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Canada gun control costs under fire after auditing | (UPI) MONTREAL Canada's Auditor General has slammed the government for failing to report what she termed excessive spending of taxpayers' money -- singling out the country's controversial gun control program.

Sheila Fraser cited the billion-dollar federal gun registry project as an example of government's "inexcusable failure" to publicly account for spending. She contended that officials of the program estimate costs will reach $1 billion by 2005 and called it an "astronomical cost overrun" from its original $119 million price tag.

The original proposal called for set-up and administration costs of $119 million with most of that being recovered through registration fees, leaving a net cost of $2 million.

The report attributed much of the cost overrun to delays in enacting regulations, to certain provinces and territories opting out of the program, and to "excessive focus on regulation and enforcement of controls." The more than 1,000 changes ordered in the program's computer system were also seen as part of the cause.

The Firearms Act was enacted in 1995 and establishes a program for licensing all owners of firearms in Canada, as well as a registration program for firearms.

The law requires all gun owners to be licensed, new applicants to pass a safety course, and guns of every type -- rifles, handguns and shotguns, to be registered.

Under the act, a license is required to even borrow a gun.

Guns are rated in three classifications: non-restricted -- ordinary shotguns and rifles; restricted -- handguns other than prohibited handguns, and some long guns restricted by Criminal Code Regulations; prohibited -- full automatics and converted automatics, handguns with a barrel of four inches (105mm) or less, handguns that discharge .25- or .32-caliber ammunition, and some long guns prohibited by Criminal Code Regulations.

The legislation provides for safety and background checks on all applicants. The law also stipulates that spouses and partners of applicants will be notified when a new applicant wishes to acquire a gun.

Further, the act requires that firearms brought into Canada be recorded at the point of entry and that all firearms must be stored unloaded and rendered inoperable.

Aboriginal peoples are not exempted from the act, although there are certain adaptations for First Nations people who take part in the traditional hunting practices of their community.

The report contends the cost of the plan will likely exceed $1 billion by 2005, and characterized expense reporting as "an inexcusable failure to provide complete information -- one that undermines Parliament's ability to make informed decisions."

"The quality of the information that we got from the (Justice) Department did not allow us to feel sure about the fact that all of the information was there," she told reporters. "It is not up to us to go and meddle in departments' affairs -- it is up to the Justice Department, which was the focal point of the program, to collect all the information on costs."

She added that the monumental cost overrun was bad enough, but the fact Parliament was not informed was far worse.

"The issue here is not gun control. And, it's not even astronomical cost overruns, although those are serious. 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," she wrote in her summary.

Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, who is ultimately in charge of the venture, responded by promising to commit an additional $60,000 to gather expenditure reports on the program from the various government departments involved. He also promised an internal audit of the program.

He denied suggestions that the cost overruns were deliberately concealed from Parliament.

He also defended the registry project, saying it has helped reduce shootings and has denied gun permits to about 30,000 people, although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police database used to identify those disqualified from owning guns has been found to be flawed.

Opposition politicians immediately called for a halt to the unpopular program, arguing that too much public money has already been wasted.

"This entire government, beginning with the prime minister and every minister in Cabinet, knew that they were way over budget, and they've just proceeded along the same path, withheld that information, and they have no intention of stopping," charged Alliance Party Leader Stephen Harper.

The report, released Tuesday, also criticized tax loopholes that allow multinational corporations to avoid hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually, and a growing employment insurance fund surplus.

Fraser criticized Canada's Employment Insurance administration, saying the government has provided no explanation for a $4 billion increase to its present $40 billion surplus and stated that auditors were unable to determine whether current premiums conform to the law.

Fraser's report stressed her finding that elected officials know very little about where tax dollars are being spent and how much various programs truly cost.

She told reporters that Canadians, "Expect federal program managers to base their decisions on accurate and complete financial information which reflect the true costs of their programs, and they certainly expect the people running government departments to know if the public money they are spending is actually accomplishing what it is supposed to do."

Advocates of the program insist it is working. Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said the report does not pass judgment on the program's validity, adding that evidence suggests it is effective.

"I am not here to defend the government on costs or management. Many of the very people who are complaining about the costs are the very people who drove them up by doing everything in their power to block the legislation," she said in a news release.

Fraser said a full audit of the entire program once it is fully operational will likely be conducted in a few years.

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