Attack on the long-gun registry: An interview with Wendy Cukier

| September 13, 2010

Wendy Cukier is the president of the Coalition for Gun Control (CGC) and a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. The CGC is an alliance of more than 300 policing, public safety and violence prevention organizations including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Canadian Public Health Association, and YWCA of Canada. The coalition was founded after the Montreal Massacre in 1989, when 14 women were shot to death and 13 more were injured at the École Polytechnique de Montréal.

Cukier was interviewed by rabble.ca about the proposed scrapping of Canada's long-gun registry, brought forward in Parliament by a private members bill, Bill C-391. A motion to kill Bill C-391 will be voted on in the House on Sept. 22. If that attempt to stop it fails, the bill will go to a third reading, probably within the next few weeks.

Cathryn Atkinson: Let's open with your general response as the president and co-founder of the CGC. What has the coalition been trying to do to have an impact?

Wendy Cukier: We are hoping the motion on September 22 will kill the bill. I don't think anyone believes there is anything that can be done to change the government's mind on this because they've been clear from the outset. The use of a private member's bill was a really clever strategy to advance government policy but dress it up as a private member's bill and then undermine party solidarity.

The real issue is not what the government does, it's what the opposition parties do and, more specifically, what the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, does. It's really the NDP that is going to determine whether this bill passes or does not pass.

CA: What's the latest with Layton and the NDP?

WC: There are 307 voting members of Parliament. Four seats are vacant, that makes it 303. In order to carry this bill, they need 152 votes. As it stands now, there are 148 votes against the bill, if everybody shows up. There are 147 votes absolutely, for sure, for the bill.

And we expect at least three NDP MPs in addition, making it five NDP... We figure it is 150 for the bill, 148 against the bill, and five NDP votes that could go either way.

CA: Wow. This must be driving you to distraction.

WC: Well, yeah. It really is down to the fact that they are at 150 and they need 152 to carry [the bill]. We need at least seven NDP members voting with the Liberals to defeat this bill. The gun lobby, the U.S.-based NRA [National Rifle Association] reported that the NDP had six on their side, and we [at the coalition] know they have five for sure.

The NRA has claimed that there are six NDP members committed to voting with the Conservatives. And if that's the case, then the bill will pass.

CA: It's interesting that the NRA is watching this so closely, though maybe not surprising.

WC: Absolutely. And not only that they've been watching it closely, but they've been actively engaged in mobilizing, coaching, raising money for the Canadian gun lobby, because they see this as having global significance. So the president of the NRA has been up here several times, speaking at fundraisers; they did election-readiness training; they've done infomercials that are broadcast in border towns and seen on both sides of the border.

The NRA, we have no evidence that they've actually given money to the Canadian gun lobby, but they've certainly done everything short of that and you can combine that with a very aggressive advertising campaign by the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has been ranting and raving and putting a lot of resources into this as well. In a scene out of the Gong Show, they testified in front of a parliamentary committee, saying the gun registry cost $2 billion, the auditor general said it a waste of money, unreliable, and so on. And the very next day you had Sheila Fraser, the actual auditor general, speaking for herself, saying, no, it was a billion dollars over 10 years and she was satisfied that the costs were taken cares of and so on.

She has actually refuted it, and yet mainstream media continue to talk about the $2 billion that was spent on the firearms registry.

CA: Is that laziness or politics on the part of the media?

WC: You can't impute motive, but what you see is that claims get repeated over and over without being challenged. One Globe [and Mail] editorial was particularly entertaining, because it said sometimes registered guns are used, like the gun at Dawson College, so the registry doesn't work, and sometimes unregistered guns are used, like the gun at Mayerthorpe, so the gun registry doesn't work.

To me, this is like arguing that sometimes licensed drivers are killed in car crashes so now we should no longer license drivers or register cars, have speed bumps, photo radar. Sometimes the opinions are just so entrenched that the nonsensical arguments get repeated over and over. The facts don't matter, certainly in terms of the political positions.

CA: It seems ideologically driven to an astonishing degree.

WC: It is. That's why it is so shocking that some of the NDP members, and, in particular, the leader of the NDP, are in advancing arguments like the registry punishes rural citizens, when in fact a substantial proportion of rural citizens, i.e. the women, support the registry. The whole effort to characterize this as urban vs. rural, as opposed to acknowledging that it's about power and ideology and very aggressive lobbying tactics, is shocking because the rates of gun violence in rural communities are much higher than in urban communities.

The rates of women killed with guns in rural communities is higher, the rates of suicide with guns is much higher, and yet none of that is factoring into the positioning of those rural MPs or Jack Layton's positioning, he's been buying into the argument that those claims [of rural gun owners] are legitimate. When the second reading vote came forward last November, friends of mine inside the party said there were two talking points: If you want to vote with the Conservatives say this, and if you want to vote against the Conservative bill, say that. No real effort on the leader's part to exercise leadership.

At the same time, I would say [Liberal leader Michael] Ignatieff bears the bulk of the blame in this because had he stood firm and recognized that this was a Conservative bill dressed up as a private member's bill and whipped the vote in the fall, when it came for second reading, I doubt that Jack would have been as flexible as he has been. I don't think that even Layton wants to be seen as the person responsible for helping the Conservatives dismantle the registry, but that is, in fact, what he will be given the way things are unfolding.

CA: What is the tone of debate like this time compared with the level of debate that took place at the registry's creation? The enemies of the registry have been talking this way for years, but now they have more power.

WC: I think that's really all that has changed. Their arguments are identical. They're much more sophisticated; when the bill was passing in 1995 and if you looked at media coverage there was no question that they were on our side. The arguments that were being made on the other side were not being parroted, they way they are now. The spokespeople that were advancing those arguments were not slick Bay Street lawyers.

One of the things that is really shocking to me is the amount of resources being marshalled in the effort to dismantle the run registry, and that is partly because the Conservative Party of Canada has lots of cash and it has pulled out all the stops in terms of radio advertisements and trips across the country. They are sparing no expense.

In the gun lobby groups there is more money and more sophistication. They have PR professionals, corporate lawyers... [more] than they did in '95.

CA: There must have been much more momentum in the public and from politicians after the École Polytechnique de Montréal murders. Would you say the passage of time has made people softer in terms of wanting to protect the gun registry? The massacre and other attacks don't seem to be mentioned much in debate.

WC: That is part of it, but I think emotions were much rawer when Kim Campbell's legislation passed in 1991. Even by '95, outside of Montreal there wasn't quite as much invested. What has changed is that in 1995 the journalists that we met were journalists who covered the Montreal massacre, who, even in 2000, when we were fighting for the laws in the Supreme Court, they were able to critique claims that were being made on both sides.

What I find concerning is that you don't see the same level of questioning of claims that are made. You see more replication of arguments.

One thing that has happened recently is the moving out of the commissioner of the Canadian Firearms Program, Marty Cheliak, and the release of that RCMP report, which everyone said was going to show that the costs were responsible and that it was working, police were using it, etcetera. That did get a fair amount of attention. It could account for some of the recent shift in public opinion [in the registry's favour].

I have the sense that there is more awareness of the issue than there was. Having the police come out as strong as they have has made an impression on some people, because even the gun lobby... it's hard for people to give much credence to the idea that the police are doing this for political reasons.

CA: Have the opponents to the bill been working together?

WC: The majority of Canadians, I am convinced, still support gun owners registering guns. But the salience of the issue is not that high. If we have public meetings we are always swamped by the gun lobby. Whenever there is an article published the comments are usually swamped by the gun lobby.

So in terms of public events, the gun lobby has always, from the outset, been able to organize hundreds of people waving their fists and shouting against gun control, more than we have. What we are seeing that is really gratifying is that the same organizations that were there at the very beginning, whether it's the chiefs of police, the police association, the police boards, public health, or the pediatricians, or the Canadian Labour Congress... they are there again.

What has surprised me is the vehemence amongst some of the core NDP supporters, who I think just realized what Jack Layton was or was not doing. So many people were not aware of what was going on with gun control. There have been so many different bills and threats over the years... and everyone assumes it is going to work out fine.

When Bill C-391 passed its second reading, and it wasn't even close, it was a big margin, I think a lot of the gun control supporters, who perhaps had moved on to other issues, were given pause, are now mobilized and have started writing. They are making it clear to the NDP that they may pick up a few votes in some rural ridings if they support C-391 -- thought there is the question as to whether hardcore gun owners are NDP supporters -- though it's becoming clearer that they are putting risk on their core support among women and people in urban communities, and certainly the gains they were making in Quebec.

For the first time in many months we are seeing evidence that Jack is trying to provide some leadership and coax his MPs into defeating this bill, although he's adamant that he won't whip the vote, he has given some indications publicly that he is trying to persuade people.

I think that in many of those rural ridings, the number two competition [to the NDP during election campaigns] is not the Conservatives, it's the Liberals. So the NDP were trying have it both ways, as supporters of the white ribbon campaign and defenders of the victims in urban centres and Quebec, and they were going to be able to beat up on the Liberals for supporting gun control in the rural ridings.

That strategy has started to catch up with them. Before the last vote [in Nov. 2009] there was no letter from Jack Layton saying ‘I'm the founder of the white ribbon campaign. I embraced the victims of Dawson College and promised I would do everything I could to defend gun control, please do not support this bill.'

I didn't have any evidence last fall that the NDP leader was exercising influence, but I think you're seeing that now. He recognizes that his legacy is at stake, and he will be the person that is held responsible is this bill passes.

CA: What happens if the gun registry is dismantled? What do you envisage?

WC: I think what's important, what many voters don't understand, is that a lot of people, including Conservatives, [and] the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, will claim that they support the licensing of gun owners.

However, what the Supreme Court said is that you can't sever registration from licensing, and there is really good evidence to reinforce the notion that if you don't have registration, you can't enforce licensing. If you have a license and you can buy as many guns as you like and none of them are registered to you, there is little to stop you from giving several of those guns to me, an unlicensed gun owner.

So without registration, there is a strong argument to say licensing doesn't work, there is also a pretty strong argument to say there is less incentive to store guns safely, because if guns are stolen -- a major source of illegal guns in Canada -- why would you report it stolen if you are going to be held accountable?

The whole notion about registration is about accountability and holding gun owners accountable. What we've seen since the bill passed, and since we have steadily tightened control over rifles and shotguns in Canada, we've seen a steady decline in gun deaths.

In 1995, about 1,200 Canadians were killed with guns. Last year, it was about 800. If we were talking about any other public safety intervention, if you saw a 30 or 40 per cent decline in deaths, you would conclude that you were being pretty successful.

The evidence that licensing or registration has had an impact and driven down death and injury in Canada is pretty convincing. Which piece is licensing, which piece is registration, is hard to disaggregate, but it's fair to say that taken together they have contributed to lowering death and injury, in particular suicides, and murders of women and their children in domestic violence.

If you get rid of a key piece of that system -- ie. the registry -- I think the chances are pretty good that death and injury will increase again.

CA: Should there be a shift in the sitting government's attitude to the registry, it would be very difficult to re-establish it.

WC: Absolutely. Seven million guns have been registered. If this bill passes, they get rid of the registry, they get rid of the records.

I don't believe any government would ever, ever, ever attempt to start this process again because it has been far too expensive, far too difficult, far too painful.

CA: Could axing the gun registry be an election issue?

WC: I think there are a cluster of issues, of which this is one, that Canadians should be concerned about, that are taking us further and further towards a set of right-wing policies. If you look at the steady erosion of accountability, of fact-based policy [like the long-form census], of critics - the silencing of critics, the underfunding of equality-seeking groups, or anyone who dares criticize the government... There's a cluster of things that go together and I think gun control is one of those.

Unfortunately, I think the issue has the most salience among the 1.2 million gun owners in the country who oppose the registry, and the average Canadian who thinks the registry is a good idea is not likely to vote based on it unless they have lost a child to gun violence.

CA: You're on the board of the International Action Network on Small Arms. We started off talking about the interest and possible interference of the NRA. Have your colleagues in other countries commented on the importance of keeping the registry?

WC: One of the ironies is that there is now a global movement, and some of it started in Canada, to end armed violence against women. Canada's firearms laws and some of the provisions put in specifically to protect people from spousal violence -- primarily women but also children, and some cases, men -- are now considered best practice internationally. So other countries have adopted similar laws that link their firearm regulations to domestic violence laws. There was a fairly high level of awareness around the world about Canada's success in dealing with violence against women and using firearms laws in that regard.

There's concern [about the gun registry being dismantled]. In the United States, finally, there is growing acknowledgement of the fact that gaps of firearms laws there fuel armed violence. And probably with the exception of the United States, most countries in the world are moving towards strengthening their laws.

The fact that Canada is moving in the opposite direction, is, again, part of a cluster of issues where Canada used to be viewed as a leader in a whole portfolio of progressive issues by the United Nations. Our status is slipping because we're no longer considered one of the "good guys" on a lot of these issues.

Cathryn Atkinson is rabble.ca's news and features editor.

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