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Gun-law flaws tragic - Auditor fears lives at risk

DATE : WED DEC.04,2002
CLASS : Canada Wire

Gun-law flaws tragic - Auditor fears lives at risk, says hiding costs from MPs 'inexcusable'
Paul Samyn

OTTAWA -- The Chretien government's bungled firearms registry is hampered by a flawed screening system, potentially putting lives at risk, the federal auditor general warned yesterday. Sheila Fraser's scathing audit of the Liberal gun-control efforts shows that not only is it plagued by an "astronomical cost overrun," but also suffers from a defective database that the RCMP fear may not prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands. "The (April 2001 RCMP) review concluded that a tragic incident could arise as a consequence of the poor data quality and that the RCMP therefore faces legal risks," said Fraser's report, issued yesterday. Her report noted partial results of an RCMP review that found many names had been unnecessarily included, while others that should have been included were not.

Fraser's audit of the controversial gun registry slammed the government for its "inexcusable failure" to account to Parliament for runaway costs expected to reach $1 billion by 2004-05. When the gun-control law was introduced in 1995, the Liberals claimed it would operate on a break-even basis.

"The issue here is not gun control and it's not even astronomical cost overruns, although those are serious," Fraser said.

"What's really inexcusable is that Parliament was in the dark. I question why the department continued to watch the costs escalate without informing Parliament and without considering alternatives."

The accounting mess within the Justice Department is so bad that, for the first time, the auditor general halted its audit after concluding there was no way to get an accurate bottom-line picture of the program's costs. Fraser said the incomplete financial picture means even Justice Department claims that the program has cost $688 million to date, and is projected to hit $1 billion in two years, are suspect.

Fraser's audit also revealed a change of focus within the federal government sure to fuel suspicions among the pro-gun lobby which has long argued the Liberal law was about much more than simply reducing the criminal use of guns.

She noted the initial focus was to use the blanket registry information to target high-risk cases, but the focus expanded to regard all gun owners in the same way because of a view that the use of firearms is in itself a "questionable activity" that requires strong controls.

Fraser's report set off a powderkeg of opposition anger that included allegations the Liberals had deliberately misled Parliament, and calls for heads to roll.

"The auditor general today said that cost overruns are without precedent," Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said in the Commons.

"Instead of costing taxpayers $2 million the gun registry has now cost $1 billion. How can Canadians trust the government on Kyoto or anything else when it is running 500 times over budget on the gun registry?"

Alliance MP Garry Breitkreuz called on the Liberals to pull the plug on the program.

"How much is the government willing to pour down the drain before it admits this is a failure?" the Saskatchewan MP said. "One billion dollars more, $2 billion more, $3 billion more? What will it be?

Tory Leader Joe Clark said Justice Minister Martin Cauchon can't just get away with saying he is sorry.

"He broke the law of Parliament, so did his prime minister," Clark said.

"They knew about a $700 million overspending. They had an obligation, as he said, to tell the House of Commons. They zipped their lips. They did not tell the House of Commons the truth. My question to the smiling prime minister: Who in his government authorized this breaking of the law of Parliament? Was it the prime minister himself?"

Cauchon noted there was no case of deliberate wrongdoing, but pledged to make improvements to the gun registry.

"We totally accept the auditor general's recommendations," he said.

"Now the question is that of course it is a sound policy. Could we do more, could we do better? Yes, we can do better. We are firmly committed to do so as well."

Cauchon pledged to ensure future cost estimates are complete and fully disclosed and also announced that the accounting firm KPMG has been contracted to go over the department's financial statements.

Allan Rock, the Liberal leadership hopeful who introduced the bill as justice minister, also defended the firearms registry, claiming it had saved 300 lives a year.

"We have a report talking about costs, but it is also important to remember the value," said the industry minister.

"The value of the program must also be borne in mind, the lives saved and the fact that it reflects something about Canada which distinguishes us from the United States. We are not a gun culture; we took a different road."

But Liberal claims that the registry is saving lives are undercut by the problems the RCMP first identified four years ago with the screening database containing four million files.

"The RCMP told us that while it believes that the database has significantly improved public safety, it remains concerned about the reliability of the information it provides to the database."

In other words, the RCMP are worried that the database is flagging people who should not be denied licences and overlooking those who may use a firearm to commit violence.

In 1995, the Liberals said the gun-control program would cost $119 million to implement and be offset by $117 million in fees. But by 2001-02, the Justice Department said, it had spent $688 million and collected about $59 million.

By 2004-05, it is projected the government will have spent $1 billion and collected fees of $140 million. However, Fraser makes clear this amount does not include all financial impacts on the government nor the wider costs of the program which were to be reported to parliament as required by regulatory policy.

The gun-control program requires that all of Canada's estimated 2.46 million gun owners be licensed by January 2001 and have all their firearms registered by Jan. 1, 2003.

Fraser also found fault with the computer system for the firearms registration system, saying its scope was "well beyond the department's previous experience".

Gun registry costs ballooned since '95

OTTAWA -- Some facts from yesterday's auditor general's report on the ballooning cost of the gun registry since 1995:

1995 -- Justice Department cost estimate is $119 million, to be offset by $117 million in registration fees.

1996 -- Department says estimates were unrealistic.

May 1998 -- Estimate rises to $544 million.

February 2000 -- Estimate rises to $764 million.

May 2000 -- Estimate hits $1 billion.

February 2001 -- Restructuring approved; expensive three-year-old computer system replaced.

2001-'02 -- $688 million spent; $59 million collected.

2004-'05 -- Estimate at least $1 billion, with $140 million net revenue from fees.

Canadian Press

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