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The Folly of Gun Registration

The Folly of Gun Registration – Part 2

The “folly of gun registration” articles are reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Derek Bernard, firearms researcher, shooter and businessman based on the Island of Jersey. The opening article is actually the sixth in the series and is the most relevant to Australia.This article originally appeared in Gun Trade World Magazine

Experiences of Gun Registries from Around the World

Click here to read The Folly of Gun Registration – Part 1

VICTORIA

“I would therefore recommend that firearms registration be forthwith abolished… “The above quote is an extract from Alex Newgreen’s report of February 26th, 1987. He was the chief inspector and registrar of firearms for the state of Victoria, in Australia.

In 1984 a new act came into force that required all firearms to be registered. Chief Inspector Newgreen was appointed registrar of firearms and charged with introducing the new system and reporting on it after three years has passed. He did so – and his report of February 26th, 1987 was damning. Clause 25 included: “Experience in New Zealand and South Australia, and now indeed in the state of Victoria, indicates that firearm registration… is costly, ineffective and achieves little.”

Clause 28 was the bombshell: “I would therefore recommend that firearms registration be forthwith abolished…” He went on to state that, in his opinion, firearm education “would be less costly and achieve far more…”

This sort of thing was not at all what the government of Victoria wanted to hear – so it didn’t hear it and the report was suppressed. Fortunately for the rule of reason, rumours of the existence of the report began to circulate and a ‘freedom of information request brought it to light.

Sadly, however, in a perfect example of the well-known government principle of “don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve made up my mind,” the government of Victoria did not abolish the system and, indeed, retains it to the present day. But cost, waste of resources and inconvenience to the law abiding has never had any significance to the disciples of gun control.

Indeed, in more than 30 years of research in this field, the author cannot recollect ever having read a government report on gun control that contained any attempt to quantify the costs and inconvenience to the citizen.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

South Australia introduced firearm registration in1980 without, so far as is known, any analysis of the likely costs and benefits. In 1985 the government launched a task force to carry out a major review of government controls to check the justification and cost-effectiveness. At the request of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry the taskforce included a review of the firearms act and, specifically firearms registration.

“Registration of firearms does not… reduce the use of firearms for antisocial or illegal behaviour.” “The registration system is grossly inaccurate.” “The registration system is costly to both the state and traders.” “… inaccuracy… and cost indicate that the objective cannot be achieved. “The task force recommends complete review of the firearms act, clearly identifying objectives and examining the feasibility of achieving these objectives.

To date those recommendations have not been carried out.

THE ISLAND OF JERSEY

In 1920, Jersey, the author’s home jurisdiction, substantially copied the UK firearm act of the same year, including the procedure of registering all rifles and pistols, without either jurisdiction carrying out any meaningful research of any sort into the likely costs and effects of the procedure. We then rolled the clock forward 75 years to 1995 and a Jersey government proposal to expand the system to include shotguns, once more simply intending to copy the UK, whose registration scheme included shotguns in 1988.

With the help of an unusually clear-sighted lawyer and ex-attorney general, Senator Vernon Tomes, the proposals were easily defeated. But, a few years later, after Vernon’s death, and riding on the emotion generated by the appalling multiple infant murders at Dunblane in Scotland in 1996, a new Jersey law was passed in 1999 and the registration system was expanded to include shotguns.

At no stage were those in favour of expanding the system able to identify even a single case between 1920 and 1999 in which the data collected was useful in solving a crime or catching a criminal. The main argument seemed to be that perhaps one day it might prove useful. No attempt had ever been made to carry out a cost/benefit analysis, despite this being a Jersey government policy requirement. The concept of gun registration spread around the world during the 20th century. So far as is known, no serious prior assessment of the likely costs and benefits in any jurisdiction has ever been published. Fortunately, here and there attempts have been made subsequently to study the procedure for cost-effectiveness

NEW ZEALAND

The New Zealand 1920 Arms Act substantially copied the UK’s firearm act of the same year and introduced gun-owner certification and firearm registration, also without any meaningful research whatsoever into the costs and effects. As with the UK, the government of the day did not trust its own men, who were returning from the battlefields of the First World War, where they had been fighting – and dying in large numbers – for their country. The fear of revolution, perhaps something similar to the Russian Revolution of 1917, rather than fear of crime, was the driving force.

When reviewing the history of New Zealand gun control in1983, the official New Zealand police Project Foresight report of 1983 stated: “The First World War had ended with many returned servicemen bringing pistols and automatic firearms into the country. They were freely available from stores. Revolution had occurred in Russia and there was a fear that large-scale industrial demonstrations or even riots could occur here.”

But the New Zealand government found it difficult to be honest and publicly state that it didn’t trust its own citizens, so “crime control” was given as the reason for the law. By 1928 the administration of the new law was proving very burdensome to the police and it was proposed that the registration of rifles and shotguns be abandoned. There is no published evidence of any cost/benefit analysis having been carried out; it was just too much work. The proposal was lost, but the problem of too much paper work remained and in 1930 a compromise was reached and the registration of shotguns abandoned.

In 1967 the police themselves started a process of questioning the effectiveness of the registration system. Evidence of benefit proved very difficult to find. The end result was the Arms Act 1 983, which abandoned all long-gun registration and introduced lifetime shooter licences. Thus, once a shooter had been issued with a licence, he would be free to buy and sell long-guns from and to other licensed individuals and shops without any further reference to the police unless and until he committed an offence that required his licence to be withdrawn.

This resulted in a dramatic reduction in paper work for both the police and licensed shooters. On November 28th, 1985, the then New Zealand minister of police, Ann Hercus, responded very positively to the author’s inquiries in to the effects of the law. These are some highlights from her letter…

“The administration of the new system… has seen a dramatic reduction in visits and…administration time.”

“. . . there has been no discernible effect on the criminal use of firearms since the-reintroduction of the new system.”

For some, the concept of the police not having records of every gun is worrying and the question of reintroducing the long-arm registry has been re-examined a number of times since 1983–always with the same result: it cannot be justified.

NEW YORK STATE AND NEW YORK CITY

In 1911 New York City introduced the Sullivan Act, named after a particularly corrupt politician. The Act gave the police discretion on issuing or refusing pistol licences. If issued, registration was required. Those discretionary powers have been and still are – regardless of recent decisions of the Supreme Court – consistently used to routinely deny licences to all except retired police officers and wealthy, influential individuals.

In 1967 and 1968 economist Dr Alan Krug carried out an exhaustive review of the effectiveness of the law and its registration procedures (Does Firearms registration work? 1968). In particular he compared the situation in New York City – where the police had the powers of the Sullivan Act and routinely used them – with the situation in the rest of New York State, where the Sullivan Act did not apply.

At the time New York City had about 44 per cent of the population of New York State. The results were salutary in 1966, after 55 years of the Sullivan Act. Crime rates were massively higher in the city than in the rest of the state – 74 per cent of the murders and 90 per cent of the robberies in the whole state took place in the city.

Not a single crime was committed with a lawfully owned pistol, or, to put it another way, every single pistol crime involved an illegal pistol that was not in the system. Not a single crime was solved, or criminal convicted through the registration system. The President’s Commission on Crime reported that: “Any contention that the Sullivan Law has been effective as a crime-control measure rests on speculation. The entire weight of available evidence rests on the opposite premise, ie that the law has not been effective.”

Sadly for both New Yorkers’ safety and wallets, the present mayor, Michael Bloomberg, continues to believe in any gun control measure, including registration, regardless of costs, or whether it generates social benefits in excess of disadvantages. The president’s Commission on Crime reported that: “Any contention that the Sullivan Law has been effective as a crime-control measure rests on speculation. The entire weight of available evidence rests on the opposite premise, ie that the law has not been effective.”

Sadly for both New Yorkers’ safety and wallets, the present mayor, Michael Bloomberg, continues to believe in any gun-control procedure, including registration, regardless of costs, or whether it generates social benefits in excess of disadvantages.

USA AS A WHOLE

The US does not have, and never has had, a nationwide registration system for all civilian firearms. But all gun dealers have to record the details of all buyers, retain the records permanently and make the information available to the police. In addition to the dealer records throughout the US, during the period analysed, 1958 to 1967, four states – Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi and New York – also required the police to register all pistols to their owners. The cost of these procedures is not known, but it will have been very substantial.

Proposals for a nation-wide system that would apply to all individual owners have been made many times. To try to assess the likely benefits and costs of such a large system, Dr Krug carried out an extensive investigation, covering 1958 to 1967, into the benefits generated by the existing registration systems (Firearms Registration – costs vs benefits, 1970). The investigation sought to identify the number of murders, aggravated assaults and robberies that had been solved through firearm registration records over the ten year period 1958 to 1967.

The total of such serious crimes committed during that time was more than three million.

Responses were obtained from 44 state police forces. Forty were unable to identify a single case that had been so solved. A total of eight cases were identified by the remaining four states; thus, on average, the solution of approximately one serious crime out of every 375,000-plus such crimes was aided by the registration system, or rather less than one per year across all 40 states.

CONCLUSION

Solving any serious crime is a valuable social result. The more that can be solved, the better. But, if cost is ignored, then resources are likely to be misallocated and the numbers solved will be fewer, possibly a great deal fewer, than if the resources had been applied with optimum efficiency. The consistently poor results found by every known investigation into the efficacy of firearm registration systems indicate strongly that firearm registration is not an efficient or sensible way of allocating resources.

This article originally appeared in Gun Trade World Magazine

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