Gun Control: Lessons and Attitudes from North of the Border

By: Rachel Marsden

With a gun-toting serial killer driving around using innocent citizens in and around Washington, DC, for target practice, the debate over gun control in the USA is heating up again. As always, gun control advocates look to Canada as a shining example of how heavy gun restriction can lead to significant reduction of death by gunfire. From 1987 to 1996, an average of 65% of homicides in the US involved firearms, compared to 32% in Canada. And a new Statistics Canada study reveals that the rate of homicides with rifles and shotguns in Canada has dropped to the lowest point in 25 years. There are now nearly three times more firearm deaths per capita in the US than in Canada. And while the murder rate without guns in the two countries is roughly equivalent, the murder rate with handguns in the US is nearly 15 times the Canadian rate.

Canadians have generally viewed gun possession as a privilege to be earned, not as a right. Handguns are restricted to police, gun club members, and collectors. If someone feels their life or those of their loved ones are in serious, imminent danger, and that the police are unable to provide adequate protection, that person can apply for handgun ownership. However, there are only about 50 such permits in the entire country. They arenít tossed around like candy on Halloweíen. There is no great outcry in Canada for citizens to be able to carry guns for self-protection. In fact, the vast majority of Canadians, including gun owners, support the countryís current gun laws.

As a result of both legislation and the general attitude of Canadians towards guns, there are 3.3 times fewer guns per capita than in the US. No one really worries too much about needing to protect oneself and oneís family from gun-toting psychos, or having to defend oneself against an armed assailant during an instance of road rage. You can walk down the street in the very worst parts of inner-city Canada and not have to fear that any given hoodlum may be packing heat and eyeing you as a target. Sure, itís always possible for someone to obtain a firearm illegally. Where thereís a strong will, thereís a way--just like itís always possible for a criminal to somehow get drugs while in prison-- but itís not nearly as easy to get an illegal gun in Canada because there are fewer guns floating around on the street unaccounted for. No one can just walk into their local K-Mart, head over to the "Blue Light Special" on aisle nine and pick one up, along with some ammo. And there is considerable comfort in that.

Law abiding citizens should have the right to own a gun. But the operative term here is "law abiding". In order to buy a gun in Canada, a license is required. To apply for this license, you must take a firearms safety course, undergo a criminal background check, answer a questionnaire related to your personal history, and have your present and past spouse or common-law partner sign the application. Refusal of a spouse to sign will trigger further investigation by law enforcement--and rightfully so, as most homicides involving guns occur in domestic situations where the perpetrator is known to the victim. You must also obtain the signatures of two people who have known you for at least three years, and who can attest to the fact that youíre a decent, law-abiding citizen. No Brady Law type of waiting period is required as itís already conveniently built into the Canadian bureaucracy, and youíll have to wait awhile for your license. If you feel that your life is in imminent danger and you really need a gun to protect yourself, well then thatís what the police are for! Taking the law into oneís own hands isnít the Canadian way--nor would I think anyone would want it to be.

Anti-gun control advocates have this tired bumper-sticker saying: Guns donít kill people. People kill people! No, actually guns DO kill people. And, by and large, it happens when theyíre in the hands of unstable people. The more precautions that can be taken to limit the possession of these deadly weapons by such folks, the better. Thorough screening and testing are required of someone who wants to learn how to operate a car (another potentially deadly instrument), so why not for those who want to own guns?

Not to say that Canada has everything right when it comes to gun control laws. It is illegal for a Canadian to own a gun that isnít registered with the National Firearms Registry. Apparently, the registry is supposed to help police identify the owner of a gun left at the scene of a crime. Right, like criminals really have a tendency to leave their guns behind at crime scenes. Even if they did, the odds are it wouldnít be one that was registered to the perpetrator in the first place. People who would use a gun to commit a crime donít really strike me as the type of people who would take the time to file their firearm registration forms with the Federal Government. The licensing precaution is a good screening device, but the registration system seems not only redundant, but also futile. And itís a futility thatís costing Canadian taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Thereís little one can do to stop a lunatic whoís hell-bent on committing a crime with a gun. Even this past week in Canada, a British Columbia Provincial Government employee showed up at work with a gun and killed his supervisor and a co-worker before offing himself. Clearly, there are never any guarantees, but some precautions are necessary. Itís a small price to pay for being allowed to own a potentially deadly instrument.

Thereís a definite distinction between Canadian and American attitudes with respect to gun control, and maybe thatís where the solution lies. In Canada, someone who goes around picking off innocent citizens with a gun isnít called a "sniper", but a "murderer". Why should a person be exempt from being labeled with the term normally reserved for killers just because heís using a gun as his weapon of choice? We donít have the "right to bear arms" woven into the political and social fabric of our society. We donít believe that itís every man for himself, at any cost. Instead, we believe that weíre all in this society together, and the fewer guns that are out there on the street in the hands of people who believe itís their God-given right to use them, the better.