If, as is frequently claimed, conservative fears of a federal gun registry are paranoid and spurious, then the stand that Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn is taking in the Senate will presumably be welcomed by all sides. On this week’s Fox News Sunday, Coburn bluntly affirmed that any background-check bill emanating from the Senate “absolutely will not” contain any provision for “record-keeping of legitimate, law-abiding gun owners.” The inclusion of such a scheme, he declared, would “kill this bill” — and any others to boot. As well it should: As things stand, the Firearm Owners Protection Act mandates the federal government to destroy within 24 hours any information that it gathers during background checks; all who are jealous of their liberty must ensure that this remains law.
Contrary to the claims of some on the right, President Obama has not advocated any form of gun registration. But, despite how it sometimes appears, President Obama is not the entire U.S. government, and while he may have kept quiet on the matter, others have not been so wise. Illinois representative Bobby Rush has thrice introduced the “Blair Holt’s Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act” — first in 2007, again in 2009, and, most recently, as soon as the 113th Congress convened in January of this year. Rush’s bill would require all gun owners to possess a federal firearm license and allow the attorney general to create and oversee a national gun registry.
Another bill, introduced in January of this year by Representative Rush Holt, would “provide for the mandatory licensing and registration of handguns.” And Senator Dianne Feinstein, who authored the 1994 “assault weapons” ban, included registration of grandfathered weapons in her recent “assault weapons” bill and has a history of proposing national gun registration. A host of other bills include provisions, both large and small, by which the federal government might keep tabs on Americans’ gun ownership.
An American gun registry has been an aim of gun-control advocacy groups for almost 40 years — and not always as a stand-alone measure. Reinforcing the worst “slippery slope” fears held by Second Amendment advocates, the chairman of the Brady Campaign explained the role of gun registries in 1976:
The first problem is to slow down the increasing number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. And the final problem is to make the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition — except for the military, policemen, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors — totally illegal.
The threat to liberty inherent in gun registries should be painfully self-evident, especially when combined with the horrifying history of such programs elsewhere. The sheer fruitlessness of such systems, however, is not so apparent, and the uninitiated could be forgiven for wondering, “What’s the fuss?” Luckily, a few other countries — countries regarded by the gun-control lobby as being more enlightened than the United States and happily lacking in the pernicious influence of the National Rifle Association — have tried and abandoned gun registries, providing an example that Americans would do well not to follow.
Canada’s experiment with a long-gun registry, ostensibly contrived to prevent “violence against women” — it’s always for “women” or “the children,” isn’t it? — achieved little more than to demonstrate what the less naïve among us already knew: that criminals do not abide by the law. As Mauser has noted, data from Statistics Canada show not just that only 4 percent of long guns used in Canadian homicides were registered, but also that the claim that such registration will help the police to “monitor potentially dangerous gun owners” is upside down. Instead, statistics reveal that Canadians who own legally registered guns are less dangerous to their fellow citizens than those who either do not own guns at all or own unregistered guns. Unsurprisingly, while the long-gun registry was in force, in not a single case did the police employ it in order to identify a murderer.
When, as the culmination of a piecemeal process that began in 1995, the registry was created in 2003, Canada’s parliament promised that its cost would not exceed $2 million. By 2012, the registry had cost taxpayers $2.7 billion — a 134,900 percent increase on projections. (In the U.S., a registry costing the same amount per person would run $67 billion over the same time.) For this considerable outlay, the government reaped a homicide rate that dropped more slowly than that of the United States, a country in which gun laws have been slowly liberalized; a collection of disillusioned police forces, whose budgets were being eaten up by the growing costs of gun registration; and an angry citizenry whose indignation, Gary Mauser observes, was serious enough to create a peculiar coalition of the Reform, Progressive, Conservative, and New Democratic parties and to wipe out the Liberal party in the West. The registry was abolished in 2012.
New Zealand’s long-gun-registry experiment ended in failure, too. By the early 1980s, New Zealand’s National Police pleaded with that country’s parliament to abandon the system, having watched ballooning budgets lead only to a lot of wasted time and to the expansion of a system that, frankly, didn’t do anything useful. In 1983, parliament, conceding that criminals are unlikely to leave registered guns at the scenes of their crimes, complied.
Very little thought is necessary to render as a sick joke the oft-repeated claim that police benefit from knowing who has guns and who hasn’t. A registry tells authorities which law-abiding citizens have weapons and which don’t — which at best is useless information, and at worst is yet another case of government’s failing to do anything about the criminal and so going after the rest of us instead. The reductio ad absurdum of this tendency has been well documented by the historian Clayton Cramer. “The U.S. Supreme Court,” Cramer writes,
ruled in Haynes vs. U.S. (1968) that convicted felons have a Constitutional right to not register a gun, because to register a gun would be self-incrimination. Only people that aren’t criminals can be punished for not registering. If the criminals aren’t required to register, but you and I are, why bother?
As Cramer noted, the Supreme Court thus ruled that on Fifth Amendment grounds “a person illegally possessing a firearm, under either federal or state law, [can] not be punished for failing to register it.” This conceit has been upheld elsewhere, too. I have no great objection to this principle, but it does highlight the absurdity of an approach that would see constitutionally protected individual liberties being strictly guarded in the case of criminals but restricted when it comes to the law-abiding. Practically speaking, the Haynes decision legally exempts from any future registry the very people whose behavior is used to justify its necessity. Surely, if we are going to become so strict about the Constitution, then the Second and Fourth Amendments should share in the bounty?
If good sense prevails, this principle will never need to be tested. As John Lott argued in 2012, “in parts of the United States where registration is required, the results have been no different” from what they were in Canada. “Neither Hawaii, D.C., nor Chicago,” he adds, “can point to any crimes that have been solved using registration records.” Both philosophically and practically, Senator Coburn is right to insist that the federal government stay out of the game. Only in Washington, D.C., could a handful of politicians look at the failure of registry programs at home and abroad and propose that they be copied and expanded. Those who have charged that opponents of a federal gun registry are fighting a straw man will, I can only presume, line up in support of Coburn; for if there’s truly no enthusiasm for record-keeping in D.C., then no one has anything to fear from the senator’s innocuous stand.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.