This below was co-written by Maj. (ret’d) Brian Hay and Dr. Gary Mauser.
Many public safety issues confront Canada’s governments and police every day. Why do politicians seem to hyperventilate over lawful firearms use when moose actually kill more people every year than do licensed firearms owners? Could such posturing about “gun bans” be nothing more than a “red herring” to distract voters from real problems? It doesn’t seem to be about saving lives.
More than one municipal official has recently called for more firearms legislation. Toronto’s Mayor has been especially vocal calling for the banning of handguns in the city after the terror of the shooting deaths of two innocent young women and the wounding of 12 others on the Danforth and the number of instances of apparently ‘gang related’ shootings over the past few months.
At the same time, the significant increase in road deaths, especially in Toronto, has seemingly gone unnoticed. By year end 2016, 40 pedestrians and bicyclists died on Toronto’s streets. In 2017, 42 pedestrians were killed walking Toronto streets; plus 4 more cyclists. 2018 looks like it might set a sad new record. Of course, no one can forget the deliberate use of a van to run down and kill 10 and wound 13 innocent pedestrians in North Toronto in April this year too.
According to a November 27, 2016 National Post story, distracted driving is believed to be among the leading factors in fatal collisions in every province and territory in Canada. In a survey two years ago of police and groups that combat distracted driving, 76 per cent said the previous five years of data showed distraction had been responsible for a greater percentage of road fatalities than impaired driving.
There were 1,908 vehicle crash deaths in Canada in 2013, with 33.6 per cent of these (or 641 deaths) involving alcohol impairment. According to a 5-year study by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), there were 474 deaths from vehicle collisions with wild animals over this period. Half with moose.
The Trudeau Government is now calling for increased gun legislation, and are even considering banning all handguns, although certain police organizations appear opposed or unsupportive. Yet our legislators are relatively silent about ongoing vehicle misuse. One has to ask ”why’, when compared to the number of vehicle deaths across Canada. How do vehicle accidents due to either drunk drivers or distracted drivers compare with gun incidents? What should be our public safety priorities?
The Nature of the Nation
Canada is a large and diverse nation, with a relatively small population spread in a ‘thin line’ across the country. Much long distance travel (as well as much local travel) is by personal vehicle. In Canada in 2016 some 22,400,000 (662 per 1000 residents) personal vehicles were registered for a population of about 35 million people. By comparison, based on the records of the former long gun registry, there are approximately 9,000,000 firearms legally owned in Canada. Put another way, there are about 245 per cent more automobiles in Canada than there are firearms.
According to the RCMP, in 2016 some 2,000,000 Canadian residents were licensed to own firearms. In the same period, there were 25,000,000 licensed drivers in Canada. In effect, less that 10 per cent of Canadians are licensed to own firearms.
Yet, in 2016 according to Statistics Canada (StatsCan), Canada experienced 5.4 fatal injuries per 100,000 population in vehicle incidents compared to less than 2.0 per 100,000 firearm related deaths (0.4 per 100,000 due to assault, 0.0 due to accidental discharge, and 1.6 due to suicide). Firearm deaths are mostly (80 per cent) due to intentional self-harm, suicide. Exempting intentional self-harm, that is a ratio of over 13 times as many vehicle deaths compared to firearm fatalities. Perhaps existing Canadian gun laws are working far better than Canadian traffic regulations.
For a country with a relatively small population distributed over vast spaces, Canada has some of the strictest gun legislation in the world. No one in Canada can legally own, buy, sell or store a pistol, a rifle or a shotgun without a specific license which can only be issued after a multi-day course on safety and storage is successfully passed. All firearms must be trigger locked or otherwise locked-up when not in use. All ammunition must be stored separately and in a safe manner. Handguns (called “restricted weapons,” which category also includes a few types of rifles and shotguns) must be individually registered and a special license (and another multi-day government course passed) held to own one. No one can legally transport any firearm without some form of licence. To ‘carry’ a firearm on one’s person, usually meaning a pistol, requires a separate, special license which is rarely issued to civilians.
Getting a licence to own (not even carry) a handgun legally makes securing a driver’s license look like child’s play.
The only exception to the ‘application’ of Canada’s gun laws are…criminals, who absolutely do not recognize them. Nor do Canada’s gun laws keep guns out of criminal’s hands. The Danforth killer had no trouble “borrowing” – and using – an illegal handgun from his criminal brother.
Some Logical Questions
So if ‘gun laws’ are so restrictive and enforced, does the government believe that the very system it created and maintains is inadequate? Why are ‘more’ laws needed? Why aren’t violent criminals kept in prison after being convicted?
Why are government licensed drivers trusted more than government trained and licensed law-abiding citizens? Why is this true especially when the rate of death by vehicle is greater than ten times higher than that of death by firearm? If vehicles are ten times more deadly than guns, why not eliminate private vehicles, especially in crowded cities like Toronto. Is the frustration, gridlock, mayhem and death caused by too many private vehicles not more of a social problem every day than personal ownership of a firearm?
Trust versus ‘action’
Trust is crucial. The character and record of driver’s are only checked when they are involved in a traffic violation, in accidents or when they reapply for a license in some jurisdictions. They are trusted until there is an incident.
In contrast, law-abiding Canadians who want to own firearms must fill out reams of paperwork, be subject to decisions by distant bureaucrats and then subject themselves to daily scrutiny. Every morning a nationwide computer based check of legal gun owners is automatically made to determine if any licensed person appears to have been involved in an incident in which a firearm was used. Obviously, thugs in Toronto don’t bother to get a firearms licence nor to register their firearms; nor do criminals in any other city. The police don’t even monitor violent criminals on probation or parole every day. Maybe they should.
Some argue that legal gun ownership needs to be even more restricted in order to reduce the number of gun deaths by suicide or murder despite the long-term decline in gun deaths. The Canadian suicide rate has been slowing declining since the 1980s. Suicide methods have remained fairly stable, with hanging (47 per cent) and poison (23 per cent) remaining the most popular; firearms are relegated to third position (14 per cent). Suicides involving firearms have also been slowly declining for decades, (declining by more than half, from 1,100 in 1991 to 544 in 2012) while numbers of people hanging themselves has continued to increase (almost doubling from 1,034 in 1991 to 1,843 in 2012). Firearms are not uniquely effective as suicide methods; hanging and jumping are comparable. The problem remains mental health, not access to weapons. Ropes and tall buildings are readily available.
Newspapers scream headlines when guns are used in homicides, even though a knife are more often used in homicide than a gun. What is not well reported is that virtually all (97 per cent in 2014) firearms used in homicides are illegal, i.e., unregistered or in the hands of unlicensed people. Painstaking research by Professor Langmann has found that Canadian gun laws have had zero impact on homicide rates. None.
Some people worry about accidents with firearms. Firearms accidents are relatively rare compared with other types of fatal accidents. In 2012 there were 89 fatal bicycle accidents compared to 17 fatal firearms accidents, and 2,524 accidents with licensed vehicles.
Others argue that more firearm restrictions are needed to reduce family violence. Compared to other weapons, be they fists, knives, or bats, firearms are infrequently used in family violence situations. It is the misuse of alcohol and drugs that too often underpin family violence.
In Toronto, many residents demand that the police do more to stop violent crime, but the police are prevented from actively ‘checking out’ suspected criminal behavior, e.g., stop and frisk, because it’s politically and culturally sensitive. Yet when speaking about ‘gun violence’, police rarely distinguish between legal and illegal firearms. The underlying theme seems to be ‘if we reduce or eliminate firearms, we will reduce criminal violence’. The experience of other jurisdictions which have taken this approach demonstrate clearly that such a premise is false. After the United Kingdom banned handguns in 1997, the murder rates then increased considerably. Although murder rates have decreased since 2003, they remain higher now than they were before the ban. Both Jamaica and the Republic of Ireland virtually banned firearms in the 1970s, yet the murder rates continued to increase.
To be seen “to do something”, some leaders seem to prefer to shift the public’s attention onto law abiding gun owners and away from criminals. This is irrational. It is like blaming normal car owners for terrorists who use cars to mow down pedestrians. Blaming a scapegoat may be easier than finding a solution. Unlike crimes involving automobiles, the misuse of firearms is overwhelmingly by unlicensed users.
Not only does this strategy of blaming law abiding gun owners fail to address the problem of violent crime, it squanders a vital resource: trust in law-abiding citizens. Police can’t preserve public safety all by themselves. Doing so requires the support and participation of law-abiding citizens. The police can’t be everywhere all the time. The police need to trust average citizens more to help maintain public safety. And Canadians need to trust the reasonableness of their police.
Canadians like to smugly compare ourselves with Americans. Occasionally, this is even justified. But our gun laws do nothing to keep us safer per se. It might surprise more than a few Canadians, but recent changes in US gun laws, especially those involving private citizens carrying firearms for self-protection, has meant that US crime rate has actually fallen faster than our own over the past 20 years.
What happened the last time Canada tried to implement major gun control changes?
Years ago, the Liberal government of the day created the ‘long-gun registry’ (LGR). The estimated initial cost was to be $100 million; the actual cost has now exceeded $3 billion. The Government claimed that it was responded to ‘public demand’ for ‘more gun control’, when in fact one of the most out-spoken advocates for more ‘gun control’ was given communications coaching and training by a commercial firm paid for by the Government itself.
The long-gun registry was ignored by criminals but it provided many jobs for clerks. The LGR was located in an economically challenged area, far from the actual areas where alleged gun law violations were perceived to occur. But it ‘won votes’ for the government of the day. Since exceptionally few “crime guns” were ever in the registry, it was largely irrelevant to the prevention or even tracking of criminal use of guns. According to Stats Can, just 6% of guns used in murder were ever in the long-gun registry between 1997 and 2012. Again and again, studies show that almost all crime guns are smuggled into Canada. Very few are stolen from lawful owners. Toronto police stats have found that between 2 per cent to 20 per cent of “crime guns” are stolen, depending upon the year and the level of criminal activity. The LGR could not possibly be very effective if between 80 per cent and 98 per cent of “crime guns” never were registered.
What steps can be taken to reduce criminal use of guns?
Tighter border controls can be effective. Drugs and illegal guns are big business, and it is impossible to rigorously check many shipments. Canadian drug dealers routinely exchange Canadian heroin and marijuana for American guns. Canada’s Border Services work hard, but the volume and complexity of international trade make interdiction difficult. Given the high profits to be made, criminal gangs can smuggle in drugs or guns by doctoring manifests to fool border security. Occasionally, the media reports on smuggling activities by port personnel, but the RCMP does not have the budget to go after racketeering and white-collar criminals.
Increased sentences for using guns in a violent crime is another means, but all too often the charge of the ‘criminal use of a firearm’ is “plead away” as part of a charge or sentencing agreement.
Keeping criminals in jail can be effective. But our courts have rejected legislative efforts to keep violent offenders locked up. Just one example: Jane Creba was shot and killed in downtown Toronto when she was caught in a cross-fire between armed thugs who had just been released from jail after serving trivial sentences. None of the guns involved in her killing had ever been the LGR. In fact, some guns used in Toronto’s crime incidents are ‘rented’ for the crime and then returned to the illegal source.
What does not work
Why would anyone think that the way to deal the problem of criminal violence is to crack down on law-abiding people? Canadians do not demand automobiles be banned when they are involved in illegal activities – from illegal parking to vehicular homicide. Society does not think it is reasonable to crack down on all members of a religion, even though some religious adherents are extremists. Not only is such a generalized approach ineffective, it violates our basic sense of justice.
It is a waste of scarce police resources and millions of dollars keeping track of the people who dutifully comply with Canadian firearms laws: almost all of whom are upstanding people and aren’t violent criminals. Canada’s gun control bureaucracy is not cheap. It costs taxpayers over $80 million each and every year.
A responsible and reasonable approach
Rather than viewing the situation as the police vs. everyone else, it would make more sense to view the public as confederates in the battle against criminals – organized or not.
There are many legitimate, socially valuable reasons for owning firearms. The reason most Canadians own a gun is for hunting. Many Canadian families depend upon the meat harvested by hunting. And protection of one’s family. Outside of Toronto and other urban areas, there are dangerous animals – bears and wolves mainly. Keeping a firearm can provide real protection for family members and livestock when one lives in a rural area and police are two hours away.
But why allow private ownership of handguns some ask? The primary reason people own handguns is for target shooting. Handgun shooting is a recognized Olympic sport. It is exceptionally challenging to hit a bulls-eye target at 10 metres. Some people accept private ownership of rifles and shotguns, but still reject private ownership of handguns. Most often, the argument is that there is ‘no need’ for handguns.
Is ‘need’ a legitimate criterion for ownership? If so, then why are sports cars allowed? Or hockey sticks? Is there a need for hockey? Thousands more Canadians die each year in car incidents than in firearm incidents. Why are cigarettes allowed; thousands of smokers cost millions each year to the health system compared to firearm owners? Are ‘high heeled shoes’ really ‘needed’? Is lipstick really ‘needed’? Like any martial art, sport shooting is more about building character, control and teaching self-discipline than it is about violence or even personal protection.
It is a myth that guns are uniquely dangerous. Stats Can reports that firearms are rarely used in violent crime. At most, guns are involved in 2% of violent crimes. When firearms are involved, the vast bulk of murders involve violent criminals shooting each other. This is true in the US, Canada, and even Europe. Keep out of the drug trade and you’re quite safe.
The public is shocked by situations where many innocent people are murdered in a mad spree, The deadliest murder rampage in North America was caused by pirated airplanes on 9-11. In Canada, the worst mass murder was the arson attack at the Blue Bird Café on September 1, 1972, in Montreal, that killed 37 people who were deliberately trapped inside. More recently, vehicles have been used to mow down pedestrians in England, Las Vegas, Brussels, Berlin, near Montreal and this year in Toronto.
A car and a gun were used to kill Canadian soldiers in 2014. The problem isn’t that a gun or a car was available, but some people can be killers.
So one might reasonably ask why more gun laws?
Clearly experience and history have demonstrated that the result of ‘more gun laws’ does not make the public any safer, nor does it reduce criminal activity. So why are there calls for more gun laws? Perhaps it’s nothing more than some politicians wanting to be seen ‘doing something? Or to create jobs in depressed areas? If so, there are other and better choices. Perhaps the goal of gun control is merely to expand government control? If so, doesn’t this merely demonstrate mistrust of law abiding citizens or the very gun control system itself?
Let us conclude with a radical suggestion: perhaps we should enforce the existing laws and make the criminal misuse of a firearm result in a long prison term. Justice is moving that way in criminal misuse of vehicles. Just try and bargain away a breathalyser test.