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Shotgun News, July 1, 2006, pp. 26-28

Odds and Ends

It has been a busy month: stupidity in Wisconsin; intelligence in Canada; tragedy in California.

As I have mentioned in previous columns, Wisconsin has been debating adoption of a concealed carry law for several years now.  Let me emphasize: not just making an existing concealed carry permit law more fair—but providing for concealed carry permits.  Wisconsin does not have even a system whereby police chiefs abuse their discretion in issuing permits; there are no permits, and concealed carry is unlawful.

In 2004, the Wisconsin legislature passed a concealed carry permit law that, while not perfect, was a giant improvement over nothing at all.  Governor Doyle vetoed it.  But no big deal—the bill had passed both houses of the legislature by the 2/3 vote required to override his veto.  But then the sponsor of the bill, a Democrat named Gary Sherman, voted against it—and prevented Governor Doyle from being “embarrassed” by a veto.[1]

History repeated itself this year.  After passing both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, Governor Doyle repeated his performance of the previous session, and vetoed another concealed weapon permit bill.  And again, the lower house refused to override the veto—falling two votes short of the 66 required.[2]  The two votes against the bill again came from Democrats who had voted for it the first time: Rep. John Steinbrink (D-Pleasant Prairie), and Rep. Terry Van Akkeren (D-Sheboygan).  While they gave plausible excuses for their change of position, it isn't difficult to read news accounts of this, and come away with the impression that just like happened in 2004, these two Democrats changed position to avoid embarrassing a fellow Democrat.[3]

Okay Cheeseheads—keep hammering away on this.  You may have to replace Governor Doyle, or you may have to replace Democrats like Steinbrink and Van Akkeren, but keep pushing.  It will happen.

In contrast to the Wisconsin legislature, another frozen place is showing signs of intelligence. For several years now, Canadian gun owners have been fuming over a mandatory long-gun registration program.  You may be surprised to find out that this hasn't been the case for a very long time.  Canadians have been required to register handguns since 1934,[4] and Canada prohibited automatic weapons in 1977, but long guns had escaped the ire of the Canadian government, until in 1989, a deranged man named Marc Lepine went into a Montreal university, the École Polytechnique, carrying a rifle.  He separated the men from the women in one classroom, screamed, “I hate feminists!” and murdered fourteen women.[5]

Much as similar, highly publicized and horrifying massacres in the United States (almost always involving mental illness) with high capacity rifles that same year caused the passage of both state and federal assault weapon bans, this tragedy created a groundswell of support to do something.  Unfortunately, politicians were more interested in gun control than asking questions about the problems of mental illness.  To her credit, one Canadian cabinet minister did admit during the sixteenth anniversary of this tragedy, “there are many dimensions to the problem....  Mental illness is as important as gun control.”[6]

The final result was passage of the 1995 Firearms Act, which prohibited highly concealable handguns, and those firing .25 and .32 bullets, and created a mandatory registration for all long guns.  Every gun owner needed to get a license by January 1, 2001, and every long gun was supposed to be registered by 2003.[7] 

Okay, simple enough—Canadians obey their government, right?  And to hear some American liberals tell the story, the Canadian government is a model of efficiency and competence.  It turns out that Canadians aren't really so different from Americans—quite a number of Canadians, as much as they were prepared to go along with handgun regulation, started to get a little upset about being treated like criminals because they owned hunting weapons.  In some cases, they simply, publicly, and loudly, refused to register their guns.

The program soon had cost overruns that would have embarrassed a U.S. Defense contractor.  The initial estimate was that the Canadian taxpayers would only be out about two million dollars (Canadian) to pay for this—the bulk of the $119 million (Canadian) in costs would be paid from registration and license fees paid by gun owners.  By 2003, estimates of the total cost to Canadian taxpayers have ballooned to somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion Canadian dollars.[8] 

Now, for the United States, a billion or so dollars for a federal program may not seem like much, but Canada has about eleven percent of the population of the United States—and a billion or more dollars spent on a program that, as some troublesome Canadians point out, has done nothing to bring Canadian cities safe from gun crime, is horrifying[9]  For that kind of money, Canada could have hired a lot of police officers.  Indeed, they should have.  Two years past the date when every Canadian gun had to be registered, and four years past the date when every Canadian gun owner needed a license—Toronto hit a fifteen year high for gun murders.

As you might expect, during the recent elections in Canada, the long gun registration program was one of the issues.  It wasn't the most important issue—but it was sufficiently important that the Liberal Party, having demonstrated that they couldn't make a gun registration program do anything useful at a reasonable price, decided to raise the ante on this poker game—by announcing that if they won the elections, they would push for a federal law allowing provinces to pass complete bans on handguns.[10]

As you are probably aware, Stephen Harper's Conservative Party won the elections—although they did not win enough seats in Parliament to pass whatever they want.  They will have to work with other parties to achieve their goals.  One action that they intend to take, however, is to deal with the gun registry.  Harper had promised during the campaign that the registry would be scrapped, and the money spent on public safety, instead—and is now working on figuring out how to get this through Parliament.[11]

I hate to end on a downer, but having read about Marc Lepine, and how even members of the Liberal Party admit that mental illness is part of the problem that has to be solved—not just gun control—you really need to be thinking about this.  Untreated mental illness, and the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill over the last forty years, has played a small part in the massacres that have plagued our society (and law-abiding gun owners) since the 1980s.

Most mentally ill people are only hazards to themselves—but because they are so unpredictable in their behavior, large numbers of Americans who live in big cities are afraid.  A small fraction of the mentally ill homeless people wandering our streets end up becoming a depressing news headline, and when they use a rifle or a shotgun, the results are so horrifying that it makes the job of gun control advocates that much easier.

It should be obvious, if you are a gun owner, that the problem of mental illness is your concern as well.  But even if you are not a gun owner—even if you don't care about guns at all, you should be concerned about the mentally ill.  The homeless population of our big cities are not just poor people who have had a bad run of luck.   Many of them are mentally ill—people who at some point were probably working, self-supporting—and slid into a state where they could no longer work, and no longer manage their own affairs.  Now they live on the streets and alleys, begging, stealing, and eventually dying in misery, of cold, of tuberculosis, of pneumonia.

I have another interest in this matter.  I have an older brother, the smart one to whom I looked up as a child.  A year or two after he left the Army in the early 1970s, he spiraled down into schizophrenia.  He has never recovered, and he may never do so.  Today, he at least has a place to live, but for many years, he lived on the streets, in flophouses, too violent and unpredictable for anyone to give him a place to live.  While it was not the only factor, California's early lead in the policy known as “deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill played a major part in why he—and hundreds of thousands of other people—ended up living on the streets in the 1970s and 1980s.  My next book (after Armed America hits the bookstores later this year) is going to be about why deinstitutionalization happened, and the negative consequences it has had.

The most recent high profile tragedy in this category involves a woman named Jennifer Sanmarco, who went into a mail sorting facility near Santa Barbara in January.  By the time she was done, she had murdered eight people, including herself, with a handgun.  News reports indicate that she had been retired on a disability from that facility in 2003 because of her increasingly bizarre behavior, and concerns that she might be a hazard to herself.  She had been held at the time for seventy-two hours for psychological assessment—and then released.[12]  All of these accounts indicate that Sanmarco's behavior was odd and somewhat worrisome[13]—odd enough that in 1960, I do not doubt that Jennifer Sanmarco would have been locked up in a mental hospital for her own good.  Not only would she be alive today, if the laws had not been gutted in the well-intentioned effort to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, but seven of her victims would be alive as well.

Each of us has to pick the particular social problems that are important enough to us that we will put our time, money, and energy into solving them.  I do not expect gun owners to suddenly become activists on the problem of mental illness.  But I do think it is important for gun rights activists to be aware of this dimension to the problem of violence, because it is an important part of the struggle over the rights of sane, law-abiding gun owners.


Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is

[1] Steven Walters, “Proponent of gun bill likely to block it,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, February 1, 2004, available at , last a February 21, 2004; final vote tally for SB 214 veto override at, last accessed February 21, 2004.

[2] Associated Press, “Governor's veto on concealed weapon law stands , Marquette [Wisconsin] Tribune, February 2, 2006,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[3] Anita Weier, “Dems: Gun bill flaws swung vote,” [Madison, Wisconsin] Capital Times, February 1, 2006,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[4] Canada Firearms Centre, “History of Firearms Control in Canada: Up to and Including the Firearms Act,”, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[5] CBC Archives, “The Montreal Massacre,”, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[6] Nelson Wyatt, “Montreal massacre remembered,” Canoe Network, December 6, 2005,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[7] Canadian Embassy,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[8] “Implementing the Firearms Act - the rising cost,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, December 16, 2005,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[9] Rex Murphy, “The gun registry: A billion dollar bag of perfect uselessness ,” CBC News, January 7, 2004,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[10] Sarah Shenker, “Shooting rekindles Canada gun debate,” BBC,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[11] Canadian Press, “Tories load up to kill gun registry,” Toronto Star, February 15, 2006,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[12] Steve Chawkins and Jill Leovy, “Killer's Behavior Had Grown More Bizarre, Authorities Say,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2006,,1,904054.story?coll=la-headlines-business-careers, last accessed February 20, 2006; Ken Wright, “Gun Purchase, Motive, and Bizarre Behavior Uncovered in New Mexico Shooter,” New West Network, February 9, 2006,, last accessed February 20, 2006.

[13] Associated Press, “Postal killer an oddity in Grants-area, western N.M.,” Albuquerque Tribune, February 1, 2006,,2564,ALBQ_19863_4432716,00.html, last accessed February 20, 2006.