government, which has ably demonstrated its skills at regulating
energy, is searching for new vistas to regulate. This past Thursday
the California Assembly passed by one vote a bill to license handgun
owners. A slightly different bill has already passed the Senate,
and the two bills must be reconciled in conference. Yet before the
final decisions are made and Governor Davis makes his decision,
examining the experience in places like Canada and Hawaii might
be helpful. As with electricity regulation, the best intentions
are not always enough. When fighting crime, mistaken laws can cost
Canadians are a law-abiding lot, but, as of January 1st of this
year, millions have become criminals. Bill C-68, Canada's gun-licensing
law that passed in 1995, gave half a decade's warning for people
to obtain gun licenses. The Canadian program's obvious failure to
license most gun owners despite its no-expense-spared approach should
give Californians advocating licensing some pause.
Officially the Canadian Department of Justice now claims that its
recent surveys show only 2.5 million Canadian gun owners
a 31-percent drop from what the government claimed just a couple
years ago. But press accounts reveal internal Justice Department
documents putting the number at 5 to 7 million gun owners, and academic
and private surveys indicate numbers just as large.
What is most surprising is that any Canadians admit to pollsters
that they own a gun without a license. With only 2 million Canadians
licensed or in the process of being licensed, roughly 10 to 16 percent
of Canadians are now felons.
Getting the government to release the costs of licensing is like
cracking the black-ops budgets in the U.S. defense department. The
numbers have even been refused to many members of parliament. Inside
sources have told MPs that, excluding any costs borne by the Royal
Canadian Mounties as well as local police, $265 million (Canadian
dollars) was spent by the federal Canadian Firearms Centre this
past year. To put it another way, just this limited accounting corresponds
to 5 percent of all police expenditures in Canada.
Yet, the real costs of these unfunded mandates are borne by the
provinces and local governments. No attempt has been made to record
how many hours local police officers have spent processing paper
work, but complaints are common. For example, the attorney general
of Alberta complains that the law is an administrative mess, it
is very costly, and it is using money that would be better suited
to really fighting crime.
The California State Sheriff's Association, which has come out strongly
against the legislation, has raised similar concerns and warned
that the California legislation will spread already undermanned
police agencies even thinner.
The ultimate question, though, is what impact these rules might
have on violent crime. While Canada's system is too new to discern
any impact, the experience in our own country is not encouraging.
In theory, if a gun is left at the scene of the crime, licensing
and registration will allow a gun to be traced back to its owner.
Police have spent tens of thousands of man-hours administering these
laws in Hawaii (the one state with both rules). But, amazingly,
there has not even been a single case where police claim licensing
and registration have been instrumental in identifying the criminal.
Why? Criminals very rarely leave their guns at the scene of the
crime. This really only happens when the criminals have been seriously
wounded or killed. Would-be criminals also virtually never get licenses
or register their weapons.
So will at least licensing allow for even more comprehensive background
checks and thus keep criminals from getting guns in the first place?
Unfortunately, there is not a single academic study that finds that
background checks reduce violent-crime rates.
The California legislation is also filled with pages detailing everything
from when grandparents are allowed to temporarily loan a gun to
their grandchildren, to the politically correct gun myths that licensees
must regurgitate on the licensing exam, to requiring that mandatory
testing be done in only English or Spanish. For a state with election
ballots printed in over 80 languages, this last requirement appears
racist. But with the new fees and hundreds of dollars required for
training classes, in addition to recent California laws outlawing
inexpensive guns, the Democratic legislators who support this bill
appear anti-poor. After all, it is the poor who are most likely
to be victims of crime and to benefit the most from being able to
Those who so automatically see licensing as the solution to crime
face an obvious question. As police spend thousands of man-hours
enforcing the licensing, what else might they do with their time?
Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks stated his concerns simply: "It
is my belief that this legislation significantly misses the mark
because it diverts our attention from what really should be our
common goal: holding the true criminals accountable for the crimes
they commit and getting them off the street."