun is present is never guaranteed. Moreover, they question if an officer would ever enter a situation assuming that a gun was not present. Surely the first issues speaks to a flaw in design which allows weapons to be moved and stored elsewhere. The second downplays the advantage to police in knowing the specific type of threat they may face.

These are worthy reasons to warrant a registry. It is, quite frankly, astounding that in an age in which we register so much -- from innocuous things like Starbucks cards or pets, to larger items like vehicles -- that the registration of a device of which that sole utility is causing death or injury elicits such vociferous opposition. Yes, weapons are useful for leisure, whether for hunting or target shooting, but the potentiality of harm remains high. A baseball bat can be a weapon, it has that potential, but the bat has a primary purpose: hitting baseballs, not zombie skulls. A gun, on the contrary, has no alternative utility. It is not a toy.

There are other obvious arguments. The unfettered use of long-guns is a tradition as old as the country and one in which the state has shown little or no interest in regulating until the past decade. When interest has peaked it has been during times of national emergency (war) or national tragedy (the Montreal Massacre). The lax regulation of fire arms in Canada's past is not a valid argument for lax regulation in the present. The country is no longer a dangerous rural frontier. Canada is heavily urbanized and, like other states, we have a significant and effective law and order establishment. Crime rates are also down, regardless if the government accepts the facts or not. The need to possess a gun in order to be protected is a hollow claim without validity.

Another typical refrain is that gun violence is a problem distinct to cities and, in particular, large metropolitan areas. Toronto is often signaled out, particularly after a grim 2005. Yet crime rates, especially in Toronto, have declined dramatically. Exposure and sensationalism are perhaps to blame for perpetuating myths of gun violence. They make the national headlines. Deaths by other means are often less sensational and covered only by local media. Assaults by other means - stabbings in particular, and vehicular violence - receive only brief but unsustained coverage. The assumption is that it is is handguns - illegal, unregistered American imports - that are responsible for the carnage. Long-guns, on the other hand, are legal, only aimed at paper targets, bears or other hostile creatures and, if shot accidentally around humans, would seek out an intended target. On special occasions they shoot beams of rainbows and sunshine. Long guns, the admirers conclude, are problem free.

The anti-control crowd conveniently neglects the issue of domestic violence. Long guns place women in a particularly vulnerable position in homes where long guns are present. Yet this evidence has been routinely ignored by the government and the gun lobby. This reveals the utter vacuity of the Conservative's commitment to protecting victims. The crime agenda has revealed a complete lack of inclination towards preventing victims as it has be so single-minded in compensating them and seeking 'justice' after a crime than preventing it. Those worried that the government has some pre-crime initiative in the works can relax (unless it's drug offenses, in which case, thought crimes are punishable). Victims are essential: they're visible and tangible justification for the expansion of the punishment industry (note: it's not an expansion of justice, since that requires balance). To do away with victims by preventing them would negate these punishment schemes. So, while victims plead their case on Parliament Hill, the government turns a blind-eye, ignoring the constituency they swore to protect. The same story is repeated with Canada's chiefs of police, a group which is largely united in favour of the registry. They swear on its effectiveness as a policing tool. Here we have two groups - victims and police chiefs - with the requisite experience and expertise revealing the inherent flaws in the government's policy and they are soundly ignored. For a government so firmly fixated on 'law and order', these actions seem entirely antithetical to its agenda.
That is, of course, until we remember that this is a government over which facts nor logic have any sway. In reality, any issue that comes into contact with facts, evidence or experts in any field is soundly relegated to the bin. It is the result of policy dictated solely by ideological or political needs. First, this is yet another issue playing to the base. The long-gun registry is unpopular, particular in the west. Largely the product of hurt feelings and a cult of victimization that's an offshoot of 'western alienation'. The dismantlement of the registry has been a consistent theme, but one that that has been blocked by minority government. A majority now eliminates all obstacles. Secondly, cold hard ideology plays a role. This is an intrusion on liberty and on the rural way of life. Lurking in the background is the third rationale: vengeance. The long-gun registry is the pet product and tangible symbol of years of Liberal Party rule. Dismantling the registry is another blow against the Chretien legacy, a legacy Stephen Harper has sworn to undo in order to remake Canada in his image.

The scrapping of the registry is an exercise in glaring contradictions. It is a move by a law and order government that puts more people at risk, runs counter to the pleas of victims and runs squarely against the overwhelming testimony of Canada's police chiefs. Secondly, for a government on the verge of implementing austerity measures, the government is throwing away billions in taxpayer dollars away needlessly. Yes, the initial set-up was plagued by cost overruns, a situation not helped by repeated delay and amnesties. Yet once on track, the registry was down to a manageable yearly operating budget. In a move to wipe every trace of the registry, the vindictive government is even destroying existing records: two billion dollars worth of records. Yes, these are sunk costs that cannot be recovered, but disposing of the records merely compounds the injury. This is the kind of reckless disregard for taxpayer money that has been so emblematic of Tory rule, recklessness which would have been called out while the party was in opposition.

The government bears ultimate responsibility, yet the reaction of the constituency it represents on this issue has been maddeningly juvenile in its reaction and has repeated tired, facile arguments in favour of disposing of the regime altogether. Given the hyperbole expounded by of some opponents, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Liberals were forcing excessively punative measures on defenseless farmers and hunting enthusiasts. Opponents cried injustice, donned a somber cloak of victimhood and settled in to the hard life of martyrdom. The zeal with which the measures were opposed defies proportion. The government was not seeking to take anyone's weapon (unless of course, in the restricted categories). Rather, the government was asking for a mere record of ownership. Considering that motor vehicles - from boats to cars - must be registered, and that many other activities come with such requirements, resisting the registry of killing implements seems superciliousness. As such, arguments that the registry unduly restricted the liberty of gun owners is preposterous. We are asked to register far more innocuous things: most people happily fill out a census form and renting a video often requires more strenuous invasions of privacy. Moreover, considering that the Supreme Court has upheld, for instance, Alberta's drivers licence regime despite legal challenges that it constituted a violation of the Charter, the legitimacy of government intervention with regard to registering activities that have a pressing public character has been firmly upheld. In essence, the argument that the registry is a violation of liberty is a nonstarter. There is a substantial objective, a rational connection, and minimal impairment. The registry was, as such, proportional.

If legitimate gun owners have nothing to hide, there was no reason to oppose the registry. Yet the argument was often repeated that such measures essentially criminalized legitimate and legal gun owners. This argument is barely worthy of discussion. As mentioned above, registration is a common process in democracies and there is no presumption of guilt upon registration. On the contrary, the compliant registration of long guns is itself an act of virtue and a declaration of one's upstanding status in the community. Moreover, it is an act of good citizenship, a slight inconvenience in exchange for one's place in a democratic polity. Arguments against registration are, in essence, entirely self-centred and selfish. They place individual convenience ahead of the welfare and safety of the community. Owning a weapon is a privilege, not a right.

The fact that registration became so contentious and was accompanied by disproportionate outrage resulted not solely from the nature of the system itself but by other factors, some ideological, others political. 'Western alienation' looms large. The Reform Party - and later its Conservative successor - was a key agitator against the registry. It saw the new law as a flagrant attack on rural Canada and the West in particular. To them it was another example in a long history of central dominance, of Quebec and Ontario dictating to the rest of the country, promoting their own interests at the expense of the West, akin to the hated National Energy Program of the 1980s. This fervor was fermented for political gain by the Reform movement, becoming a powerful rallying call. Historic resentment and a persecution complex figure as prominently as the provisions of the registry itself. Second, commonsense dictates the weapons, even if they are intended for recreation or utility, should be subject to government regulation. The unfettered spread and omnipresence of guns does not guarantee security. Countries with unregulated gun use tend to be unstable and rife with violence. Perhaps what is most astonishing about the is issue is its longevity. Had the Conservatives not seized upon this issue and carried it forward for so long and with such fervor, it is likely that the issue may have dissipated or disappeared entirely. Hostility to unpopular government policy tends to dissipate over time unless the pot is stirred. For instance, the public had become grudgingly accustomed to the GST, accepting that 7% as a fact of life until the Conservatives shrewdly stirred the pot. Is it possible the LGR could have been normalized and accepted as a fact of life?

Once the registry is gone it is unlike to be brought back to life, yet its effects could be long lasting. How will the perceived laxity in regards to gun control play in urban areas where the Conservatives had begun to make inroads? Is this a signal that the Conservatives have written Quebec off, consigned to cultivate a governing coalition between newly Tory Ontario and the West? Regardless of the long-term effects, the death of the registry adheres strictly to the ideologically motivated, calculating, divisive and uncompromising way in which the Conservatives govern. Rather than seeking a balance between rural and urban, gun-control and gun-ownership, the Conservatives eschewed compromise, vindictively vowing to destroy all records and erase all traces of the registry. There is no attempt at consensus, no attempt at mediating interests. It's zero-sum politics as usual. Moreover, this is yet another example of 'good politics' trumping sound policy. Evidence, even when it comes from police chiefs and victims, is still evidence and is not to be tolerated. Parliament looked victims of gun violence in the eye and delivered a line worthy of Heston: From your cold dead hands.

Guns guns, and nobody's kidding
Guns guns, or foolin' around
Guns guns, the violence is singing
Guns guns, a silence the sound

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