MONTREAL – Retired Montreal police officer Marc Brisebois remembers always being grateful for any gun-related information that popped up on his screen whenever he was on patrol and called to a house.
“If you have that in front of you, you can take a decision more quickly,” said Brisebois, who retired in 2006 after 30 years on the force. “We were happy to have that info.”
Twenty-one years after the introduction of the federal long-gun registry — since abolished by the Conservatives — Quebec is making progress on creating its own database of non-restricted firearms.
While Brisebois’ comments reflect the official line from police forces and unions across the country — especially in Quebec — not all rank-and file officers agree with him.
Some retired cops from across the country are warning Quebec against setting up a registry they say isn’t worth the money and just serves to make citizens feel safer.
John, who didn’t want to use his last name, retired from the Montreal police in 2007 after more than 30 years service, many of them spent patrolling downtown.
He said it “boggles the mind” that so many millions were spent on the federal registry — with what he called so few results.
When the Liberals introduced the registry in 1995, they said it would cost roughly $110 million to create. Instead, the figure ballooned to hundreds of millions of dollars before the Conservatives abolished it in 2012.
Quebec says setting up its proper registry will cost $17 million and another $5 million, annually, to maintain. The controversial plan has fuelled reports of dissent within all major parties on the issue.
John said smart officers never relied on gun data when answering calls because even if they were told a suspect had no registered firearms, “you still didn’t know if anyone in that home has a gun.”
“If (the screen) says there is no gun registered to anyone in the house are you going to put your hand in your pocket and your mind on neutral?” he asked rhetorically. ”That’s when you’re going to get shot. You go on every call like it’s armed.”
Quebec’s police leaders and union bosses argue the registry is essential because officers checked the old database hundreds of times a day.
Critics, however, say that while everyone wants safe streets and less violence, there is little evidence a registry makes cities safer. They also argue the millions dedicated to maintaining a gun database can be used more efficiently on crime prevention or increased access to mental-health services.
The Ontario Superior Court ruled in 2014 against a constitutional challenge to the Conservative law abolishing the registry, saying “there is no reliable evidence” the decision “actually has, or will, increase the incidence of violence or death by firearms.”
Homicide rates in Canada have been decreasing for years and have fallen in Quebec since the registry was abolished in 2012.
A retired officer who worked in Vancouver’s police department for 28 years told The Canadian Press he would “never rely on the federal government to tell me if there were guns in a house.”
“That is useless information because guns move,” he said. “Any policeman who doesn’t assume there are guns in the house is a fool and has a very, very good chance of getting badly hurt.”
He added that when the registry came online in the 1990s, “it had absolutely no effect on the street. And I think you’ll find that most policemen will tell you that if they ran a house address and the operator came back and said there are no guns — they would take that as a total waste of air.”
The Vancouver officer said police bosses and unions support the registry for political reasons.
“A lot of decisions that come down the pipe in police departments are a result of police departments getting funding from politicians,” he said.
But Brisebois believes the registry is more than just a tool for law enforcement — that it’s a symbol of how a society treats firearms and that it reinforces Canada’s cultural differences from those of the United States.
“Seeing what the registry did for me — spend the money,” Brisebois said.
“The important thing is to show people you are doing something (about guns),” he said. “The American way is that guns represent liberty and rights — do we want this? I don’t. So am I ready to spend that money? Yes.”