Thu. Jul 29th, 2021

Many Canadians remember that the escalating cost of the long-gun registry weakened public support for the program, allowing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pass legislation to destroy the registry in 2012. There are now rumblings about the expense of the proposed buyback of newly prohibited assault-style rifles. History suggests, however, there is a solution to this potential draw on public finances: prohibit the guns without compensating owners.

In the 2019 election, the Liberals said they would ban “all military-style assault rifles, including the AR-15” and would introduce “a buyback program” offering “fair market prices for owners.” The promise to pay owners seemed motivated by a desire to soften potential opposition to new gun control measures, which was probably a fool’s errand.

The federal government declared several models of rifles, including the AR-15, to be prohibited weapons in 2020. However, Bill C-21, the subsequent Liberal gun control bill introduced in 2021, lacked details on a buyback system. The government also indicated that owners of the newly banned rifles could keep them, but not use them.

On June 29, the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) reported on the buyback proposal, despite the fact that the number of guns affected is uncertain (the destruction of the long-gun registry contributes to this information vacuum). The RCMP estimates 150,000 firearms were prohibited. The Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association, an industry group, claims approximately 518,000 guns were banned. The PBO used these estimates and different possible levels of uptake in a voluntary scheme to produce a range for the program’s cost: from $56 million to $756 million.

Gun groups trumpeted the largest of the possible estimates, probably because they believe the high level of public support for the assault-style rifle ban will soften if costs escalate. Firearm advocates are thus keen to inflate the cost of the buyback; a Fraser Institute report suggested that a buyback could cost almost $5 billion.

However, such enormous estimates may have an unintended consequence for gun owners: it could lend support to the idea of prohibiting assault rifles without taxpayers doling out compensation. COVID has placed enormous pressures on public finances. Every dollar given for an AR-15 is a dollar not spent on expanding child-care programs or helping small businesses.

Ottawa has prohibited firearms without providing compensation before (though owners sometimes retained guns under “grandfather” provisions). In 1977 automatic rifles were prohibited without compensation. In 1991, Brian Mulroney’s government banned many rifle models without compensation. The Liberal government of the mid-1990s also offered no recompense when it declared tens of thousands of rifles and handguns prohibited.

Those examples suggest that gun groups might be wise to work with the government to ensure reasonable compensation, rather than inflating the potential cost of the program to undermine it. If the public finds a buyback too expensive, firearm owners may find themselves with neither their guns nor compensation.

R. Blake Brown is a professor of history at Saint Mary’s University.