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Trudeau government’s ‘buy back’ gun program likely a multi-billion boondoggle

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Trudeau government’s ‘buy back’ gun program likely a multi-billion boondoggle

In his mandate letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (pictured above), Prime Minister Trudeau gave the highest priority to prohibiting and confiscating “military-style assault rifles.” And this week, during a federal cabinet retreat in Winnipeg, Minister Blair reiterated the government’s commitment to the plan.

This program is being called a “buy back,” but actually it’s a mandated confiscation of legally-purchased firearms for which the government will compensate owners at a rate the government deems “suitable.” Only owners who can document their legal ownership will be compensated, and non-compliance will be a criminal act. Unauthorized possession of a prohibited weapon is punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

Minister Blair has not been forthcoming in explaining which firearms will be prohibited and confiscated as “military-style assault rifles.” Nor is there general agreement about what this vague term might include. True military assault rifles are capable of firing as full-automatic (the gun keeps firing as long as the trigger is held back) and they have been prohibited to civilians since the 1950s. A large share of civilian firearms (both shotguns and rifles) are semi-automatic (the gun reloads automatically, but pulling the trigger only fires one shot). In New Zealand, the government’s recent “buy back” program included centre-fire rifles and some shotguns, as well as pump action and lever action firearms.

Speculation about the cost of this “buy back” has focused on how much owners will be paid for surrendering their guns. For instance, CBC reported that Minister Blair claimed the cost for the “buy back” of roughly 250,000 firearms would be between $400 million and $600 million—$375 million for the guns and presumably the rest for overhead. That is, if owners comply.

However, the actual full cost of the “buy back” won’t be $600 million; it will be much more.

Focusing on reimbursement costs is misleading because it ignores the biggest expense—staffing costs. Prohibiting and confiscating an estimated 250,000 firearms is a complex undertaking and would involve considerable government resources. It’s impossible to do with current police resources.

How much will taxpayers be billed for this boondoggle? The government has been silent. No budget for the “buy back” program has yet been announced. My best estimate for Ottawa’s confiscation plan is in the billions. Here’s a rough outline of the steps involved in the nation-wide confiscation program.

  • draw up plans for the entire project and secure approval from Trudeau’s cabinet
  • identify, as specifically as possible, the firearms to be confiscated and announce the list
  • evaluate information and processing capacity, possibly develop new computer systems
  • identify and notify owners of soon-to-be-confiscated firearms
  • organize the physical set up for collecting the firearms (e.g. arrange secure office space for collection points and train the police and clerks who will accept surrendered firearms)
  • staff the collection points so surrendered firearms may be assessed and processed
  • identify and hire venders who will destroy the collected guns
  • process payments to the former owners
  • physically collect and ship the firearms, and then destroy the firearms

Plus, of course, there will be an advertising program to persuade the public that confiscating legally-purchased and legally-used firearms will “make Canada safer.”

It would be surprising if everything went as planned. The gun registry was predicted to cost no more than $2 million and ended up costing $2.7 billion.

Another major potential problem is that no one knows how many owners will refuse to surrender their newly-prohibited firearms, or if they do decide to submit, how many will simply wait until the deadline and show up in a last-minute tsunami.

Accurately estimating the entire budget for Minister Blair’s confiscation of thousands of semi-auto rifles is beyond the purview of this blog post. But I can make a rough estimate of costs for at least one stage in the complex process—the cost of collecting the guns to be surrendered. The experience of the New Zealand Police, a national police force, which in 2019 set about to confiscate “military-style” semi-automatic rifles, provides a template Canada might follow. The New Zealand Police set up “collection events” at 524 collection points around their country to collect an estimated 175,000 newly-prohibited guns in their “buy back” program.

Since Canada is much larger than New Zealand—in population, geography and in the number of “buy back” firearms (250,000)—to keep the same ratio, Canada must have many more collection points. Canada’s population is more than seven times that of New Zealand’s, and it’s geographically 37 times larger.

 Guns to be collected2019 populationGeographic sizeNumber of collection points
New Zealand175,0004.8 million268,000 km2524
Canada250,00037.6 million10,000,000 km24,100 to 19,500

Following the New Zealand model, Canada would require between 4,100 and 19,500 collection points. I will assume the minimum number of collection points (4,100) in the following estimate. Each collection point must be staffed by either hiring new police officers or diverting current police personnel away from other policing duties.

The New Zealand Police do not report how the collection points were specifically staffed. At a minimum, collection point staff might only work one eight-hour shift per day (e.g. noon to 8 p. m.) so staffing requirements would range from four to eight people per collection point. Security is vital, so a minimum of four employees would be necessary—a clerk, a manager, a police officer and a security guard. Personal observers from New Zealand report that there were four police officers and four clerks at each collection point. This may have been to process surrenders more expeditiously. Managers will be required to supervise this work force, as well as high-ranking civil servants to oversee the process. This means a minimum of 16,400 employees to a maximum of 32,800 employees required to staff these collection points. I’ve budgeted the “buy back” for one year, which includes planning and collection phases.

Because handling firearms safely requires training and a high level of responsibility, it’s doubtful the Minister Blair would employ low-skilled civilian office workers, but instead would prefer police officers. Statistics Canada reports that in 2017/18, the average police salary was $99,298 per annum (including both sworn officers and civilian employees), which for ease of calculation I’ve rounded up to $100,000. This is a lower bound of how much staff members cost taxpayers. If the cost per collection employee is estimated using the operating expenses for Canadian police divided by the number of police personnel (officers and civilian employees both), the cost per staff member is approximately $150,000.

AssumptionsCollection pointsStaff at each collection pointTotal StaffCost per employeeTotal
Minimum4,100416,400$100,000$1.64 billion
Maximum4,100832,800$150,000$4.92 billion

Based on these assumptions, confiscating 250,000 firearms would cost the Canadian taxpayer between $1.6 billion to almost $5 billion in the first year. This estimate excludes travel costs and any ministerial administrators.

Remember, this is just part of the costs to taxpayers for the “buy back.” These estimates do not include the $600 million the government promises to pay owners who surrender their firearms. Nor have I estimated the costs involved with a) new information processing equipment or systems, b) notifying law-abiding citizens that their property is to be confiscated, c) contracting for venders and destroying the guns collected, c) arresting and charging anyone who refuses to submit or d) the costs of the public relations campaigns.

It seems clear from my rough calculation that just one of the required steps needed to complete a “buy-back” program of the nature contemplated by this federal government would include costs well over $1.5 billion with many additional costs, some of which would be difficult to even estimate in advance. One thing is certain—the costs will greatly exceed the $600 million presented thus far by the government.

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