On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked into the University of Montreals engineering school and fired a semi-automatic military rifle at every woman he saw. Before turning the rifle on himself, Lepine shot 27 women. Fourteen died.
Public outrage to the massacre, the worst in Canadian history, set off a series of events, leading to the passage of a new firearms act in 1995. The measure stiffened Canadas penalties for firearms offenses and called for the creation of a national computerized firearm registry. Under the law, every gun owner would be required to have a license and undergo a background check, and every gun in the owners possession, no matter how old, would need to be registered. All of that information would be kept in a database that could be accessed by police.
The countrys gun lobby strongly opposed the registry, arguing that the cost of developing and running the system would be better spent fighting crime. The government, in turn, argued that the registry could be developed for $119 million Canadian ($88 million U.S.), a cost that would be offset by licensing and registration fees of $117 million. Projected net cost to taxpayers: $2 million.
Instead, the firearm registry turned into a huge embarrassment. "They were warned by their own people this thing wasnt doable. Now theyre stuck with a system thats riddled with errors and just doesnt work," says Garry Breitkreuz, a Saskatchewan member of Parliament and a leading opponent of the program.
What was supposed to be a relatively modest information technology project ballooned into a massive undertaking. At last count, the program had amassed more than $1 billion in costs, and the system had become so cumbersome that an independent review board recommended that it be scrapped.
The Canadian gun registry project offers multiple lessons for government and corporate project leaders alike on the difficulties involved in undertaking a controversial project:
- Define what you want. From the start, the government failed to develop a clear understanding of the projects scope and the level of inter-government and inter-agency cooperation that would be required.
- Put someone experienced in charge. The Department of Justice managed this project, but had never undertaken a technology initiative of this size or scope.
- Freeze specifications. Constant changes were made to licensing and gun registration forms and approval processes as the computer system was being developed. By 2002 more than 2,000 orders for changes had been made, each requiring additional programming.
- Dont expect users to comply on their own. The government thought it would have five years, until Jan. 1, 2003, to gradually register the countrys estimated 7 million firearms. Instead, firearm owners delayed filing their registrations, leading to a backlog that overwhelmed the system.