Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I have no particular objection to responsible long gun ownership. Hunting isn't my thing but I know that some hunters do important work in wildlife conservation, and I consider killing your own food to be far more responsible than getting somebody else to do your dirty work for you.

Advocates of less restrictive gun control laws in Canada are remarkably vocal, but polls show that most Canadians disagree. In this poll, two-thirds of respondents believed that the general public shouldn't be allowed to own guns at all, whereas just 6 percent want fewer regulations on gun ownership. People argue about the government's ridiculously expensive registry, but the general idea of rigid gun control is widely supported here.

It's no business of mine what Americans choose to do with regards to their gun laws (and it is no business of yours, my American readers, what Canadians choose to do, either) but I wish that Canadian advocates of less restrictive gun ownership could give me a straight answer on a basic question that I've been asking for about twenty years now.

According to the United States department of justice, between 1995 and 2005 a period of declining homicide rates there were 125,678 gun murders in the United States. In the same period, in Canada, there were 6,417 homicides total. Firearms were the weapon of choice in about half of those cases. In short, the United States has nine times Canada's population but about forty times as many gun-related homicides. Even demographically similar regions of the two countries have hugely divergent homicide rates. Montreal, with a population of about 1.8 million, had 48 homicides in 2005. Philadelphia, with a population of about 1.6 million, had 380 that year. In 2005, Toronto had a record 78 murders in what its panicked citizens called the "year of the gun." Chicago, only slightly larger, had 459, and they practically turned cartwheels for having fallen below the 500 mark. In Canada, the city with the highest homicide rate is Edmonton, Alberta, with about 4 murders per 100,000 population in 2006. Now, examine this list of American murder rates, and consider that, if Edmonton were in the mix, it would rank 62nd.

So it goes, year after year, and in city after city, and my question is this: why? I've heard obfuscations ("but the rate of other crimes in Canada is higher...") and diversions ("but in Switzerland, lots of people own guns...") but I've never heard anyone explain what the source of the difference is. I'm far too much of an empiricist to say that it's solely because of less restrictive gun ownership rules in the United States than in Canada, but there is a crude correlation there nonetheless, and Canadian advocates of gun decontrol should be able to explain why. Do they really wish me to believe that I would be even safer from violent crime if Canada had less restrictive laws in this regard?

Part of their problem is that they continually overstate the extent of the threat posed to ordinary Canadians by violence. The belief that society is trembling on the brink of a precipice is common to every era in part because sooner or later every generation gets around to hating the young — but the statistical fact of the matter is that Canadians today are about a third less likely to be murdered than thirty years ago, and they weren't very likely to be murdered even then. I don't wish to be dismissive — one murder is one murder too many — but if murders in Canada were evenly and randomly distributed, which they most certainly are not (young males involved in criminal activity are the most at risk), Canadians would, on average, have a one-in-fifty thousand chance of getting killed in any given year, which is about one-quarter their odds of dying in a car accident. (Strange that there isn't a lobby trying to force people to wear helmets while in cars.) Moreover, it's estimated that in about 80 percent of cases the victim of a violent crime knows their attacker; statistically, the most dangerous people in your life are your family members. I can see a certain point to lounging around the house packing heat ("I was watching that show") but the point is that most Canadian suburbanites need guns for personal protection from random violence about as much as they need to carry around a snakebite kit. People are afraid of the wrong things.

I don't know what the solution to societal violence is — probably reverse engineering our DNA so that we're not primates anymore would be involved — but I do know that the possibility of sudden and tragic death is one of the unfortunate byproducts of being alive. Given the alternative, I'll take the risk.


Alison Hunter said...

The reason that there is no lobby for helmets for automobile drivers is that this particular accessory doesn't look as bitchin' as a sidearm.

You should see Texas, man. They use guns to floss their teeth there.

The Peach said...

Given that the majority of the males in my family own or have owned a firearm of some sort, it is quite terrifying to think those are my potential assailants. At least Canada has laws where you must keep your guns enclosed in a metal container....my dad's guns are hard to get to, unless you steal the metal container from the basement.
p.s - you knew I'd comment on this one.

Kerri said...

I was recently eating dinner with an Australian-Canadian-American, who tried to convince me that I would be much safer if I was allowed to carry a firearm while going about my daily activities. His decision to settle in the Southern US was largely because it was perfectly acceptable for him to sleep with a loaded gun on his night table.

I sleep walk. I get goosebumps just thinking about putting a gun beside my head. Besides, where would I put my alarm clock?

If I ever accumulate enough possessions and feel like I need to arm myself to protect them, please, make me organize a yard sale.