Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What to make of the Gun Registry

The existing Federal Long Gun registry is an issue on which I have mixed feelings.

To begin with it is a flawed peice of legislation, its startup costs were exhorbitant, and its operating costs remain higher than they should be. That said Canada's police chiefs say it is useful, and the current operating costs aren't so extreme that the program should be cancelled on that basis alone. It should, however, be subject to a full review, with the intention of making the program both more useful to law enforcement and cheaper. A committee of the House of Commons with representation from all parties would be the ideal mechanism for this, though it is hard to see how it would work in the current poisoned climate in Ottawa.

Do I think Canadians ought to be able to purchase and own firearms? The answer to that is, unhesitatingly, yes. Do I think they should have to register those firearms? The answer to that is yes as well. It is a question of responsibility; where society is trusting you with a weapon you should be accountable for the maintenance, safety and use of that weapon. We all register our cars for the very same reasons, and it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that we be accountable for our weapons in the same way. This is especially the case for handguns and automatic weapons, whose designed purpose is for use on humans. Long guns in the traditional sense have real and enduring utility outside city limits, but handguns and automatic weapons do not, outside of the pleasures of target shooting or collectors.

The argument that 'criminals don't register their guns' is a disingenuous straw man. It is, of course, partially true - but it is also a red herring. The goal is to restrict their access to weapons, with the acknowledgement that you can never eliminate it entirely, and to reduce gun crime by making it more and more difficult. in Switzerland, where nearly every household has several military-issue firearms, a result of their universal militia service, gun crime is among the lowest in the world. Their system of registration and accountability is one of the most important reasons why.

The other concern most often used by opponents of gun control is that "the government may take away my guns". I'm afraid that, with or without gun control legislation, if the government has reason to then they can certainly do that. Preventing unreasonable search and seizure is a part of the ongoing battle to maintain due process! Another, more reasonable, version of that argument holds that the government can retroactively ban certain weapons, making your formerly legal possession illegal. In my view almost all weapons should be allowed, provided the purchaser meets reasonable requirements, and thus the confiscatory concern should be addressed. Where there should be severe penalties is on the purveyance, and use in criminal activity of, illegal and unregistered weapons.

Given that we register our charitable donations with CRA, file for permits to move plumbing in our houses with city hall (in order to maintain our valid home insurance, if nothing else!), and register our vehicles with multiple authorities it hardly seems unreasonable to me that I should file that I own a deadly weapon.

People who really want to kill will find alternative methods, and there is no way to eliminate crime through legislation. Given the evidence of what stricter attitudes towards the responsibilities of firearms ownership, for example the British or the Swiss, does to crime and injury rates as opposed to the looser attitudes of the United States or Mexico I have to place myself in the stricter camp.

The problem with the Long Gun registry is that it is such a flawed and inadequate measure I'm not convinced it is more a part of the solution than it is a simple obstruction.

EDIT: It appears that the Registry has survived the private member's Bill to abolish it, by the narrowest of margins: 153-151 against. Now I hope there is a Bill introduced with changes to the legislation, to be followed by an open debate on the merits of said changes. Note the use of the word 'hope'.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Memory of Dr. Margaret Osler

Last week the University of Calgary lost a superb teacher & scholar, who I deeply admired, and a witty and caring woman, of whom I was very fond.

Dr. Osler joined Calgary's department of History in 1975, and for the next 35 years enriched the world's understanding of the history of science and religion, intellectual history, the mechanical philosophy and the scientific revolution. She helped create the major and minor undergraduate programs in History and Philosophy of Science, the interdisciplinary M.A. and Ph.D. programs in Cultural Studies, and the Research Institute in Gender Studies. She also served as coordinator for the Science, Technology and Society program. Her published work is impressive in volume and quality, and her professional standing was of the first class. All of which was simply a result of her brilliant mind, impatience with guff, and wicked sense of humour.

During the coursework of my PhD I took a seminar with Dr. Osler on the development of the mechanical philosophy in the 16th & 17th centuries, roughly Gassendi through to Newton. It was utterly outside my field, but the opportunity to study with Dr. Osler was not to be missed simply because I was here in Calgary to study something else and didn't have an adequate background to study the topic at that level! My standing in the class could perhaps be best summarized by a comment on the paper I wrote, in the margin of which appeared "For flailing this isn't bad". That was all Maggie - succinct, penetrating, and witty.

As her teaching assistant, something I had the privilege to be more than once, I will always treasure that I was paid to listen to her lectures. How often to we get to listen to a world expert on an interesting field range over the topic with humour and wisdom? She told me more than once that when I "got over that political stuff" I should come and study a 'real' topic with her. I treasure that, and I choose to think that it was more indicative of her opinion of me than the time she snored through my lecture in her class. (In my defence I did better the next time!)

Outside of the University Dr. Osler was active in the Calgary community, dedicating time to the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association and the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, among others. Issues great and small were subject to her acute and occasionally acerbic wit, and to her warmth.

Goodbye Maggie, the world is a poorer and less interesting place without you. You touched many of us, and we won't forget.

The University of Calgary obituary is here: