Ask Canada -- gun registration won't make D.C. safer

The D.C. Council will soon vote on a new law that would eliminate several obstacles for gun buyers -- a five-hour training course, ballistics testing, a vision test, and a ban on certain types of ammunition. But they will leave unchanged the registration requirement for gun owners. D.C. could learn a lot from Canada's decision to finally rescind its gun registry in February.

Beginning in 1998, Canadians spent a whopping $2.7 billion on creating and running a registry for long guns -- in the U.S., the same amount per gun owner would come to $67 billion. For all that money, the registry was never credited with solving a single murder. Instead, it became an enormous waste of police officers' time, diverting their efforts from traditional policing activities.

Gun control advocates have long claimed that registration is a safety issue. Their reasoning is straightforward: If a gun is left at a crime scene, and it was registered to the person who committed the crime, the registry will link it back to the criminal.

Unfortunately, it rarely works out this way. Criminals are seldom stupid enough to leave behind crime guns that are registered to themselves.

From 2003 to 2009, there were 4,257 homicides in Canada, 1,314 of which were committed with firearms. Data provided last fall by the Library of Parliament reveal that murder weapons were recovered in fewer than one-third of the homicides with firearms. About three-quarters of the identified weapons were unregistered. Of the weapons that were registered, about half were registered to someone other than the person accused of the homicide.

In only 62 cases -- that is, nine per year, or about 1 percent of all homicides in Canada -- was the gun registered to the accused. Even in these, the registry does not appear to have played an important role in finding the killer. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Chiefs of Police have not yet provided a single example in which tracing was of more than peripheral importance in solving a case.

Note that the data provided above cover all guns, including handguns. It isn't just the long-gun registry -- there is also no evidence that Canada's handgun registry, started in 1934, has ever been important in solving a single homicide.

In parts of the United States where registration is required, the results have been no different. Neither Hawaii, D.C., nor Chicago can point to any crimes that have been solved using registration records.

Nor is there any evidence that registration has reduced homicides. Research published last year by McMaster University professor Caillin Langmann in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence confirmed what other academic studies have found: "This study failed to demonstrate a beneficial association between legislation and firearm homicide rates between 1974 and 2008." There is not a single refereed academic study by criminologists or economists that has found a significant benefit. A recent Angus Reid poll indicates that Canadians understand this, with only 13 percent believing that the registry has been successful.

The problem isn't just that the $2.7 billion spent on registration over 17 years hasn't solved any crimes. It is that the money could have been used to put more police on the street or pay for more health care or cut taxes.

An extra $160 million a year pays for a lot of police officers -- 2,300, to be precise, if their average annual compensation is $70,000. Academic research by one of us (Lott) indicates that adding that many street officers would reduce the number of violent crimes in Canada by about 1,800 per year. Registration carries with it no such benefit.

Canadians may not worry about Second Amendment rights, but they can spot a waste of money as well as we can. Hopefully, D.C., like Canada, realizes it's better to spend money on something that will actually do some good.

John R. Lott Jr. is the author of More Guns, Less Crime and a former chief economist for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Gary Mauser is professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University.

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