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Ten Myths About Gun Control

Al Smithies, Research Director, CSSA

1. �VERY FEW PEOPLE IN CANADA OWN FIREARMS�

Exactly the opposite is true: twenty-nine per cent of Canadian homes possess an estimated total of nine million firearms. Other authorities insist that even this figure is too low, and that there is at least twenty million firearms in Canada. The UN reported that Canada ranks third among the developed western countries (behind the United States and Norway) in the civilian ownership of firearms.

There is an average of three firearms in every gun-owning Canadian household. The majority of gun-owning households in Canada own rifles and/or shotguns; on a per capita basis, Canadians own nearly as many rifles as Americans.

Canadian firearm owners tend to be predominantly male, slightly older than average but with a higher than average income. Wildlife hunters are more likely to be �blue collar� workers or farmers, while handgun owners tend to be �white collar� professionals.

Canadians own firearms for target shooting, gun collecting and wildlife hunting; socially innocuous sport and recreational pursuits that generate substantial economic benefits. Canadian target shooters spend at least forty to one hundred million dollars annually on competition-related tourism. Wildlife hunting, the overwhelming majority of which involves firearms, contributes six billion dollars and thirty-three thousand jobs to the Canadian economy every year. It is a recreational activity practised by over 20% of Canadians (excluding aboriginal Canadians).

2. �CANADIANS WANT MORE RESTRICTIVE �GUN CONTROL� LAWS�

On the contrary: more than 90% of Canadians do not believe that stricter �gun control� laws are a solution to violent crime, and two-thirds of Canadians believe that passing more severe laws over legitimate gun owners will have very little influence on criminals. Eighty-eight per cent of Canadians favour severe penalties for crimes involving firearms; only 8% favour increasing restrictions over existing firearm owners. Eighty per cent of Canadians do not support the confiscation of firearms from legitimate gun owners. Ninety per cent of Canadians believe that citizen compliance with mandatory firearm registration will be minimal. Two-thirds of Canadians believe that using a firearm in self-defence is justified. Support for more �gun control� dramatically decreases after the Canadian public is informed about existing firearm laws.

3. �REDUCING THE NUMBER OF GUNS WILL LOWER VIOLENT CRIME�

There is no compelling evidence that �more guns equals more crime,� or that �gun control� reduces violent crime. A comprehensive analysis of violent crime data from 170 American cities with populations greater than one hundred thousand found no positive correlation between the level of civilian gun ownership and rates of violent crime, suicide and fatal gun accidents. A study of crime rates and levels of civilian gun ownership in forty-seven English police force districts reported similar findings. Of twenty-nine academic studies done in the United States between 1960 and 1988 on the subject of �gun control� laws and their impact on firearm availability and violent crime, eighteen found no effect and eight reported ambiguous findings. Only three studies concluded that firearm laws reduce crimes of violence.

A �correlation� between firearm availability and violent crime does not exist. In both Canada and the United States, areas that have high gun ownership rates do not have higher rates of violence; e.g., forty-four per cent of rural Canadian households own firearms compared to just 11% in urban areas yet the violent crime rate in urban Canada is over 40% higher than it is in rural areas. Rural communities can exhibit higher gun-related fatalities than urban centres, but only because rural areas usually do not have convenient access to emergency medical facilities.

Current research indicates that restrictive Canadian firearm legislation has had no perceptible impact on violent crime since its introduction in 1977. Despite more �gun controls,� the violent crime rate in Canada has grown faster than the United States. It increased by 70% between 1977 and 1996; twice as high as all other Criminal Code offences combined. The breakdown in �social controls� is believed to have more influence on violent crime than the presence, or absence, of firearm laws.

Less than 0.3% of all the firearms in Canada is used for a violent purpose (violent crime, suicide or accident). Physical force, knives and blunt instruments are the most common �weapons� involved in violent crime in Canada; firearms, of all types, are used in just 2%.

Based on samples of recovered �crime guns,� certain studies have suggested that the majority of guns used in Canadian crime are rifles and shotguns; however, the methodology used in these studies is considered statistically biased and unrepresentative because the vast majority of firearms used in crime, robbery in particular, are never recovered. The best evidence shows that the most common firearms used in violent crime in Canada are illegal handguns. A government study indicated that 70% of all handguns linked to criminal incidents are not registered in Canada, and there is no evidence that the remaining 30% are used for criminal purposes by their legitimate owners. The majority of illegal handguns are smuggled into Canada from the United States.

In summary, there is no proof to support the theory that the types and availability of firearms are related to increasing violent crime rates or the criminal use of firearms. Criminals substitute other weapons and other sources of weapons when firearms are not available. The best available criminological evidence shows that levels of civilian gun ownership appear to have no significant effect on rates of homicide, robbery, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and suicide, and that gun availability may affect the rate of gun violence, such as violent crime and suicides involving guns and the percentage of violent acts that involve firearms, but it does not affect the total rate of either violent crime or suicide.

4. �RESTRICTIVE �GUN CONTROL� LAWS REDUCE ROBBERY�

While it is true that robbery is the most common violent crime involving guns, three-quarters of all robberies in Canada do not involve firearms. Canadian crime statistics show that handguns are used in 80% of all firearm robberies; the most common firearm used in violent crime. Rifles and shotguns are used in less than 5% of all armed robberies in Canada. There is evidence suggesting that at least one-third of all incidents of �firearm robbery� may not involve real guns, but air pistols and imitation firearms.

Typically, between 80% and 90% of all persons accused of armed robbery have previous criminal records. In view of the extensive criminal history of the typical armed robber, the possibility that their �crime guns� are legally acquired or possessed is remote.

It is well established that robbers use firearms not because their intentions are lethal, but because it ensures victim compliance and allows them to successfully target financially lucrative establishments such as banks. When firearms are not available, robbers victimise �soft� targets such as the elderly. Since the �take� in these robberies is usually much less, more robberies must be committed to make the same amount of money. This being the case, it is hardly surprising that Canadian firearm legislation introduced in 1969, 1977, 1991 and 1995 has not reduced the robbery rate. It remains over 200% higher than it was in 1968.

The robbery rate for the period before and after the introduction of the 1977 �gun control� legislation has remained the same, and any decrease in robberies involving firearms is offset by the increasing use of physical force, knives and blunt instruments. Since knives, blunt instruments and physical force require close personal contact, victim injury is much more frequent and substantially more serious when armed robbery does not involve a firearm.

5. �HOMICIDES ARE COMMITTED BY �AVERAGE� PEOPLE ARMED WITH LEGALLY OWNED FIREARMS�

It is a myth that murderers are �average, previously law-abiding� people: at least three-quarters of all murderers, and nearly one-half of their victims, have prior criminal records. Even this figure may be too low. In most cases of domestic/spousal homicide, especially where the victim is female or a child, the accused usually has a long history of contact with the criminal justice system for previous violent incidents; however, if they pleaded guilty to lesser charges, no criminal record was recorded.

Canadian government research shows that the �typical� murderer suffers from a variety of serious personality disorders characterised by a long history of substance abuse, unemployment and violent, antisocial behaviour. Since 1969 the Criminal Code of Canada has prohibited these individuals from legally owning firearms.

Two-thirds of all Canadian homicides do not involve firearms; stabbing, beating, and strangulation account for the majority. Firearm homicides typically represent just 1.5% of all externally caused deaths in Canada. The homicide rate for Canadian women is one-half that of men. Despite being the least numerous but most heavily regulated firearm in Canada, since 1991 the number of handgun homicides has exceeded the total number of rifle and shotgun homicides.

Alcohol abuse is considered the most important contributing factor in two out of three homicides in Canada and at least 62% of all violent crimes.

There is no relationship between gun availability and homicide; e.g., prohibitive �gun control� laws introduced in England and Wales in 1988 reduced the rate of legal firearm ownership by 22% between 1988 and 1992. This dramatic decline in civilian gun ownership had absolutely no effect on either violent crime, robbery or homicide. The American states bordering Canada have similar homicide rates despite easier legal access to firearms and liberal handgun laws.

6. �ELIMINATING FIREARMS WILL REDUCE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE�

Less than 0.5% of all violent incidents recorded between family members in Canada involves the use of a gun. Three-quarters of all domestic homicides do not involve firearms. Between 1974 and 1987, the use of firearms in domestic homicide in Canada fluctuated with restrictive �gun controls� having no apparent effect. Ninety-five per cent of all incidents of wife assault and 99% of all sexual assaults are committed with weapons other than firearms, primarily physical force.

Spousal homicide by firearm typically represents just 11% of all the homicides in Canada, and nearly eight out of ten spousal homicides in Canada do not involve guns. The rate of spousal homicide has remained stable and is declining as a proportion of all Canadian homicides. These �crimes of passion� are usually preceded by a long history of domestic turmoil (ninety per cent of all spousal murders have a police-recorded history of violent conflict), and are committed during the late evening or early morning hours with any object close at hand and by persons under the influence of drugs or alcohol. While three-quarters of all victims of spousal homicide are female, only a very small number of Canadian women are murdered in spousal homicides by firearm every year. In 1994 there were twenty-one Canadian women who were victims of a spousal homicide by firearm, from a total population of over seven million female spouses (married, common-law, and separated).

There is no persuasive evidence that firearm acquisition �waiting periods� and gun registration policies are effective at curbing spousal violence and violent crime.

7. �FIREARM LEGISLATION REDUCES SUICIDE AND FIREARM ACCIDENTS�

Restrictive �gun control� in Canada has not reduced the suicide rate. Despite more stringent firearm legislation, the Canadian suicide rate is higher than the United States, but still significantly lower than many European nations that have prohibitive �gun control� laws and low levels of civilian gun ownership. While suicide typically accounts for 75% of all gun-related deaths in Canada, over three-quarters of all suicides are committed by methods other than firearms.

Researchers have found that many deaths recorded as �accidents;� e.g., drowning, motor vehicle collisions, falls, poisonings, etc., are actually �disguised� suicides. In contrast, it is very difficult to �disguise� a firearm suicide, and firearms are over-represented in official suicide statistics.

Four times as many Canadian men commit suicide as women; however, women, especially adolescent women, attempt suicide far more often than men. Women prefer to use poisons to commit suicide, while men choose more lethal methods such as hanging or shooting. Between 1990 and 1992, thirty-six per cent of all male suicides in Canada used firearms, with 31% choosing hanging and 10% selecting poison. In comparison, only 9% of female suicides used firearms, with 22% choosing hanging and 37% using poisons.

Research shows that women are more likely to use suicide as a �cry for help.� This explains their preference for methods that they perceive as less lethal and disfiguring. Researchers have found that females expect, and usually receive, more sympathy than men after a suicide attempt, and as a result feel less restraint in trying to end their own lives. On the other hand, men expect, and receive, less environmental support after a suicide attempt, especially from their male peers whose view of suicide attempters tends to be profoundly negative. This prevailing attitude increases the male suicide attempters determination to succeed, and explains why men who kill themselves usually select more lethal methods, and choose to commit suicide at times and locations that will not permit effective intervention.

In summary, persons who use violent means to commit suicide, such as hanging or shooting, are more strongly motivated to take their own lives than users of more passive measures such as gas or barbituate poisoning. The best available evidence supports a conclusion that gun availability among the civilian population may influence the method of committing suicide, but it does not affect the overall frequency with which people kill themselves.

Fatal gun accidents in Canada are extremely rare. They represent less than 0.5% of all the accidental deaths in Canada. In 1995 there were forty-nine accidental deaths by firearm in all of Canada, out of a total population of over twenty-nine million. The accidental injury rate by firearm declined 27% between 1982-1991, with the fatal gun accident rate dropping 80% between 1966-1995. This dramatic decrease is largely the result of privately funded firearm safety training courses developed by Canadian shooting organisations.

Alcohol and drug abuse are estimated to be significant contributing factors in at least one-half of all gun �accidents� and between one-half to three-quarters of all suicides.

8. �RESTRICTING LEGAL ACCESS TO GUNS DETERS THE ARMED CRIMINAL�

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Wright, Rossi survey of convicted American violent offenders reported that even in the United States, criminals do not acquire their firearms from well-regulated sources such as licensed gun dealers. They can easily obtain an illegal firearm within twenty-four hours of their release from jail. Criminals do not register their guns even when required to do so by law, and identify �untraceability� as one of the most important characteristics that they look for in a firearm. They use the same handguns carried by police officers and do not favour inexpensive, short-barreled, small calibre pistols (�Saturday Night Specials�) or �assault� rifles. If handguns are not available, they will �saw-off� more lethal shotguns or rifles to a concealable length. Wright and Rossi also found that in states with high levels of civilian gun ownership, criminals worried more about encountering an armed victim than the police, and that they specifically avoided burglarising houses when people were at home because they were afraid of getting shot.

The majority of serious crime in Canada is committed by a relatively small number of repeat offenders. Canadian government surveys show that nearly 90% of incarcerated criminals have lengthy criminal histories and exhibit serious intellectual disabilities, mental health disorders and substance abuse problems. Wright and Rossi reported that criminals identified the fear of a mandatory jail sentence as a major deterrent to the criminal use of firearms. In contrast, while the Canadian Criminal Code specifies a mandatory one to fourteen year jail term for criminal gun use, the median sentence typically imposed is just sixty days; the maximum just sixteen months, and less than 8% of these criminals will ever serve their full sentence. They are released early under some form of �community supervision.� It is estimated that career convicted criminals commit an average of 187 crimes per year while out of prison, costing society over seventeen times their yearly cost of imprisonment.

9. �CANADIANS DO NOT USE FIREARMS FOR SELF-DEFENCE�

There is compelling evidence that civilian gun ownership deters crime. American data shows that robbery and assault victims who defend themselves with a firearm are much less likely to be attacked, injured, or to lose their property than those who use any other method of self-protection or do not resist at all. In the United States, where civilian gun ownership is the highest of the developed western nations, only 13% of residential burglaries are committed against occupied homes, compared to 44% in Canada, 59% in Britain and 48% in the Netherlands. The gun is not fired in the vast majority of incidents where a firearm is used in defence of person or property; its presence is sufficient to deter criminal activity. Incidents of defensive gun use by civilians are rarely reported to the police because no injury or property loss is involved.

The best available Canadian research indicates that firearms used in self-defence by law-abiding Canadians exceeds the total number of gun-related deaths by a ratio of forty to one, saving more lives each year than are lost through the misuse of guns. In Canada, a civilian uses a firearm in defence of self, family or property (excluding police, military and security guard duties) an average of once every nine minutes, and half of these incidents involve defence against human threats. Firearms are used over twice as often in self-defence as they are in criminal violence, and save at least 3,300 lives every year. The self-defence use of firearms saves the Canadian economy hundreds of millions of dollars annually by protecting property against theft and vandalism, and reduces medical costs by preventing injury from criminal assault and wild animal attacks.

10. �AUTOMATICS, SEMIAUTOMATICS, AND �MILITARY ASSAULT� FIREARMS ARE MORE DANGEROUS THAN OTHER GUNS AND ARE THE WEAPONS OF CHOICE IN CRIME�

Non-grandfathered automatic weapons and �assault� firearms have been illegal in Canada since 1977. No registered automatic weapon has been used in any violent crime in Canada.

Semiautomatic firearms described by firearm prohibitionists as �military assault weapons� are not used by any military anywhere in the world. They use ammunition less powerful than the .30-06 and other more traditional �big game� cartridges. There is no evidence that �military style� semiautomatic guns are disproportionately used in crime: less than 1.5% of all homicides in Canada involves this type of firearm. Semiautomatic rifles patterned after state-of-the-art firearm technology are popular with over one-quarter of all responsible Canadian gun owners because they offer increased reliability and durability. No functional difference exists between semiautomatics based on sporting rifles and shotguns commercially available before 1910 and those of today.

Semiautomatics that externally resemble automatic firearms are difficult to convert to automatic. Under Canadian law such a conversion is illegal and subject to a ten year jail term.

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