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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Why Do Hunters Feel Like Criminals?

A Weird, All-Canadian Outcome of Parliamentary Vote on Long-Gun Registry

Published 09/28/10

Most Canadians will know that last week a Conservative Party private member’s bill to scrap the long-gun registry in Canada was narrowly defeated by a vote of 153 to 151.

For non-Canadians, let me explain that since the 1930s handguns have had to be registered in Canada, and permits to own them are quite stringent and their use very restricted. But about 15 years ago the government instigated the so-called long-gun registry. What it meant was that every “long” gun (shotgun and rifle) had to be registered. Cost overruns were enormous, and critics were strongly opposed to it. Emotions ran high.

Last week, Parliament voted on a bill supported by the Conservative Party whose leader, Stephen Harper, is the prime minister. But while the Conservative Party has more members in Parliament than any single party, it does not have more members than all the remaining parties combined. That is called a “minority government” (or, in the United Kingdom, a “hung Parliament”).

The Liberal Party (which I would call more “center-conservative” than truly “liberal”) voted as one to maintain the registry, as did the Bloc, a federal party that only runs candidates in Quebec. The third federal party, the NDP, allowed its members a free vote, although the leader supported the registry and members of the NDP who wanted to vote with the Conservatives were under internal pressure to change their minds. There were also a few independents, who represent no party and could vote as they chose.

The RCMP, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, emergency room workers, doctors, victims groups and others, came out in favor of the registry, thus opposing the bill. Hunters, aboriginal groups, farmers and some individual police officers generally opposed the registry, thus spoke in favor of the bill. The media and the Conservatives both tried to paint the divide as “rural” vs. “urban,” the former in favor of scrapping the registry, the latter wanting to save it.

There was much speculation about political motives and there were many subtle nuances I shall avoid discussing here. We are fortunate in Canada that we don’t have anything like the Second Amendment clause in the U.S. Constitution, which has been interpreted as meaning any citizen has a right to “bear arms,” further interpreted to mean firearms. I think the fact that gun ownership is seen more as a privilege and not a right in Canada accounts for the fact that you’re at least three times more likely to die of gunfire in the United States than here in Canada (notwithstanding an unfortunate underground and illegal “iron river” of nonregistered handguns entering Canada and used by criminals).

But hey, gun nuts will disagree, and that’s their problem. What interested me in this whole debate is how the two sides lined up, each making what I thought were mostly valid claims. As supporters of the bill pointed out, the registry costs money and is a nuisance. It does not touch the illegal guns usually used to commit crimes, and in and of itself it’s hard to see how it can block use of long guns in accidents, domestic violence or suicides.

On the other side the point was made that the police use the registry very many times daily, that it was supported by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, front-line health workers, victims groups and others in a position to know if it helped prevent crimes, reduce bloodshed or assist in criminal investigations. The pro-registry faction made the point that the start-up fortune that it cost was long over with and that it was relatively inexpensive to maintain year to year and saved lives.

All of this has nothing to do with animals. But what does have to do with animals is the so-called sport of hunting. Sport hunters (with some exceptions, to be sure) adamantly were opposed to the long-gun registry. What amazed me was not any of the arguments given that I have alluded to above. I happen to support the registry only because the police think it reduces their risks and helps them to prevent, reduce or solve crimes. I suspect they know more about such things than do hunters and farmers, but I also acknowledge that come cops disagree.

But I haven’t mentioned the main argument voiced by the anti-registry side, and the only argument iterated by the prime minister himself, in a terse statement following the private member’s bill’s defeat. After saying we are closer than ever to killing the registry (great metaphor — if you don’t like something, you kill it) he stated, “The people of the regions of this country are never going to accept being treated like criminals.”

Why is that? Why is it, that when I registered my own long guns, I did not feel the least bit like a criminal? I dislike paperwork, but hey, it’s not that onerous. One fills out a form in the comfort of one’s own home, it costs nothing, so why does that make one feel like a criminal? Please understand that no one is challenging the licensing of gun owners — that is a given. All that is at issue is whether individual long guns should be centrally registered.

Here’s another question: Why do some people enjoy killing animals? I am not talking about people who kill for some need, such as food, in self-defense, or to put an animal out of endless misery. Whether such a thing is morally justified can be endlessly debated. But the typical sport hunter has no need for a dead duck, goose, grouse or groundhog. Yes, hunters pay for the services of wildlife managers, but we wouldn’t need most of them if but for hunting. And so they rationalize hunting in various ways, always claiming it is a “wildlife management tool” while never really explaining how or why wildlife in protected areas or who belong to non-“game” species manage on their own. I suspect that they know that the reason the majority of us don’t hunt for sport is because we don’t take pleasure from killing.

Could it be that they know that, unlike registering your car, or even yourself, a gun is designed to bring injury and death, and that deep in their hearts they feel guilty? I don’t know. I do know that my own pleasure comes from helping others, animal or human, and that I am an unapologetic do-gooder who would rather not kill or hurt others, of any species. I don’t think it is wrong to do good, to be a bleeding heart or to care about others. But why do most of us do so, and yet some of us don’t? Is it genetic? Cultural?

Whatever it is, it appears that the simple act of writing a few bits of data on a form has touched a very raw nerve, indeed.

Blogging off,
Barry Kent MacKay

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