Columnists

Ralph Surette
Registry: Bureaucracy gone bad?

| November 9, 2009
The bill to kill the national gun registry has gone to committee before it emerges for third and final reading. Because the government is a minority one, the opposition parties may yet amend the bill to salvage something from this whole soiled exercise. With extreme luck, they might even make it the lean and more gradual thing it should have been to begin with.

But the real lesson of the gun registry imbroglio is not so much about gun control as about bureaucracy gone bad in a very modern way, of which the registry is merely one example.

The registry did have an effect -- an unfortunate one. Its main consequence was not to rationally register guns, but to harass with bureaucracy, engender disrespect for the process and add to disgruntlement with government in general.

Tons of hunting guns and ammunition were taken to RCMP offices for disposal because many people feared the new rules and found it not worth the hassle to have them around. Some might argue that reducing the sheer bulk of long guns was a good thing -- but whether that enhanced public safety is profoundly disputable, and would be a poor argument for the registry's usefulness.

Many more people basically rebelled, refused to register; and the registry and its bungled handling ultimately sowed the seeds of its own downfall. Although it's assumed the resistance is mostly from American-style gun-culture attitudes that would have objected no matter what, especially in Alberta, this is only half the story. A simple registry, on budget (as this one was spectacularly not), would have survived that.

The other and more damaging half is the aggravation of many at being suddenly (as opposed to gradually) criminalized for doing what they'd always done, having to deal with yet another distant bureaucracy, and having another bunch of paperwork to fret about. Of those gun owners who didn't register, or registered and kept one gun unregistered as a silent protest (there are many of those), none of those I've known fits into the right-wing stereotype.

I said the gun registry was just one example of a certain kind of miscarried bureaucratic action -- the type which penalizes everyone for the actions of a few. The gun registry -- and more specifically the political haste and ineptness associated with it -- resulted from the Marc Lepine murders at the University of Montreal.

Similarly, as a result mainly of some high-profile boating accidents by beer-swilling yahoos, we've had new recreational boating regulations this year that require everybody to take a course and get a permit to run a boat with a motor, even a little battery-powered trolling motor. In other words, this too has gone to bureaucratic excess, which is galling and, in fact, disrespectful to older people who have used these machines all their lives. Or consider Nova Scotia's laws governing ATVs -- in which those who use theirs occasionally to do useful work have to pay stiff registration and insurance fees just to cross the road because of ATV mayhem elsewhere.

Not that regulations in these areas weren't needed. However, their introduction would have generated vastly less resentment had they been equipped with grandfather clauses, in which the old guys run their course naturally and the new system grows up with the young people, among whose ranks we usually find the problem to begin with. This is apparently anathema to the bureaucratic mind (which admittedly is usually under political pressure to do everything immediately). The boating regulations website stiffly warns that there are no grandfather exemptions -- as if to say the bureaucrats are too high and mighty to be bothered with piddly citizens.

I was on a CBC Radio panel this week with Jane Purves, a minister in John Hamm's government. She said one thing she had learned in her time there, and in dealing with other governments, is that at the political and bureaucratic level these days, it's assumed that "if the problem is solved on paper, then the problem is solved." This detachment from reality is worrying.

With regard to the gun registry, one of the specific overboard elements is the need not just to register guns, but to take a course to get an "acquisition permit" to get a new one. This especially should have been grandfathered in. And at the higher political plane, the faith in the common good, the Pearsonian small-l liberalism that once animated public affairs in Canada, has become merely a faith in bureaucracy held by bureaucrats themselves and politically correct pressure groups. It has led to a failure in registering firearms, and has backfired politically -- giving the ascendancy to the Harper Conservatives who are indeed willing to use the registry's malfunction as an instrument of right-wing manipulation.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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