Thursday, August 26, 2010

The NDP and the Gun Registry . . . . .

I have to take a few moments out of my birthday to make a few remarks about the NDP and the gun registry because I just cannot stand listening to NDP party hacks who are defending the NDP MPs who have previously voted, and are again going to vote, to kill the gun registry. A number of critics and bloggers have been defending Jack Layton for allowing a free vote on the gun registry because it is a tradition to allow such free votes on so-called private members' bills. In fact some people have even gone so far as to claim that Layton is adhering to 'principle' because to do otherwise would be to abandon the tradition simply because the bill contravenes the policies and spirit of the party. Now this argument seems fairly lame to me simply because while this bill may be a 'private members' bill' de jure, it is de facto a government bill and everyone knows it.

But let us accept, for the moment, that argument and say this is a private members' bill and tradition demands that we have a free vote on this issue. We could then absolve Mr. Layton of any ill effects of the death of the gun registry and say that he, at least, acted in an appropriate manner. The problem is that this still leaves a bad taste in my mouth and it simply shifts the unprincipled behavior from the leader of the party to the individual MPs who vote to kill the registry. Because what possible 'principle' could these MPs be adhering to? There are only two possible principles that they could argue. One is that they don't believe "in principle" in the gun registry. This argument surely stretches the limits of credibility. Given the history of the party to which they belong and the fact that we live in a country where, in most municipalities, you have to register your dog, I find it incredible that a member of the NDP would object to registering a gun. The argument just won't do. On the other hand, one might argue that these MPs are adhering to some populist principle that suggests that MPs are morally bound to vote the way their constituents want them to vote. Now the NDP is not a populist party and we have a representative form of government rather than a direct democracy. I don't think the NDP MPs who are voting to kill the registry would vote to outlaw, say, interracial marriage or vote to eliminate all corporate taxes just because a majority of their constituents wanted them to. Thus, I think it is very clear that this argument also fails to convince.

There is, of course, one rather convoluted argument that these MPs and their supporters might appeal to in defense of their vote to kill the long-gun registry. The argument goes like this; if those MPs voted to maintain the long-gun registry in certain rural ridings, they would surely lose their seats in the next election, thus allowing Liberals and/or Conservatives to win more seats, weakening the NDP's presence in the House and, in the long run, undermining the overall influence and impact of the party and its concerns. This argument is, of course, not 'principled' but it is, rather, pragmatic. The argument depends on the idea that the negative impact of killing the registry is less important that the over all impact of having fewer NDP Representatives in the House. Though I am sometimes sympathetic to this kind of political pragmatism, I am not particularly sympathetic to the argument in this case. I find this kind of argument particularly distasteful because no one ever admits it. MPs don't talk to the media or their constituents and say "I don't agree with this bill but I am going to vote for it because I am being pragmatic and strategic." Thus the whole project seems disingenuous.

If one is going to argue against the long-gun registry 'on principle' then one has to have a fairly strong libertarian streak and would therefore be opposed to many, if not most, government registry programs. You could also oppose it based upon a principle concerning the potential oppressive nature of militarist governments but I don't think there are many making this argument. Thus I admit that while there are principled reasons to oppose the gun-registry, most people who actually oppose it are hypocrites because they are not actually libertarians and don't actually oppose many government powers and intrusions. On the other hand there are fairly strong 'principled' arguments, from the NDP point of view, to be found for supporting the long-gun registry. The registry allows us to keep much better track of the guns in society, most of the country's police forces suggest that it helps 'fight crime,' a majority of gun crimes involve long-guns, many of which are stolen and a registry allows us to know their origin etc. Furthermore, the registry in no way undermines anyone's rights, at least more than already existing registry programs for, say, pets or motor-vehicles, or numerous other things we possess.

The fact is that even if we are to absolve Mr. Layton of responsibility here, there are no credible 'principles' on which NDP MPs can hang their political hat if they are going to vote to kill the registry. And since they are not appealing to the 'pragmatic' argument, at least not publicly, I am compelled to believe that the only real motivation for NDP MPs voting to kill the registry is a self-interested one. These MPs are looking after their own political skins and saving their pensions rather than acting on some principle. And bloggers who are making vague attempts to defend the principles of these MPs are barking up the wrong tree and sounding rather pathetic if you ask me.

If certain NDP members are integral to the death of the long-gun registry, you don't have to blame Jack Layton. You can blame the individual members for being wrong headed and unprincipled. But more fittingly, I think we can blame the party as a whole which, this whole affair suggests, has lost its way and its moral compass. If the NDP is unable to stand up for something as relatively minor as the long-gun registry then this party has had its day.


ADHR said...

As compared to all the things the Liberals have stood up for recently like... um... and... well, there was... y'know...

You're overlooking the more nuanced libertarian approach which would support the gun registry, as long as there were a pressing reason sufficient to override the general presumption of personal liberty. (Such reasons can be offered for a lot, but not all, government programs and regs. Registering a dog doesn't appear justified to me.) As is, pro-registry folks are making a big noise about the "unprincipled" NDP and the "principle" of the registry, but no one's actually got an argument. The closest I've seen is the appeal to "public safety", but the dangers of unregistered guns haven't been demonstrated at all, never mind to a sufficient extent.

kirbycairo said...

First of all I was not defending the Liberals and your opening comment would suggest that you thought I was. Second, I would say ADHR that "nuanced" or not it is still a libertarian position that you are defending here. (Although I know many libertarians who would say that such a position is not 'libertarian' at all)And I didn't claim that no libertarian position makes sense just that most people are not being consistent here. The so-called rural farmers who claimed that they are being harassed by excessive government intrusion by having to take ten minutes to register their guns are not actively opposing countless other, clearly more intrusive, programs. They actively take government farming and ranching subsidies, they have to adhere to numerous rules and guidelines concerning food production, in many cases they have to register their farm vehicles, and I could go on and on. Now if these farmers and rural people were actively protesting all these programs then I think that they might have a decent argument on the gun registry.

I think my argument was clear and consistent concerning the NDP MPs who are voting against the gun registry. They have no principled objection (if they did they surely wouldn't be members of that party. The principled position in defense of the gun registry is the one that the police chiefs have been making, to wit: the majority of gun crimes are committed with long guns - registering them would simply make that more difficult and in the cases where the guns are stolen the registry would allow them to trace where the guns come from. If the guns are not registered it allows the police to begin to trace how and where people are moving and getting illegal guns. It is the very same argument (at least in kind) that police and legislators make for registering hand guns. I am not defending it or detracting from it, simply stating that that is the argument and it appears consistent and principled to me.

I think to successfully argue against this position in a consistently rational way, one would have to argue that no guns (including hand guns) should not be registered and that 90 percent or more of our government regulations and registration programs should be eliminated. But men like Harper know that cannot publicly make that argument because they would never get elected the same way that many NDP members would not argue publicly for socializing the oil companies, they know it wouldn't get them anywhere.

And by the way, your argument at the end is very weak since there is a direct correlation between the degree to which a nation restricts guns and the number of gun crimes. Therefore, the public safety argument is actually clear and overwhelming and to deny it is simply another case of Conservatives denying the facts to make an ideological argument.

kirbycairo said...
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