Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Emotions aside, registry doesn't matter

There's a good chance that a private member's bill to scrap the long-gun registry will be defeated next week. If it is, there's an even better chance that the registry will be a major issue in the next election. And that's absurd, because the gun registry isn't important. Yes, people feel passionately about it, pro and con. Yes, it has played, and continues to play, a major role in politics. But as a matter of public policy, it is trivial. Consider the benefits and costs. Benefits? There's lots of rhetoric and high-minded intentions. But that's not evidence of actual benefit. And as far as I can tell, there is precious little of that. Not even that famous RCMP report -- the one that recommended keeping the registry, which is now an RCMP program -- makes much of a case. The online registry takes "an average of 6,900 queries per day," the report notes. That factoid is often repeated by police chiefs who support the registry. But what does it really mean? Police doing their job will always prefer more information and I'm sure a cop about to enter a dwelling after someone has reported the sound of screaming will check to see if the registry says there's a gun present. But will he rely on that information? Will he assume that if the registry says there's no gun present there really is no gun? I very much doubt it. And if officers don't really rely on the registry, it's not a big help. Then there's public safety, which the RCMP report says is enhanced by the registry. There were "notable decreases of firearm deaths (approximately 12 per cent) in Canada between 2001 and 2004," the report notes. And since 2001 was the beginning of long-gun registration, it's tempting to think that proves something. Tempting, but wrong. The decline the report notes is merely the continuation of a trend dating back to the late 1970s. (Between 1979 and 2002, the rate of firearms-related deaths among males fell by one-half; among women, it declined by three-quarters.) It's even less impressive when you consider this sentence, from a 2008 Statistics Canada release: "The overall rate of homicides committed with a firearm gradually declined from the mid-1970s to 2002. Since then, this rate has generally been increasing." (But don't blame the registry! The increase is mostly driven by handguns, not long guns. Indeed, says StatsCan, "over the past 30 years, the use of handguns to commit homicide has generally been increasing, while the use of rifles or shotguns has generally declined.") There may be better evidence somewhere. If so, I'd love to hear about it. But based on what I've seen, the benefits of the long-gun registry are, at best, quite modest. So what about the costs? Like everything else about the gun registry, they are disputed. But we can be certain that the big costs -- a billion dollars or more -- were paid in the past. They're sunk. Gone. No getting that money back. As to the current and on-going costs, various estimates have been made. They conflict because, I suspect, the "Canadian Firearms Program" includes a great many components, the long-gun registry being only one. But I think it's clear that the annual cost of the registry itself is something in the neighbourhood of several million dollars. In 2003, researchers estimated Canada spends more than $13 billion annually on criminal justice. Bump that up for inflation and the on-going cost of the long-gun registry is something like 0.02 per cent of what we spend every year on cops, courts and prisons. A rounding error, in other words. Pocket change. So the registry delivers little benefit for little cost. Should we scrap it? Maybe, maybe not. It won't make much difference either way. Of course, I know that my conclusion will drive people on both sides of the debate bonkers. Few issues are more passionately argued than this one. It matters. Oh yes, it matters. But if the benefits and costs are small, why does it matter so much to so many people? The answer is simple. And it's not about safety. Or guns. A few years ago, Dan Kahan at the Yale Law School conducted a series of surveys about various risks, including guns. How dangerous are guns? How strict should gun control be? Kahan showed that someone who said guns were low risk and there should be minimal gun control was likely to also say abortion was a threat to women's health, marijuana was dangerous, and climate change was no big deal. Someone who thought climate change was a major threat, however, was likely to downplay the danger of marijuana and abortion, while worrying a great deal about guns. In a sense, that's no surprise. That's how the camps always divide on these issues. Anyone could have predicted it. But, if you think about it, it makes no sense. What does climate change have to do with guns? Or pot? Why should people's perceptions on these risks be correlated at all? The answer is that their perceptions are not based on facts. They are culturally filtered. So you end up with the same people in the same camps over and over again. Kahan clinched the point by asking people to imagine that researchers produced powerful new evidence that proved their view of guns is wrong. Would you change your view? The overwhelming majority said, no, they would not. The registry is symbolic. It resonates with many people's cultural perspective, making it far more compelling to them than other issues. It's not that it matters in a practical sense. It's that they feel it. The problem with these culturally loaded debates is that they can rob attention that should go to far more important matters. Remember all the talk about gun crime during the 2006 election, particularly after a sensational murder happened in Toronto? Perceptions were way out of alignment with reality. Indeed, even as the politicians were hammering away, gun murders in Toronto were plummeting. Something else was going on, too: The military was moving to Kandahar in preparation for its toughest mission since the Korean War. But that was almost completely ignored during the campaign. So what will we miss this time if we waste an election talking about an inconsequential registry?