Is Modern Gun Control Hazardous to Police?
By Constable John A. Gayder
Could something which is intended to be helpful actually be harmful? History is replete with examples of well-intentioned ideas which end up having effects opposite to those hoped for. Modern gun control is typically characterized as being aimed more at honest citizens than at those who break the law. A prime example of this is Canada’s new Firearms Act, (1998) which contains six pages of increased sentencing for criminal misuse of firearms, yet paradoxically contains one hundred and twenty pages regulating hunters, collectors and target shooters.
Police officers generally look favourably upon gun control. They are justifiably flattered at the thought of others wanting to improve their safety. Not wishing to give the appearance of "looking a gift horse in the mouth," the issue is rarely examined any further.
If enacting recent gun control was to make policing safer, then an argument can be made that it will prove to be as disastrously misguided as leech therapy, shock treatment and Thalidomide were to the field of medicine.
Students of this issue will be refreshed to observe I have not used a single statistic in this article. Both sides of the gun control debate have used and misused statistical information to the point where all stats must now be viewed with suspicion. Hence, the arguments presented in this article flow entirely from political and philosophical concepts which have been observed and tested throughout history.
Alienating Honest Citizens:
Since the early 1990s, the buzzword on most administrators’ lips has been "Community Based Policing" (CBP). Despite the lack of a formal definition, CBP is generally intended to promote closer relationships between the police and the citizens they serve. CBP is supposed to foster trust and unity with the public. Modern gun control works contrary to this principle, and in doing so actually decreases police safety by encouraging an atmosphere of "us vs. them".
"C-68 is no more complicated than the Income Tax Act" MP Joe Jordan (Liberal, Leeds—Grenville, 1998)
The complexity of the Firearms Act tends to create a major sense of alienation. A two-volume manual of over one thousand pages is required by specially trained Firearms Officers to decode the Act itself. When ordinary citizens are unable to easily understand a law, they feel as though they are living under a quasi "reign of terror", in which they become fearful that each move they make may now be an offence of some kind. Gun owners who don’t have access to these manuals, or the training provided to Firearms Officers, are now in this very position. To have a law this complex is inconsistent with the spirit of community based policing and good sense.
Increasingly restrictive laws eventually give citizens the impression they have "nothing left to lose" by not obeying the law. They feel it is only a matter of time before they will lose all their guns in a total ban. Looking at recent measures enacted in Britain (most guns banned) and Australia (all guns except non repeating shotguns and rifles banned), a total ban on civilian ownership of firearms is not hard to imagine. Indeed, these fears are further exacerbated by quotes from legislators like, " I came to Ottawa in November with the firm belief that the only people in this country who should have guns are police officers and soldiers". As I write this article (April 29, 1999), CBC radio’s morning show is entertaining the question; "Should guns be banned in Canada?"
The current pattern of progressively complex laws can be viewed as a bastardization of the children’s game "Simon Says" in which increasingly difficult and preposterous commands are given to players who must mimic them exactly or be disqualified. But when it comes to modern gun control, the penalty for not following instructions to the letter is not merely disqualification - but being taken through an expensive court battle, the end result of which they may be fined, imprisoned or have their legally acquired property confiscated.
There is a limit to even the most law-abiding person’s patience; after too many demands, each additional requirement becomes insulting and demeaning. Historically, these feelings of disaffection, if not ameliorated, will boil into civil disobedience and eventually into outright violence against the police and government. In America, those responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing listed increasing gun control as one of their prime reasons for committing that heinous act.
Events like those at L’Ecole Polytechnique, Dunblane and Littleton, are often followed by the demands of a vocal minority for more gun control. When achieved, these reforms close the loop into what can become a self-perpetuating cycle which is bad for both police and the public; spurring some to violence which causes more gun control, which in turn causes more violence, ad infinitum.
Media portrayals of gun owners tend to label them with a social stigma akin to that of pedophilia. The use of terms such as "gun nut" and "arsenal" are used gratuitously by the media when describing legitimate target shooters and collectors. This bias, coupled with the widespread ignorance about firearms and firearms culture caused by gun control (mentioned later), may lead officers to act in a disproportionately aggressive or paranoid manner when informed of the presence of a firearm in a home. "After all", the officers tell themselves, "it is a gun call."
In fact, a pattern is already establishing itself in some jurisdictions where the tactical team is routinely called out to execute search warrants for even the most pedestrian of paperwork infractions, such as those relating to failure to notify the Registrar of a change in the licencee’s address. What ever happened to old-fashioned police work? When these dramatic raids are seen in the media, even non gun owners must question the necessity of a full scale "raid", when a simple phone call to "clear your paperwork up as soon as possible" would have been easier. The anxiety generated by such heavy-handedness creates fertile ground for the extremist suggestion that "we are living in a police state patrolled by jack-booted thugs".
Endorsing gun laws erodes public confidence in law enforcement by contributing to the "politicization" of the police. Witness the recent misuse of RCMP statistical data regarding seized firearms during the Alberta Court of Appeal case on the Constitutionality of the Firearms Act. Despite a thin veneer of denial that the stats were not misused, (it was explained that the discrepancy was a result of "differences in statistical methodologies") the use of the data for political purposes caused the RCMP embarrassment and a loss of credibility.
In 1822, Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing in the free world, laid out nine classic principles required to secure and maintain trust between the public and the police. No doubt he would be disappointed to learn the authors of the Firearms Act have so callously disregarded most of his principles. Especially troubling is the abandonment of the ninth, which states: "To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them".
(In fact, the Firearms Act violates every one of Peel’s Principles. Contact the author for an analysis of how current methods and attitudes run contrary to his wisdom.)
Diminishing Respect for Law:
"…thanks to the government’s past record, it is unfortunately very predictable that, in spite of the severe penalties mandated, tens of thousands of people will not comply at all (with Bill C-68). A new class of criminal will be created among harmless citizens whose previous lawbreaking may have resulted in nothing more than parking tickets." – Lee Morrison, MP (Reform, Cypress Hills – Grasslands)
Legitimate gun owners readily acknowledge the need for reasonable controls concerning firearms. However, the current course of legislation unjustly punishes them with burdensome rules for the violent misdeeds committed by gun toting drug dealers, criminals and the insane. The now seemingly automatic drive to blame honest firearm enthusiasts every time a tragedy involving guns occurs is beginning to become irritating if not downright offensive. In coffee shops, gun stores and hunt camps, much talk is heard of openly disobeying the new regulations. Many speak of caching their firearms underground in sealed drainpipes until attitudes about firearms change.
The Firearms Act re-classifies certain firearms into prohibited weapons thereby turning people into quasi criminals overnight. Although allowed to keep their firearms under "grandfathering", these guns will be confiscated and destroyed upon the death of their owner. The people who own these guns have not changed - the law has. At the stroke of a pen, these honest citizens have suddenly become targets of the law.
Viewed objectively, the new laws are prejudiced and unduly bigoted. Before the Firearms Act, the only way a person would end up in a police computer system was to be a suspect to an offence, charged or convicted under a criminal statute or be a health hazard to the community. By creating a special data base for a group of Canadians based solely on the criteria that they own guns, they are lumped into the same category as sex offenders and AIDS carriers. This state of affairs is unlikely to engender closeness or cooperation between the police and gun owners. People only have respect for the law when the law has respect for them.
One of the most destructive results of the Firearms Act is the establishment of different levels of enforcement. Judging from statements made by Jean Valin, Spokesman for the Canadian Firearms Center (CFC), citizens can expect to see "a checkerboard pattern of enforcement across the country" from the east, where support for gun control tends to be higher, to the west where resentment of the Firearms Act is high. Although the individual discretion of police officers is a cherished hallmark of policing in a free society, institutionalized inconsistency such as this is unfair and breeds further resentment of the judicial system.
The Firearm Interest Police (FIP) database is designed to flag current and potential firearm licensees whenever they come in contact with the police. But instead of flagging only those contacts which indicate anti social behavior, FIP captures all contact with the police, including stepping forward to report a crime or being a victim. The problem is that if a Firearms Officer has (or develops) a strong anti gun bias, he or she is at liberty to consider all FIP entries as grounds for refusal or revocation of an individual’s firearms licence. As soon as the first Firearm Officer refuses to issue a license on the shaky grounds that because a person has lots of contacts with the police the person is unsuitable to own a gun, FIP will then begin to act as a deterrent to positive contacts with police. It will then foster and perpetuate both the "Don’t get involved", and "Big Brother is watching" mindsets.
Negative Effects on Recruiting Pool:
"Regulations reduce casual gun ownership by increasing the barriers to obtaining firearms." Wendy Cukier, President, Coalition for Gun Control, Firearms Regulation: Canada in the International Context, 1998.
Today’s young adults are the pool from which police departments will recruit new members in the future. Licencing fees, waiting periods, mandatory memberships to approved gun clubs, safety courses and storage requirements create a long series of expensive hoops to be jumped through. Many parents simply don’t have the time or the money to educate their kids in this way about the safe and effective use of firearms. The result is that most of today’s children learn about guns from the media.
This gives rise to a number of patently unsafe phenomena. Although TV action shows teach a young person how to insert a magazine and rack the slide by about the age of nine - they will never be able to teach them the first thing about marksmanship or safe handling. These can only be learned under the guidance of a competent instructor in the classroom and on the range. Excessive regulation, if anything, keeps kids and young adults off the range.
I have heard some police firearm instructors say they prefer their students to have had little or no previous experience with firearms before coming to them. If the recruits come to them as a "blank slate", they feel as though they will not have to waste time "training out bad habits". Although it is true that some recruits may exhibit improper techniques which have become ingrained, it is also true that if a nation’s gun laws discourage civilian marksmanship - there will also be no opportunity to develop good habits either. Very few officers who are excellent shots became that way from their police training. The vast majority of police firearm training is woefully inadequate and turns out barely adequate shooters. There never seems to be enough time or money to graduate excellent marksmen.
Evidence exists that the fear and ignorance about firearms caused by gun control has already adversely affected all levels of policing. For example; "Ivory tower" administrators, with little or no knowledge of firearms (or police work in general) have mandated that all police side arms be equipped with overly stiff, "New York" weight, trigger pulls for safety reasons. Whose safety? These triggers are so heavy that they are a detriment to all but the most determined marksman. The results are missed targets, and the development of the "spray and pray" attitude. The idea of having to fire extra shots when only one is needed makes no contribution to safety.
When dealing with a recovered firearm at a crime scene, it is not uncommon for officers unfamiliar with firearms to summon members from the Emergency Task Unit to unload the firearm. It is also a sad fact that many of the ETU members responding to such requests are themselves ignorant of most firearms other than the ones on which they are issued. Not only is this unsafe, it is embarrassing! Fighting violent criminals is our job - we not only need to know our own tools, but the tools used by the opposition as well. There is little doubt that past gun control measures which inadvertently made it harder for kids to learn the correct way to handle firearms has diminished the depth and quality of "background knowledge" about firearms in the policing profession.
The general unfamiliarity with firearms has already led to often-comic misidentification of firearms in written police reports and press conferences. What is not so funny is that these gaffes lead gun owners to conclude that the police don’t know what they are talking about. They wonder how gun laws can be correctly and credibly enforced by people who create such non-existent items as "AK-15s" and "9mm shotguns". Misidentifying firearms on police reports makes it difficult to accurately discern valuable trends in the abuse of firearms. Moreover, it shakes the public’s confidence in the police by making it impossible to return a recovered firearm to its rightful owner. And finally, it can lose court cases.
Given the choice, I would much rather foot patrol an alley in search of an armed robbery suspect or clear a burglarized building with a partner who grew up shooting rats at the dump or cans off a farm fence, than with one whose sole exposure to firearms has been "Die Hard", "Commando", and a police firearms course designed to be just long enough to alleviate the department’s civil liability.
Negative Effects on Canadian firearm industry:
The attempt to further remove firearms from the fabric of our nation also stifles the development of firearms related technology as well as the industry that it supports.
As a result of a health and safety decision made a few years ago by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, police forces in this province upgraded their side arms from revolvers to semi-automatics. In a similar move, the RCMP equipped its personnel with these new pistols nation wide. The manufacture, distribution and ongoing technical support of that many firearms requires a highly specialized industry worth millions of dollars and thousands of workers.
Of the many companies supplying the new pistols, none were Canadian. This is because years and years of increasingly strict firearm law have cheated us out of a homegrown pistol manufacturing industry of our own.
Here again we see how burdensome firearms legislation discourages people from going through the red tape required to own and use firearms. Of those frustrated firearms owners it is now impossible to tell how many would have gone one step further and become interested in firearm design and manufacture. It is also impossible to predict, but not to imagine, how many of those discouraged Canadians might have "built a better mouse trap"; perhaps a safer or more reliable pistol than is on the market now, or a pistol which better reflects our nations unique climate and cultural make-up.
Instead of fostering confidence and creativity, the current course of legislation retards future Canadian advances in small arms that our police need to help them do their jobs better and under safer conditions. In this way, our forced dependence on foreign manufacturers for the supply and service of these pistols puts us at their mercy, and of continuing good relationships with the nations involved. As it now stands we are at the distant end of a complex supply chain. Protracted periods of international strife, trade embargoes or shipping strikes could easily leave us scrambling to start our own pistol making industry from scratch. Great Britain was in this exact situation during the dark days of early WW2. They actually had to resort to asking U.S. citizens for the donation of sporting arms to defend themselves.
The question is, would we have the know-how and ability to start a firearms industry from scratch? The current administration at the Canadian Firearms Center doesn’t seem to think so. In their desk manual for Firearms Officers, they devote considerable space to the voluntary transfer of firearms from civilians to the police and military. They use a hypothetical example in which citizens loan firearms to the military in a time of national emergency. In view of how the Firearms Act (and by extension - the police enforcing it) treats gun owning civilians, what kind of cooperation can be reasonably expected? At the most inopportune time, indeed our most desperate hour, Canadian law enforcement could be left without a supply of firearms and/or spare parts.
Current trends in Canadian gun control foster complacency by perpetuating the lie that everything about firearms and their owners is knowable. One of the main selling points of the new Canadian law was that universal gun registration would allow officers responding to an address to know instantly the number and type of firearms present. Unfortunately, criminally owned guns are extremely mobile. They flow illegally from owner to owner in an underworld which keeps no records. Since it is unlikely career criminals will be registering their firearms, the system will not function where it is needed most.
Police confidence in the registration system (if it ever really exists to begin with) will suffer a severe setback after the first police death occurs at a home which the computer said contained no firearms, or after too many calls in which the Emergency Task Unit is called to back-up the service of a warrant at a home supposedly containing a "gun nut" who moved out last week. Departmental lawyers wince and reach for the cheque book after cases involving flashy raids on the wrong house or occupants.
Equally dangerous are the officers who have become understandably bewildered by the complexity of the firearms law, and may choose to avoid looking deeper into circumstances which involve firearms. Opportunities to legitimately intervene in dangerous cases involving true criminality will be missed.
Police officers who continue to support the kind of gun control which is aimed at law-abiding citizens are sadly mistaken if they think it will make their jobs safer and prevent suicide. Cracking down on duck hunters and target shooters cannot and will not affect the criminal misuse of firearms in any way. Policing will always be a dangerous job. Violent criminals will always be out there ready to shoot at cops, using homemade guns if necessary. Suicide is also here to stay as long as there are ropes, razors and high buildings from which to jump. It is the dreamiest of daydreams to think that if we just pass a few more laws against legitimate gun owners, we will one day be able to go out on patrol without side arms, and that suicides will become a thing of the past.
In 1995 the Canadian public was promised that implementation of the Firearms Act would cost no more than $85 million and that no front line officers would be diverted from street patrol. Official costs to date are at approximately $135 million, but the government has been strangely reluctant to give a full accounting of their total spending on gun control. Many observers believe the actual costs are between $400-600 million. The Volunteer Verifier program (required to properly identify and catalog firearms into the new registry) has failed to attract members of the firearms community (go figure!), and has resulted in street level members of the RCMP fulfilling the function.
Most of the police officers who did give their support to the Firearms Act did so on the basis of the original cost estimate. In view of the new figures, how many would do so again? Six hundred million dollars would buy a lot of things which are proven to reduce crime and improve safety like more jails, backup officers and equipment.
Suggestions and conclusion:
Like abortion and euthanasia, gun control stirs strong emotions in people. In order to remain impartial, the police should refrain from commenting publicly on gun control or other items of policy under consideration by our lawmakers.
We would do well to take a tip from the business world by rediscovering our ‘core business" and return to what we do best – catching criminals. Policing should be about the apprehension of evildoers, not about social engineering.
Disentangling the police from the firearms control debate (as well as the abortion and euthanasia debate) is not easy. But when asked to endorse one proposed law or another, let us simply remind folks that what we really want are stronger sentences for the criminals that we arrest, and more jails to house them.
The Firearms Act is a costly, unenforceable mess, which is likely to be a dangerous failure.
So how can we safely regulate firearms? The National Firearms Association is Canada’s largest and most influential pro gun organization. They created what is called the Practical Firearm Control System. The PFCS utilizes the same sort of training, checks and balances to screen and certify gun owners as are used to licence pilots, dynamiters, divers and participants in other potentially hazardous activities. This control method is based on the simple fact that equipment is only hazardous when it is in the hands of a person who is untrained, incompetent, or malicious. If a person is properly trained, and is screened for malicious intent, then and only then would a licensing document be granted allowing legal, unsupervised access to the equipment. It is a tried and true method of institutionalizing safety which will not alienate people from the police. Instead, it fosters a relationship rooted in cooperation, confidence and mutual trust. Like everyone, the NFA is horrified by the misuse of firearms. However, the NFA’s motivation for developing a system that works goes far beyond that of non gun owning members of the public; they are also painfully aware that each crazed or criminal act committed with a gun further tarnishes the public’s perception of continued gun ownership in Canada. They have a vested interest in deterring the misuse of firearms.
The desire to reduce gun violence is a noble and worthy goal, but the government’s current method of attempting to do so at the expense of law abiding gun owners is wrong, ineffective, and will cause far more safety problems than it cures. By continuing down this path, we will surely end up "shooting ourselves in the foot."
 Alan Rock, Justice Minister, "Taking Aim on Guns" Maclean's, April 25, 1994, page 12.
 Charles Reith, "A Short History of the British Police", (London: Oxford University Press, 1948)
 Jean Valin, "Ottawa Ready to be Flexible", National Post, November 11, 1998, page A7