Toronto Star

Quebec mulls gun registry cost

As both sides of the debate dig in, new bill reveals concern over the price tag


MONTREAL— Wanted: effective gun control, minimal cost. As Quebec lawmakers started studying a bill this week to recreate the divisive federal gun registry on a provincial level, two things came sharply into focus, right from the first gavel strike at the committee hearing.

First, arguments for and against the mandatory registrati­on of long guns haven’t changed a whole lot since Stephen Harper sat in the opposition benches of the House of Commons, railing against what his political colleagues famously tagged the “billiondol­lar boondoggle.”

Proponents of the new Quebec registry still argue the public-safety benefits of tighter controls on gun ownership, while critics are still complainin­g that it criminaliz­es hunters and farmers.

But most striking is that even those advocating most strongly for the provincial initiative are sensitive to the costs even before a single penny has been spent.

It may not be an accident that Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard recently shuffled Martin Coiteux, a former Bank of Canada economist, into the role of public safety minister, tasked with bringing the Quebec gun registry into being.

In his previous cabinet role, Coiteux was treasury board minister, the slasher-in-chief of provincial program spending so as to eliminate the deficit, a goal that was achieved earlier this month.

“I think people perceive me as someone who is preoccupie­d with controllin­g costs,” he told the legislativ­e committee this week.

“I would like to say to them that in this domain, as in other domains where I’ve been responsibl­e for controllin­g costs . . . that I will be particular­ly vigilant because I know that it’s an important element of its social acceptabil­ity.”

Despite the assurances, the Nation- al Firearms Associatio­n (NFA), which represents some 7,000 Canadian gun owners, says exploding costs are a certainty.

“To do what they claim they want to do it will be terribly expensive,” said NFA president Sheldon Clare.

“I think there are a couple of things that will be particular­ly onerous and one of them is to verify if the informatio­n is accurate. That was the cost-killer in the federal program. If you put garbage in, you get garbage out.”

The NFA was the first of nearly 30 groups set to testify on Bill 64, as the gun registry legislatio­n is known, between now and mid-April.

In a written submission that set out to counter the “myths” put forward by gun-control proponents, it estimated Quebec will incur a minimal cost of about $350 million, if it moves ahead.

That would seem to be a prohibitiv­ely expensive price tag at a time when the province has just finished slashing education budgets and started charging parents more for daycare, putting an end to its universal $7-a-day program.

The NFA’s calculatio­n is based on the federal experience, in which a registry was promised in 1995 at a cost of $119 million, but ended up costing $1 billion by 2002.

Quebec’s costs could run even higher given that the province has no previous experience in gun registrati­on unlike the RCMP, which was already dealing with handgun registrati­on when the federal firearms program was launched, the NFA said.

Pierre Veilleux, president of l’Associatio­n des policières et policiers provinciau­x du Québec, a group that represents members of the Sûreté du Québec, said that with an adequate computer system that may be valued at several million dollars, “I think we can have this at a reasonable cost.”

But he is supporting the Quebec registry based on a tougher-to-calculate equation that deals with the safety of front-line police officers.

“I can tell you that for the first responders on the road like the patrollers who get a call at 3:30 in the morning and are capable with one click to have a list of weapons it’s a precious tool,” Veilleux said.

He could not point to any particular incidents where the presence of the gun registry helped head off trouble or where the absence of the gun registry has resulted in injury or death.

But proponents of the registry have a number of mass-shooting incidents in Quebec going back three decades that they have used to solidify public and political support.

They include: Former Canadian soldier Denis Lortie’s 1984 shooting in Quebec’s National Assembly that killed three people; Marc Lépine’s 1989 shooting rampage at Montreal’s École Polytechni­que that left 14 women dead; a1992 shooting at Concordia University in which a professor, Valery Fabrikant, gunned down four colleagues; the 2006 Dawson College shooting in which student Kimveer Gill killed one and wounded 19 others before taking his own life; and the 2012 attack on a Montreal nightclub at which Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois was celebratin­g her election victory. They may not compare in number or devastatio­n to those that have occurred in the United States, but each has left its mark on the psyche of a great number of Quebecers.

Despite the emotional toll, the NFA and other groups opposed to registrati­on say their position is rooted in facts and unlikely to shift.

“You would have to . . . demonstrat­e that the harms that would result (from the registry) are not excessive,” the group’s lawyer, Guy Laverne, told the committee hearing. “Presently I would say that they are.”

Rather, he said the government should focus all its efforts on improving mental-health care — the one common element tying together each mass-shooting incident that has marked Quebec’s consciousn­ess.

“On Dec. 6,1989, when Marc Lépine opened fire at Polytechni­que, what would it have changed if his guns had been registered?” Laverne said. “That guy didn’t need a registrati­on number. He needed serious mentalheal­th care and an environmen­t that would have taken care of him before he took action.”

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