Some Time to Kill:
In Waiting Periods, Gun Buyers are at Mercy of Criminals

by John R. Lott Jr.,
from the Investor's Business Daily

March 26, 2001

California's government — which has demonstrated its obvious prowess as a regulator of energy — is searching for another vital product to regulate. The California Legislature launched hearings this week on the licensing of guns. California's would-be regulators might want to examine the experiences with gun licensing in places like Canada and Hawaii before they enact any ambitious and reckless new laws.

Canadians are a law-abiding lot. But as of Jan. 1, millions suddenly became criminals, thanks to C-68, Canada's gun licensing law, which was passed back in 1995. The law ordered Canadians to obtain a license and register their guns within five years.

Officially, the Canadian Department of Justice now claims that there are only 2.5 million gun owners, a 31% drop from their figure just a couple of years ago.

This means that millions of gun owners are now operating outside of Canadian law, an assumption confirmed by press accounts that report internal Canadian Justice Department documents identifying 5 to 7 million gun owners and by academic and private surveys which indicate possibly more gun owners. The 2.5 million estimate, some academics argue, is surprisingly similar to the Canadian Wildlife Service's estimate for the number of people hunting each year.

Getting the government to release information on the costs of licensing and registration is like cracking the black operations budgets in the U.S. Defense Department. The numbers are even refused to many members of Parliament.

"Inside sources" have told members of Parliament that, excluding any costs borne by the federal police (the Royal Canadian Mounties) or in Quebec, $265 million (Canadian dollars) will be spent by the federal Canadian Firearms Centre this year. To put it another way, just this limited accounting number corresponds to 5% of all police expenditures in Canada.

Just as with unfunded mandates in the U.S., the vast majority of gun licensing costs in Canada are borne by the provinces and local governments. For example, the attorney general's office of Alberta has complained that the law "is an administrative mess and it is very costly, and it is using money that would be better used really fighting crime."

Canada's licensing laws are notable for their extremely intrusive character: Applicants must report if they've experienced a divorce, breakdown of a significant relationship, job loss or bankruptcy in the past two years. Despite the objections of Canada's Privacy Commissioner that files are filled with "unsubstantiated hearsay and incorrect information," the government questions people like ex-spouses, possibly bitter over divorces, to assess the gun licensee's fitness for a license.

These are real problems. But the largest one pertains to the impact these rules will have on violent crime. We look with interest to see how Canada's crime rate changes this year. In the meantime, we can assume from America's experience with similar gun restrictions that Canada is in for some bad news.

Consider what is happening in Hawaii. According to gun licensing theory, if a gun is left at the scene of the crime, licensing and registration would allow a gun to be traced back to its owner. But police have spent tens of thousands of man-hours administering these laws in Hawaii (the one state with both rules), and there has not been even a single case where police claim licensing and registration have been instrumental in identifying the criminal.

The reasons for this are simple. First, criminals very rarely leave their guns at the scene of the crime. Second, would-be criminals virtually never get licenses or register their weapons.

Gun licensing advocates ask, might licensing at least have allowed even more comprehensive background checks and thus kept criminals from getting guns in the first place? Unfortunately for these gun control advocates, there is not a single academic study that finds that background checks reduce violent crime.

Instead, licensing prevents people who are being stalked or threatened from quickly obtaining a gun for protection. When added to California's 14-day waiting period, the processing time for a license will delay access to a gun by at least a month. While research shows that even short waiting periods increase rape rates, waiting periods longer than 10 days increase all categories of violent crime.

Canadians will undoubtedly take some solace in press accounts noting that police won't "come knocking at the door any time soon." But as distracted police spend tens of thousands of hours trying to enforce the licensing, the doors of Canadians may be knocked down by gun-wielding criminals who pay no mind to the regulatory fads of political correctness. Are Californians paying attention?


John R. Lott Jr. is a senior research scholar at the Yale University Law School and the author of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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26 mar 2000