By Mel Duvall Print this article Print

A national computerized firearm registry in Canada was supposed to cost taxpayers $2 million. Instead, it has held them up for more than $1 billion.

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In June 1997, Electronic Data Systems of Plano, Texas, and U.K.-based SHL Systemhouse were awarded a $30 million contract to build the system. EDS headed up development of the main registry database and application. SHL took on responsibility for the interfaces with other government and police agency systems and databases. At the heart of the system: an Oracle 7 database to collect licensing and registration information, such as the make, model, caliber, and serial number of firearms. An application to input information from mailed-in registration forms, and perform the electronic checks with other systems such as the national police computer database, was created using Sybase's PowerBuilder software.

Dwayne King, the lead developer of the Oracle database, says even with the project's expanded scope, the computerized registry was well within the technical capabilities of the development team. He and others such as Hession attributed ensuing problems to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the gun registry.

Political wrangling and pressure from the gun lobby and government officials prompted numerous changes to license and registry forms, rules and processes. By 1999, the development team had dealt with more than 1,000 orders for changes to the system, which created headaches for programmers.

Changes to the software required dealing with close to 50 different department or agency computer systems, from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to each provincial ministry of transportation for driver's license checks, says King. Sometimes requests were completed right away; other times they took a week or longer.

"A project of this size is like turning around the Titanic," King says. "Up until a week before we were due to go live, they were still changing the forms that were going to be filled out."

The changes were not part of the original contract, requiring the government to pay for additional work at contractor's rates.

Other unexpected labor costs emerged. When the project was conceived, it was forecast that only 10% of applications would require follow-up by an employee involved in the registry. Instead, nine out of 10 applications required follow-up, either from a call center agent or a local police department, to correct information on a form. Some errors were deliberate—the gun lobby had encouraged people to fill out forms incorrectly to protest the system—but the department admitted that many of the errors were unintentional.

The system went live on schedule in late 1998. Gun owners had until Jan. 1, 2001, to obtain a valid license and until Jan. 1, 2003, to register all guns in their possession.

But ongoing maintenance, development and support costs rocketed out of control. Between 1996 and 2001, about $688 million was spent on the program. Of that amount, $250 million went to the computer systems. Support, such as call centers, accounted for $300 million. The remaining $138 million went to advertising and public outreach programs to encourage compliance.

By 2001, annual maintenance costs had risen to about $75 million, or 55% of the $135 million in operating costs for that year. This figure is significantly higher than the industry norm of 10% to 20%, according to a review by Strategic Relationships Sourcing. Project managers blamed the system's complexities for that cost.

Meanwhile, anticipated revenue from the program nearly evaporated. The government initially believed it could recoup $117 million of the development costs through registration fees, but it decided to wave or eliminate most of the fees to encourage gun owners to comply.

The Canadian government has capped annual spending on the registry at $25 million, down from operating costs of $48 million in 2002 and $33 million in 2003.

In all, Canada's auditor general Sheila Fraser estimates that at least $1 billion has been spent on the program to date—including an unanticipated request from provinces and the mounted police for $135 million to reimburse costs to upgrade their computer systems.

Is the program working? Debate on that topic is also highly charged.

As of May, the Canadian Firearms Centre said 2 million people had filed and received licenses to own firearms. More than 12,000 license applications were revoked due to public safety concerns. In addition, 7 million guns had been registered out of the estimated 7.9 million firearms in circulation.

"It's not the be-all and end-all, but it was never designed to solve all of our gun problems," says Edgar MacLeod, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He says the cost of the registry has become an embarrassment and a nuisance to all involved, but the program works and provides a valuable service.

In a typical domestic violence situation, he says, investigating police officers rely on the registry to determine if guns are present. Onboard computers in police cruisers, or a call to central dispatch, alerts officers to any firearms registered to occupants of the house. The Canadian Firearms Centre says police make more than 13,000 queries to the system each week.

Since 1989, when Lepine committed the Montreal massacre, annual firearm deaths (including accidents and suicides) in the country have fallen from 1,367 to 1,006 in 2002 (the latest figures available), a drop of 26%. Murders committed with firearms have fallen 32%, from 218 in 1989 to 149 in 2002.

Still, critics like Breitkreuz call the registry a "billion-dollar boondoggle" and are pushing hard to have it scrapped. Fellow opponents contend that the $25 million in annual operating costs—if that level can be achieved—would be better spent putting police on the streets.

Proponents of the registry like Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control and an information technology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, are digging in to protect a technology initiative they agree is flawed but necessary. "It's not unusual for government computer projects to go over budget, but all the attention this one has received has blown things way out of proportion," she says. "'Billion-dollar boondoggle' is now part of the lexicon."

This article was originally published on 2004-07-01
Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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