People have asked me if the gun registry would have saved the three Moncton officers last June. Given that the suspect was unknown to police, had no criminal record and only a few firearms but plenty of ammunition, I answer "no... but possibly."
The facts at this still early stage suggest people failed to report the suspect's activities to police soon enough – and police lacked the ears to the ground to know what was happening in the community at a micro level. This is not to dismiss the qualitative value of records; police must develop a responsible nexus to draw out the best information possible from both sources.
A deeper conversation is required and I will attempt to introduce you to some subtleties developed through my understanding and experiences.
As a rookie detective I found a tall, neat stack of files on my desk when I arrived at my new posting. One file detailed how two hoods victimized a storekeeper and he heard one culprit call the other "Squid". I asked around the office and a detective said I should call the "Whiskey Dicks" and see what they know.
"Who are these guys?" I asked, and was told they were plainclothes officers who inspected taverns and otherwise cultivated people in low places. I asked the radio room to have one of them call me.
Within five minutes I was explaining that I was looking for a suspect named "Squid" and probably his buddy for a shoplifting incident. "What did his buddy look like?" he asked. I read the description from the incident report and he said "that sounds like Tom. We can round them up and have them in to you shortly."
My sense of wonderment only increased when, true to his word, they entered the "D Office" with two men and several boxes of clothes, stereo equipment and music tapes found in their car. A whole lot of crime in the big city was now solved. "Who are these guys?" I thought again to myself.
As I began my interview the "Whiskey Dicks" began digging in the occurrence files and pulled out 10 more incident reports. Sure enough, they matched the descriptions on each one. I asked them about the two suspects. They knew them for just hanging around taverns and buying booze for underage kids but didn't know they had got into boosting (shoplifting).
They promised to check out a few more of their buddies and, true to form, there were more arrests over the next few days and more charges laid against "Squid" and company.
Since I was the new guy I relied heavily on officers like these who kept their ears to the ground. They related to everyone. Bartenders, waitresses, variety store owners, clergy and school teachers where among the wide array of company they kept. Oddly enough, fire fighters were another good source for them. Almost all had secondary jobs and they tended to meet and chat at many major incidents.
The firearms registry itself could not, nor was it meant to, stop shootings such as Moncton. The gun lobby would like to reduce the issue down to that singular question which, of course, gives them the answer they expect and want. Up to this point it has fought the battle playing the opposing emotions of the pro and anti lobby group.
It put the registry on an emotional level and this doomed it from the beginning. The cops, on the other hand, only saw it as a tool to get guns off the street and another method to find, and get at, the bad guys. One more emotional reaction.
I have always professed "responsible gun ownership" as the key. We register vehicles and licence drivers but we will never know if that saves lives. People are still killed in cars every day. The difference is the accountability process for something that can cause a lot of carnage. Car owners' sense of responsibility increases dramatically with the knowledge they are licensed and tested. Police do not have to worry about the law abiding portion who have demonstrated responsibility and can focus on the much fewer abusers.
The Canadian public must have assurances from those who want to have guns that they are responsible about their care and ownership. If they love hunting and guns, the extra effort should be worth it to them. The government's job (and vicariously, the anti-gun lobby) is to ensure the laws are not overly onerous or complicated and enforcement for police is not heavy handed. Striking this balance, in my estimation, will create a workable environment, far from perfect, but tolerable to all.
Nothing, however, can replace a vigilant and watchful body of police officers. You can store data, register people and their property, monitor the Internet and still not know what is really going on. There is no shortcut or easy replacement for good old foot pounding street slogging to learn that.