Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Registry

I was asked the question, not long ago, as to what was so wrong with the firearms registry in Canada.  A good friend of mine asked the question in good faith, and notwithstanding the cost issues, on which I have already expounded.

There are several inherent flaws with the registry concept, specifically as it pertains to firearms.

A registry is assumed to be unimpeachable.  Such as it is with cars or RRSPs.  A unique number identifies a unique thing, beyond all others.  This item is of a certain form or description that does not tend to change very much at all.

By and large, a car will remain a car and an RRSP will remain a tax shelter… ummm, different blog entry.

Anyway, the serial number of a car is a well-organized and regulated thing.  This allows us to register our cars with plates and insurance, etc. quite easily.  The serial number is in the dash on the bottom driver’s side up against the windshield.  It’s been like this for decades.  Cars have a definite form.  Frame, 4-wheels… you get the picture.  There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, this is the car.

A firearm is a different beast.  They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and designs.  There is no single item of design to identify a firearm, except maybe, the barrel itself.  A firearm needs a barrel of some kind otherwise it’s not going to shoot bullets in any manner.  This is the basis for a firearm.  Unfortunately, this is the only basis for a firearm.

Everything else is up for grabs.  And this yields 2 very important, inescapable problems.

First, if we declare a barrel to be the defining factor of a firearm, then we have a problem with all tubes of sturdy construction.  Any tube can be drafted into firearms service.

I remember when I was in grade school some kids built a tennis ball canon.  They would shoot it off in the park next door on weekends.  This canon was made of beer cans and duct tape.  While unsafe, in my book, this was very definitely a firearm.  Other than personal injury to the shooter, it wouldn’t be effective for any other nefarious uses.  The point is made that a homemade mortar system can easily be accomplished with items in the basement!

The second problem with the barrel issue is that most modern firearms are designed in such a way that the barrel can be replaced.  This is a maintenance feature for cleaning, but also for safety and precision.  A barrel has a limited life expectancy, measured in number of rounds fired.  A target rifle may require a one-time machining of the barrel snout after 5000 rounds, after which the barrel must be replaced.  As an example, an all-day target shooting session can use up 100 cartridges easily.  Given this rate, 5000 shots is only 50 sittings.  Which can easily be accomplished over an avid two or three-year period.

This is not typical of all target shooters, but this demonstrates that barrels are inherently expendable.  More like the tires of the car.

“So what of the frame?”  My friend is a smart guy.

The frame, which the government has chosen as the basis for the firearm is a better choice for registration than the barrel.

So a first problem immediately crops up… possession of a frame but no barrel is still considered a dangerous firearm?  What is a frame alone supposed to look like?  I have a chunk of metal in my garage that has a serial number on it… but is it a firearm?  Or simply a piece of my Mustang’s engine?  I’d bet over ½ the population wouldn’t know a handgun frame if it bit them in the ass.  Again, the barrel is the mandatory… but I’ve made that point already.

It gets better:  firearms do not all have frames!  They all have a barrel, but many do not have frames!

I have a break-open shotgun.  The frame is really a combination of wooden stock and a loose spring-loaded mechanism for a firing pin.  Nowhere can a serial number be reliably punched.  A new stock can easily be carved with Home Depot hand tools!  

Break open shotguns of this type are the single most popular type of firearm, probably the world over.

So really, the only way to describe a firearm would be by a combination of barrel and frame.  The Hammerli 280 target pistol has a conversion kit for 2 interchangeable barrels, one in .22LR and one in .32S&W.  It is an extremely popular handgun for Olympic competition.  So now we have a dual-gun, we need 2 spaces on the registration form, one for each barrel?  Imperfect, but I’ll play along.

Many game shotguns have interchangeable barrels as well.  For instance, one could have a 32” in full-choke (modified) for duck and goose, another in 26” or 28” with 2 other choke settings for smaller bird or ground game, and finally a super-short 20” or 22” & compensated for deer hunting.   Oh shit, it’s 4 barrels now, to the one frame.  I can play along, but this is getting a little ridiculous.  Especially if I lend one of the barrels to my buddy with the same model of shotgun!

OK, so we are back to the frame alone, while making a mild exception for the single most popular shotgun in the world.

One of my handguns doesn’t really have a frame.  It breaks down into 4 distinct pieces.  The hand-part is the frame, so have decided the powers that be.  I have one handgun with the serial # on the hand-part, and another serial number on the slide-part.  Uh-oh.

Worse yet, this older handgun I have with a serial number on the frame… I have since learned that the factory that produced this puppy, during WW-2 didn’t bother changing the numbers for each frame.  So it’s more like a model number than a serial number.  At last count more than 250,000 units may have been produced.

And here is the problem, unless I specify the slide number as well, it’s entirely possible that hundreds, or thousands, of Canadians have the exact same frame-serial number registered.   So which is which and what belongs to whom?  If one of these things is found at a crime scene, whose door does the police crash down?

Exceptions of this sort are not exceptions in firearms.  They are the rule.  

Now a case can be made to engrave firearms with the owner’s permit.  This isn’t a bad solution, however, every time a firearm is molested in this fashion it looses a serious chunk of its value.  Furthermore, some have precious little space on them to write anything at all, so this becomes a real problem if there are multiple owners.  Except maybe for family heirlooms…

It’s becoming less of an issue with modern firearms, as they have catalogued serial numbers for warranty purposes, etc.  But until the (presumably) 21 million legal firearms in Canada are “modernized”, registering properly, or for a decent cost, is a pipe dream.

PS.  Have you ever won the lottery, but threw out your ticket?  This is what happened to many a hapless Ottawa denizen who handed in their guns at the firearms amnesty in January.  On the front page of the newspaper, assuming the pictures were accurate enough, someone handed in a couple of WW-2 Luger P-09.  Depending on condition, these puppies are worth between 950$ to 2000$US each, to the right buyer.  

There was another time- forgotten piece that I recognized as a curio, which would probably be worth easily upwards of 10,000$… of course, since Canadians are no longer allowed to export handguns, the American connoisseurs willing to pay this amount is unattainable.  

So in effect, your government threw out your winning lottery ticket.


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