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The Folly of Gun Control

by John Thompson, the Mackenzie Institute

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In one of the many episodes of the popular TV show ‘The Simpsons’, the town of Springfield is menaced by an impending comet strike. Much panic ensues until the event turns out not to have been doomsday after all; whereupon a number of the citizens decide “Let’s burn down the observatory to make sure this never happens again!”

In the aftermath of a startling year of gang violence in Toronto the issue has finally become important. However, gang violence is not a simple problem with a simple solution. It represents numerous failures in our immigration, welfare, education, judicial and aboriginal policies. Alas, human nature being what it is, some of the politicians who long ignored the gangs (notably Prime Minister Paul Martin and Toronto Mayor David Miller) tried to blame the US and Canadian handgun owners instead. These two could feel right at home in Springfield.

Yes, it is true that the gangs’ indiscriminate gunplay are killing and wounding citizens all over our streets. Their favorite weapons are handguns, which have been heavily controlled in Canada since the 1930s, so where are they coming from?

Canadians who would like to purchase a legal handgun here must find a qualified and licensed firearms instructor and take both of the courses to handle non-restricted (i.e. hunting arms) and restricted (i.e. handguns) firearms. There are both mandatory written and practical exams for both courses with a passing grade of 80%. Then they must apply for a Federal ‘Possession and Acquisition License’ and wait a couple of months – while a background check is conducted.

The next step is to join a licensed gun club. As none of them are interested in accepting potential murders who have made it this far, they usually allow only a probationary membership while sizing up the new member and running their own tests of character and safe handling standards. Once content with that, the Club will write to their provincial firearms officer, requesting an ATT – Authority to Transport – which allows the new shooter to complete the purchase of a handgun at a licensed gun store or a registered owner (transferring its registration as they do), then carry it home and to and from officially recognized ranges only. Firing it anywhere else is an offense.

As the choice of handgun and ammunition is much limited by law, the chance of being able to purchase a snub-nosed pistol with a 20 round magazine full of black-talon ammunition (a particularly nasty variant of hollow-point bullets) would be nil. A few people, mostly ‘grandfathered’ can legally acquire shorter barreled handguns of specific prohibited calibers; the rest of us can’t.

Many months after starting out, one is finally able to pick up their registered handgun from the store. Of course, their handgun’s magazines cannot hold more than ten rounds; and one can only carry the gun home (and store it there) in a locked container with another lock on the mechanism of the firearm itself. Ammo has to both be transported and stored at home in a separate locked container – storing and carrying a pistol around without these two separate boxes and three locks is also illegal.

Plainly, gang members are not getting handguns in Canada the legal way. Are they stealing legally owned guns? Yes – although not nearly as often as Mayor Miller or Prime Minister Martin believe. Both have cited a figure that “50% of the guns that police recover in Canada were legally owned.” The source (whatever it was) wasn’t being honest.

Police ‘recover’ a lot of guns in Canada. When a widow brings in the pistols her late husband brought back from WW-II, even if legally owned and registered, they are now ‘recovered’. A duck hunter involved in an acrimonious divorce might have to surrender his shotguns for a while, based on an allegation from his wife that he threatened her, these become recovered even though they may well be returned later. Likewise, a gun collector whose home caught fire may hand over their firearms to police custody until they can re-establish safe storage facilities – and these too are ‘recovered’.

If there is a report on the origin of all guns recovered as the result of a street arrest or police investigation into a gang, it doesn’t seem to be publicly available. However, in 1994, evidence in the trial of a Vermont gun-dealer who was diverting firearms into the Canadian black market (via the Mohawk Warriors) detailed some of the particulars of 103 weapons that went onto Canada’s streets. These weapons were accompanied by another 30 from other sources, some of which had also been smuggled in. As a snapshot, it suggests that at least 80% of the firearms in the hands of Canadian criminals came from American sources. Anecdotal evidence from street cops and coroners across Canada suggest this trend is holding.

So what is new about this? Actually there is a lot of good news from the last decade.

Economics 101 – the laws of supply and demand – work as much for black markets as they do for legal ones. If the demand for a commodity outstrips the supply, the price goes up. The price for black market handguns on Canada’s streets has risen enormously, but the driving force behind what may be now as much as a 400% markup from legal American prices has nothing to do with our own gun laws.

In the past decade, the number of licensed gun dealers in the United States has shrunk by two thirds. New regulations enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) closed down dealers who operated without licensed and inspected business premises – the “kitchen table dealers” or characters who would sell from their cars. Paperwork is inspected more often than it used to be and tougher regulations govern the export (and import) of firearms.

The BATF also maintains liaison officers in Canada to facilitate the tracing of US made firearms which surface in the Black Market. The US government and most American gun manufacturers are eager to shut down those who divert firearms into the underground supply. It is these American actions that escalated gun prices on Canada’s streets.

In 2004, the Israelis were making a tremendous effort to choke off the supply of weapons going to the Palestinians on the Gaza Strip. Accordingly, the price of an AK-47 assault rifle in Gaza had risen to some $2,500 US and bullets were going for a dollar apiece. There are places in the world where AK-47s normally go for less than $200 with a bonus box of cartridges thrown in.

However, there was no shortage of AK-47s in Gaza, and Palestinians would foreswear buying a taxicab or opening a shop just so they could get an assault rifle (which explains much about their economy). Again, a high demand and restricted supply had no other effect than to inflate the price.

The ultimate folly is to work towards a stronger abolition of privately owned firearms. The British went this route after the 1996 Dunblaine Massacre of schoolchildren by a disappointed would-be pedophile and found that their violent crime rate has shot up enormously. Criminal gangs (of which the UK has no shortage) are still quite able to procure firearms even though legal ownership of everything but some sporting shotguns has been banned.

Gangs that are involved in narcotics will be generating money and already have a clandestine pipeline for their product. It is not that difficult to move handguns into the pipeline and to pay for them. Moreover, in contrast to handguns from legitimate European and US suppliers, a plentiful supply of high quality weapons for the gangs of the world is emerging. The Glock-17 that came off a production line in Austria has a serial number stamped on it and a documented history. The cloned copy from some unknown manufacturer in Eastern Europe, South Asia, Latin America or from the Far East might be just as good, but is thoroughly untraceable and much cheaper. These are already emerging throughout Europe and are now appearing in North America’s cities.

If Paul Martin and David Miller actually “burn down the observatory to make sure this never happens again”, be sure that the abolition of legal handgun ownership will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on gang violence on Canada’s streets.

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