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Do Triggers Pull Fingers? A Look at the Criminal Misuse of Firearms in Canada

By July 23, 2015 No Comments

Gun control will again be an important wedge issue in the 2015 federal election as it has been for at least two decades. The Conservatives have repeatedly tossed this cat amongst the pigeons, first with Bill C-42, “The Common Sense Firearms Regulation Act,”[1] and then more recently with the Prime Minister’s provocative comments about the defensive uses of firearms. Harper’s comments in Saskatchewan on the usefulness of firearms for security stimulated both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Wayne Easter, the Liberal public safety critic, to warn about the dangers of firearms in hands of civilians and the risk of “vigilantism.”[2]

Bill C-42 would amend the existing Firearms Act by streamlining regulations that are arguably overly complex. Specifically, Bill C-42 relaxes a few of the conditions attached to firearm licences, such as merging Possession Only Licences (POL) with Possession and Acquisition Licences (PAL), introducing a grace period for licence renewal, putting common and coherent controls on both Provincial Firearms Officers and the RCMP, and attaching Transportation Authorizations to PALs. The government argues that the bill does not reduce safeguards for public safety, while critics contend that these changes are likely to increase criminal violence, particularly the use of guns in domestic disputes.

Based on analysis of Canadian statistics, such fears appear misplaced. In 2013, the first year following the demise of the long-gun registry (and the most recent year statistics are available), the homicide rate dropped 8% from the year before, falling from 1.56 to 1.44 victims per 100,000. There were 41 fewer firearms murders in 2013 than in 2012 and the rate of firearm homicides was the lowest in 40 years. The number of intimate partners who were murdered also fell from 82 in 2012 to 68 in 2013.[3] So far at least, scrapping the registry has not increased homicide rates or gun violence, which suggests that Bill C-42 would not have a noticeable effect either.[4]

Arguments over gun control tend to be passionate. Advocates of restrictive gun laws contend that simply having a firearm available can precipitate violence, transforming an angry encounter into murder, or a fit of depression into an impulsive suicide.[5] This assumes that, no matter how responsible a person may be, the mere presence of a firearm poses an overwhelming danger.[6] At the extreme, it is even claimed that, “triggers pull fingers.”[7] Not unlike stern schoolteachers who keep scissors out of the hands of little children, some progressives argue that government must strictly regulate access to firearms. These rules are said to be for public safety, and not just a partisan appeal to their base. During the debate over Bill C-42, MP Randall Garrison, NDP Public Safety critic, reflected this attitude, when he purported to see no distinction between law-abiding Canadians who own firearms and career criminals, saying “everybody is law-abiding until they are not.”[8] If this susceptibility is intrinsic to the human condition, then trusting government or police appears naïve, as government employees are no less fallible than other citizens.[9] This view appears to not show much respect for citizens, treating otherwise responsible adults as children; namely, gun control advocates are convinced they know what is best for the public.

On the other side of the cultural divide, supporters of civilian gun ownership argue, a little less simplistically, that while criminals should not have firearms, guns are a positive social force in the hands of law-abiding, religious, community spirited, and patriotic citizens.[10] In this telling, citizens in a democracy are adults capable of making their own decisions, and, in any case, responsible gun ownership is a long and respected Canadian tradition. Like any tool, firearms can be misused, but they also can be used for socially valuable purposes, such as hunting and protection. Hunting has long been part of the Canadian heritage. Hunters not only provide food for their families but they are the driving force behind habitat conservation. For many Canadians, such as farmers and rural residents, firearms are indispensible for protecting farm animals from predators, such as bears or wolves, as well as for keeping peace when the police may be hours away. Armed rural homeowners act as a deterrent to criminal activity, much as armed police do in cities. Target shooting should also not be overlooked. Like any martial art, or Olympic sport, target shooting is as valuable for building character as it is for teaching any particular skill. Moreover, in times of national threat, an armed citizenry can play an important role in defending the country from invaders—and historically they have done so.[11] Even before Confederation, rural Canadians have responded patriotically to their country’s call for help during wartime or invasion. More recently, citizen soldiers have served with distinction in the wars during the twentieth century as well as in Afghanistan. The skills civilians gain with firearm use have proved enormously valuable.

Arguments over gun control typically entail disputing facts as much as battling over implications of alternative policy preferences. Facts are important. In order to make rational policy decisions, it is important to thoroughly master the basics. This paper will examine the statistics on criminal misuse of firearms, as well as civilian gun owners, searching for connections between criminal violence and civilian firearms. After reviewing the basic statistics, there will be a brief address of a few myths about firearms, such as the role gun controls play in diminishing the frequency of multiple-victim murders and spousal homicides.[12]

This paper will argue that civilian firearms owners differ considerably from violent criminals. Statistics show that civilian firearm owners are exemplary middle class Canadians, and that firearms ownership is conducive to good citizenship. Statistics Canada is a valuable resource, but, unsurprisingly, they collect many more statistics than can be published; consequently, researchers must necessarily be selective in what is made available to the public. While understandable, such selectivity can obscure reality. For example, Statistics Canada rarely publishes the number of legally held firearms that are involved in violent crime. These are revealing statistics. In order to probe behind the veil, a number of Special Requests to Statistics Canada are shown that help to clarify important questions. This paper presents the findings.

Canadian gun laws

Before attempting to evaluate the proposed changes to the firearms legislation, it is important to understand the current firearms laws. How easy is it to buy a gun legally in Canada? What are the rules for lawful gun ownership? Once we grasp the basics we can ask whether relaxing the gun laws would precipitate violence or whether additional controls are needed.

The current firearms legislation is the 1995 Firearms Act (Bill C-68), as amended in 2012. The 1995 Act brought in owner licensing and universal firearm registration, but in 2012, the long-gun registry was scrapped, making no changes to licensing provisions.[13] The criminal legislation and regulatory framework governing simple possession of a firearm continue.[14] Personal information about licence holders is automatically made available to police officers via the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). Police officers are trained to check CPIC before approaching an address for information about the owner and his (or her) firearms. This is a serious tactical error because the Canadian Firearms Program does not and cannot provide information on unlicensed owners or illegally held firearms. When police approach a suspicious residence, police officers should routinely assume there could be a weapon present, illegal or legal, rather than relying upon a database of demonstrably honest citizens.[15] Unsurprisingly, experienced police officers report that the registry is not useful to them.[16]

The 1995 firearms legislation is remarkable because Canada already had a strict firearm regime that had become progressively more restrictive since the 1930s, when handguns had been registered.[17] Prior to 1977, long guns (rifles and shotguns) had been regulated through provincial hunting regulations, while handguns were controlled under the criminal code. As part of an effort to win support from Members of Parliament to eliminate capital punishment, Parliament in 1977 amended the firearms laws to require police scrutiny for all firearm purchasers and to introduce a new crime regarding “unsafe storage of firearms.”[18] Also in the 1970s, the protection of property was eliminated as a suitable reason for acquiring a handgun, and owners were no longer allowed to register handguns at their business address. Without additional legislation, during the 1970s, police began to refuse permission to anyone who indicated she or he desired a firearm for self-protection (even though individuals have a natural right to use force, up to and including deadly force, to protect themselves or their family from violent attack).[19] Three separate representative surveys I conducted found that in a typical year tens of thousands of Canadians report using firearms to protect themselves or their families from violence.[20] In 1991 the firearm legislation was thoroughly overhauled, a wide range of weapons prohibited, and tighter restrictions placed on large-capacity magazines and semi-automating sporting rifles with a military appearance. The 1991 amendments brought the annual cost of managing the federal firearms control system to $15 million.[21]

When Bill C-68 became law in 1995 more than half of all lawfully registered handguns were classified as “prohibited” even though they had been legal for more than half a century. As well C-68 increased the penalties for a number of firearm crimes. Due to technical difficulties and bureaucratic blunders, it took until 1998 to begin implementing owner licensing and until 2001 to start registering long-guns; the cost of implementation jumped to over $2 billion from the estimated cost of under $2 million.[22] After repeated deferrals, Canadians had to register their rifles and shotguns by 2003. Beginning in 2001, firearm owners who did not have a licence, or who allowed their licence to expire, were subject to immediate arrest and their firearms confiscated.[23] Possession of an unregistered firearm was similarly punishable.

To obtain a firearms license Canadian residents must take and pass a 20-hour course in firearms handling (costing between CAD$100-200), pass a criminal records check, have the support of their current spouse (plus a former spouse if separated within the past two years), get the personal recommendations of two other people, fill out a four-page application, and submit a passport-type photograph. The five-year licence costs either $60 for long-gun owners or $80 for restricted weapons (mostly handguns). Prospective owners of restricted firearms also must take a second firearms safety course.[24]

In addition to requiring owners to be licensed and their firearms registered, the Firearms Act of 1995 increased police powers of search and seizure and expanded the types of officials who could make use of such powers. Police now had wide latitude to interpret “safe storage” regulations, and coupled with the vagueness of “potential danger to self or others,” the legislation weakened constitutionally protected rights against self-incrimination, and it imposed ever-restrictive requirements for owning a firearm.[25]

Each time owners of restricted firearms wish to take a firearm to a gunsmith, gun show, or target range they must request an Authorization to Transport. Virtually all of these requests are granted. In contrast, transportation and carry permits for protection are limited to a handful of people, such as retired police, judges, and prospectors.

The present firearms control regime has cost taxpayers over $2 billion since its inception in 1995;[26] cost overruns were so outrageous that in 2006 Parliament limited funding to a maximum of $80 million per year.[27] Program costs came largely from unexpected consequences of registration. Registering firearms proved to be vastly more complex than civil servants in the Justice Department had believed. The ineptitude of this part of the Canadian bureaucracy became an international embarrassment with the publication of a case study that carefully dissected the administrative errors and made them available on the net for students of information management.[28] As professor Gary Kleck has argued, firearm registration is rarely useful in solving crimes or catching criminals.[29] It merely results in the creation of a considerable bureaucracy and a concomitant black hole of spending that achieves nothing more than busywork, keeping track of the guns owned by responsible citizens.

Civilian firearms owners

Demographically, civilian gun owners are solid middle-class Canadians. They could be characterized as “Tim Hortons” Canadians in contrast to “Starbucks” yuppies. Surveys find that firearms owners are older, somewhat less well educated than the average, but with a higher annual income (see Table 1). Rifle owners tend to be  hunters who are well-paid skilled tradesmen, such as electricians, machinists, or loggers. Shotgun and handgun owners are generally white-collar professionals, such as medical doctors, bank officials, or administrators who own firearms for target shooting. This profile is that of the “middle class.” While gun owners are predominantly male, women are increasingly taking up hunting and the shooting sports. In BC, for example, one-quarter of recent graduates from hunter-training courses are women.[30]

Table1

Civilian gun owners are the heart of traditional Canada. The primary reason (73%) Canadians give for owning a firearm is for hunting. The second most popular reason is target shooting (13%).[31] See Table 2. The Canadian Nature Survey found that 8% of Canadians reported that they had gone hunting during the past 12 months. Around 23% of the adult population in Canada has hunted at some time in their lives. At the same time, surveys find that more hunters (55%) live in urban Canada today than in rural Canada (45%).[32]

Table2

Firearms ownership and hunting are an intrinsic part of small-town life in both Canada and the United States.[33] Growing up in a small town, young children are typically taught how to use firearms responsibly by their parents before taking formal firearms safety classes when older. Learning about firearms from one’s parents tends to protect children against delinquency.[34] The small-town hunting culture is more traditional than urban Canada; for example, residents tend to be more religious and patriotic.[35] In this culture, firearms are viewed as tools, much like chain saws or knives, in that they must be treated with respect, and to be used primarily for gathering food for the family. Small towns have lower homicide rates (as well as lower rates of firearm homicide) than large Canadian urban centres or Native Reserves.[36]

Table3

For many reasons it is difficult to know with any precision how many civilians own firearms. According to the Canada Firearm Program (CFP), there were 1.96 million licensed firearm owners in 2014. The number of unlicensed gun owners is unknown. Given the bureaucratic awkwardness involved in getting a firearm licence, many otherwise law-abiding people may not have bothered to do so.[37] Telephone surveys produce higher estimates of civilian firearms owners than the CFP, about 3 million, but because of privacy concerns, telephone surveys are necessarily underestimates.[38] The best estimate is that there are between 3 and 3.5 million Canadian residents who personally own firearms, whether or not they have obtained a firearms licence.[39]

Organized hunters are the unheralded heroes of conservation and not just for quarry species but for entire habitats. It is not widely known, but hunters founded the North American model of wildlife conservation early in the 20th century.[40] The result is that North America has the most successful conservation policies of any continent and this success can be traced to the popularization of hunting and widespread civilian firearm ownership. Hunters are motivated to provide the bulk of the funding for wildlife conservation, not just because they love the outdoors and want to preserve the wilderness, but also because they view themselves as part owners of wildlife. Hunting in Asia, Europe, and Africa is limited to the elite, which in turn limits the commitment of most people to protecting wildlife or wildlife habitat. This has resulted in destructive practices that threaten wildlife on those continents.[41]

Firearms ownership entails responsibility. The shooting sports have vigorously campaigned for firearms safety at least since the late 1800s. In North America, hunting organizations lobbied state and provincial government to introduce mandatory hunter training.[42] As a result, hunting accidents, including shootings, have dropped precipitously since hunter training became mandatory in the 1960s.[43]

For more than one hundred years, hunters have been the driving force behind wildlife conservation. In most provinces, fees from hunting licences are equal to or greater than provincial budgets for wildlife management. Expenditures on hunting help drive the economy.[44] In addition, hunters continue to be among the most generous contributors of their time and money to environmental conservation. Ducks Unlimited Canada spent $68.5 million in 2013 on conservation projects. Since 1984, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its partners have conserved or enhanced more than 6.4 million acres of North American wilderness.[45] Members of provincial hunting organizations, such as B.C. Wildlife Federation and Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, have contributed CAD$335 million over a fifteen-year period (1985-2000) to habitat conservation projects in Canada. This amount is in addition to the approximately CAD$600 million in licence fees collected from hunters over this same period that are used to support provincial and federal programs. This sum does not include another CAD$600 million spent by hunters on equipment, travel, lodging and other expenses directly related to hunting activities over this 15 year period.[46]

Contemporary Canadians have inherited a long history of responsible civilian firearms ownership. Early French and English settlers needed firearms not only to provide for themselves and their families, but also for protection against animal or criminal attacks.[47] Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries subsistence hunting was essential for many settlers in both British North America and New France. Beginning in the 19th century, hunting became less important for providing food for Canadians but was still widely practised. It is very difficult to know just how extensive firearms ownership was in British North America before Confederation. Much more research needs to be conducted on diaries and wills before an accurate count can emerge. Unlike in the United States, there is not the political drive for such research. What work has been done suggests that firearm ownership was quite popular in British North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, if not as universal as in the United States.[48]

Even before Confederation, both French and British colonies encouraged widespread rifle ownership for defensive purposes in conflicts with Aboriginals. In view of the vulnerability of settlements in British North America, colonial militia laws often required men to own and use firearms.[49] By the middle of the 18th century, both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick felt it necessary to require male settlers to be actively involved in the militia and to have them provide their own firearms. The militia laws in both Upper and Lower Canada were similar but did not require firearms ownership.[50] Firearms perhaps were not as ubiquitous in British North America as they were in the United States, but firearms still played an important role in protecting communities from attack and in keeping the peace.[51]

After Confederation, the new government continued to encourage civilians to own rifles, primarily for national defence, but also for personal use.[52] The Militia Act of 1868 encouraged volunteer service by providing rifles, and the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association was formed at the same time to stimulate improvements in marksmanship with regular tournaments. The importance of the civilian militia increased as Britain accelerated the withdrawal of its regular troops from Canada in the latter part of the 19th century. Governments continued to encourage civilian firearms ownership throughout the 19th century, and continuing into the 20th century, citizen firearms owners were valued for their contributions to the military needs of the British Empire.[53]

Despite the vast improvement in public safety since Confederation, Canadians still have the right to take personal responsibility for protecting themselves and their families from violence. A low crime rate does not mean no crime. Some people have more dangerous lives than others, and all of us have some degree of vulnerability to criminal attack.[54] According to the Criminal Code, Canadians have the right to use deadly force to protect themselves from serious inury or death.[55] Surveys find that Canadians use firearms to protect themselves or their families between 60,000 and 80,000 times per year from dangerous people or animals. More importantly, between 19,000 and 37,500 of these incidents involve defence against human threats.[56] The police are the best available bulwark against criminal violence, but they cannot be everywhere. In any case, they have no legal responsibility for protecting particular individuals.[57] In comparison with the number of households with firearms, the frequency Canadians use firearms to defend themselves against human threats is somewhat less than that of Americans. Policy makers in both the United States and in Canada should be aware that private ownership of firearms has benefits as well as costs for society. Even with lower Canadian rates, the numbers of people who use firearms for self-protection remain substantial and firearms restrictions may cost more lives than they save.

As solid citizens, law-abiding gun owners are much less likely to be violent than other Canadians. Firearm owners have been screened for criminal records since 1979, and it has been illegal since 1992 for people with a violent record to own a firearm. Gun owners may be compared with other Canadians by calculating the homicide rate per 100,000. Statistics Canada reports that 194 licensed gun owners were accused of committing murder over the 16-year period (1997-2012), or an average of 12 owners per year out of an annual average of 2 million licensed firearms owners. This gives a homicide rate of 0.60 per 100,000 licensed gun owners. Over the same 16-year period, there were 9,315 homicides in total, or an average national homicide rate of 1.81 per 100,000 people in the general population (including gun owners). In other words, Canadians who do not have a firearms license are three times more likely to commit murder than those who have a license.[58]

Criminals and firearms

Firearms misuse is typically gang-related. In Canada, almost half (47%) of firearm homicides from 1974-2012 were gang-related.[59] Gang-related homicides have plateaued recently, but they have increased drastically from the early 1990s. As shown in Chart 2, gang-related homicides have increased from under 10% of all homicides before firearms licensing to an average of 18% in the past five years (2009-2013).

Chart2

In 2013 (the most recent year statistics are available), firearms were used in 27% of homicides,[60] but lawful firearm owners are rarely involved. Just 7% of the accused in firearms homicides had a valid firearms licence (or 2% of all accused murderers).[61] Far from being normal, murderers are aberrant: over half (54%) of those accused of homicide have a previous criminal record, and approximately two-thirds (68%) of those have been convicted of a violent crime. In addition, 19% of accused murderers have mental disorders, and almost three-quarters (72%) were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the murder.[62] Such people cannot legally own a firearm.

According to the police, “crime guns” are mostly smuggled, primarily within the drug trade, in which drugs flow south in exchange for firearms coming north. The Vancouver Police claim that 99% of crime guns are smuggled, while former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair stated that 70% of illegal firearms in Canada were trafficked.[63] Smuggling is almost impossible to stop since the US-Canadian border is one of the busiest in the world, and the Canadian Border Services Agency cannot check very many of the millions of shipments that cross the border every day.[64] It is important to note, however, that similar problems occur with gun smuggling in island nations like the United Kingdom and Australia as well as in high-density gun-banning cities such as New York City. As long as drug crime is profitable, criminals will actively bring in illegal firearms. Clearly, legislation controlling the actions of the law-abiding cannot affect this.

A glance at the decreasing homicide rates in Canada since 1990 might suggest that the increasingly restrictive gun laws might have been responsible, but such an implication founders when considering that homicide rates in the United States fell even faster over the same time period. How could that happen? Clearly, the US did not have the supposed benefit of Canadian firearms restrictions. Moreover, the drop in American homicide rates happened in spite of (or perhaps because of) an astonishing increase in the number of Americans who now have a permit to carry concealed handguns—jumping from two million to over 11 million.[65] Apparently, fears about the consequences of allowing ordinary citizens to have access to firearms are misdirected.

Chart1

There is no credible evidence that either owner licensing or firearm registration has had any influence on homicide rates, nor on the frequency of gang killings, or spousal murders. The most methodologically solid study yet conducted found that no Canadian legislation managed to have a beneficial effect on homicide rates.[66] In this study, Dr. Langmann used three statistical methods to search for associated effects of firearms legislation: specifically: interrupted time series regression, ARIMA, and Joinpoint analysis. In order to isolate the effects of the legislation, a number of control factors were introduced. The control factors that were found to be associated with homicide rates were median age, unemployment, immigration rates, percentage of the population in a low-income bracket, Gini index of income equality, population per police officer, and incarceration rate. Specifically, no significant beneficial associations between firearms legislation and homicide or spousal homicide rates were found after the passage of any of the three amendments to Canadian firearms legislation (i.e., in 1977, 1991 and 1995). Homicide rates have declined more slowly in the decade following the implementation of licensing in 2001 and the registration of long guns in 2003 than they did in the decade prior to 2001.

One explanation for the impotence of firearms legislation is that virtually all (95%) firearms used to commit murder are possessed illegally.[67] After more than a decade of universal licensing and registration, a pool of firearms of unknown size still exists outside of official notice. These guns are available to anyone who seeks to obtain them—whether or not they wish to use them for criminal purposes. Estimates of the total number of private firearms in Canada vary from 8 million to 11 million.[68] During the period (2001-2012) that long guns were registered, the number of guns registered never exceeded 8 million.[69]

Firearms and female spousal violence

Despite the failure to find credible evidence supporting the assertion that general access to firearms is linked with violent crime, opponents of civilian firearms ownership have argued that gun laws are effective for dealing with certain specific threats. One such claim is that guns play a central role in spousal violence. Another has to do with multiple-victim murders. Since guns are exceptionally lethal, the argument goes, restrictive gun laws are important for limiting the numbers of deaths from these types of murders. These are poignant claims, so Special Requests were submitted to Statistics Canada to see what light the available data could provide.

Some supporters of the long-gun registry contend that ordinary rifles and shotguns are often used in domestic homicides, and therefore they should be tightly controlled, even registered, in order to encourage responsible use as well as pinpointing anyone who has misused a firearm. This claim exaggerates the role of guns in spousal violence. Firearms are involved in a small percentage of spousal homicides. Knives and other weapons are much more prevalent. In the period 1995-2012, 1,327 (13%) of the 10,538 homicides in Canada involved the murder of a spouse. Of these victims, 1,056 (80%) were female.[70] The most common weapons in spousal murders are knives, not firearms. In the period 1995-2012, knives were used in 32%, other weapons accounted for 41%, and firearms were used in 27% of the murders of female spouses. Long-guns were involved in 16% of female spousal homicides in this same time period.[71]

The long-gun registry had no discernible effect on spousal murder rates.[72] As seen in Chart 3, female spousal murders (both with and without guns) have slowly been declining since the mid-1970s.[73] There was no detectable change in the years following 2003, the year when all long guns were required to be registered. After the long-gun registry ended in 2012, the the spousal murder rate fell from 82 victims that year to 68 the following year.[74] Even its supporters are disappointed in the long-gun registry, which has had ten years to demonstrate its effectiveness and, despite its high cost to taxpayers, has been unable to do so.[75]

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