Canada Firearms: Armed Robbery

On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked into the University of Montreal’s engineering school and fired a semi-automatic military rifle at every woman he saw. Before turning the rifle on himself, Lepine shot 27 women. Fourteen died.

Public outrage to the massacre, the worst in Canadian history, set off a series of events, leading to the passage of a new firearms act in 1995. The measure stiffened Canada’s penalties for firearms offenses and called for the creation of a national computerized firearm registry. Under the law, every gun owner would be required to have a license and undergo a background check, and every gun in the owner’s possession, no matter how old, would need to be registered. All of that information would be kept in a database that could be accessed by police.

The country’s gun lobby strongly opposed the registry, arguing that the cost of developing and running the system would be better spent fighting crime. The government, in turn, argued that the registry could be developed for $119 million Canadian ($88 million U.S.), a cost that would be offset by licensing and registration fees of $117 million. Projected net cost to taxpayers: $2 million.

Instead, the firearm registry turned into a huge embarrassment. “They were warned by their own people this thing wasn’t doable. Now they’re stuck with a system that’s riddled with errors and just doesn’t work,” says Garry Breitkreuz, a Saskatchewan member of Parliament and a leading opponent of the program.

What was supposed to be a relatively modest information technology project ballooned into a massive undertaking. At last count, the program had amassed more than $1 billion in costs, and the computer system had become so cumbersome that an independent review board recommended that it be scrapped and replace with a new, outsourced system.

The Canadian gun registry project offers multiple lessons for government and corporate project leaders alike on the difficulties involved in undertaking a controversial project:

  • Define what you want. From the start, the government failed to develop a clear understanding of the project’s scope and the level of inter-government and inter-agency cooperation that would be required.

  • Put someone experienced in charge. The Department of Justice managed this project, but had never undertaken a technology initiative of this size or scope.

  • Freeze specifications. Constant changes were made to licensing and gun registration forms and approval processes as the computer system was being developed. By 2002 more than 2,000 orders for changes had been made, each requiring additional programming.

  • Don’t expect users to comply on their own. The government thought it would have five years, until Jan. 1, 2003, to gradually register the country’s estimated 7 million firearms. Instead, firearm owners delayed filing their registrations, leading to a backlog that overwhelmed the system.

    The bottom line, says Raymond Hession, a former federal employee hired to review the project and its future, is that the billion-dollar price tag was likely inevitable. “This is a large, complex electronic database, with very large networks and a lot of people accessing it. It costs money,” he says. “The problem is the original forecast was based on flawed assumptions.”

    Prior to 1995, Canada had a limited system of federal and provincial agencies in place to handle the licensing of new guns. However, that system only accounted for guns at the time of purchase—the government did not keep track of the estimated 7 million guns already in circulation. Initially, the federal government believed it could use the same agencies that issued firearm acquisition certificates to handle the registration. However, that plan had to be abandoned when several provinces, primarily those with strong hunting lobbies, refused to cooperate.

    The federal government was forced to assume responsibility for the project. It created a new agency, the Canadian Firearms Centre, to act as a single point to manage and control the program, operating under the federal Justice Department.

    One other factor dramatically altered the project’s scope. A shooting spree in 1996 in British Columbia highlighted an obvious flaw in the planned licensing and registry system. In that instance, the killer applied for a license to purchase a gun and was approved, even though his estranged wife had complained to police several times that he had threatened to kill her. Because the man had not been convicted, the incidents were not recorded in the national police database, the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC).

    The government then decided to include all violent incidents reported to police, whether they resulted in a criminal conviction or not, as grounds for further reviewing a license application. This involved tapping into the computer records of every police agency in the country and having information on any reported threats, domestic violence or related incidents pushed out to a new central database, the Firearm Interest Police System (FIPS). This database in turn would be integrated with CPIC and the new firearm registry in Ottawa.

    Instead of a simple database where citizens registered their firearms, the scope of the initiative had been expanded to that of a large computer networking project.