Since the Sandy Hook tragedy I have read and heard many Canadian critiques of America’s gun problem. We are generally proud of our relatively peaceful society, and we sometimes – rightly or wrongly – like to play doctor by suggesting how Americans can achieve similar harmony. Due to Sandy Hook and President Obama’s emerging interest, gun control has become a hot topic in the United States. Canadians seem to agree that gun control is the solution to America’s ills, but I have to wonder if we are oversimplifying a very complex problem.
Adam Lanza’s rampage, which killed 20 young children, rightfully outraged citizens across North America. The issue of gun control re-emerged as a hot topic almost immediately after that harrowing December morning. A great number of Americans believe that their country has a gun problem and that the solution is legislation. Canadians seem to agree. Earlier this week, President Obama appeased victims and advocates across the continent by championing new gun control measures during his State of the Union address. Is it possible North Americans are focusing too much on gun control and underestimating the complexity of the problem?
Some countries have already tried to eradicate gun violence through stricter gun control, with mixed results. For example, the United Kingdom’s attempt to legislate against gun violence had mixed results and today gangs are a major source of rising gun violence. Conversely, Australia’s dedication to gun control following a 1996 incident of mass violence has not led to a measurably positive or negative impact on gun violence. And then we have Chicago and its trend of escalating violence and murder despite enacting some of the strictest gun control laws in the United States.
Also, let’s not forget that Sandy Hill was actually an example of how gun control alone will not prevent mass violence. There is already a law in Connecticut that makes it illegal for people under 21 to own a firearm. Lanza was 20 years old, which means that he could not legally purchase or own a firearm, but that didn’t stop him. The guns used in his massacre were legally registered and purchased by their owners. In fact, very few incidents of mass violence in recent American history featured firearms that were legally registered to the perpetrator(s). Criminals by definition are not interested in following laws and will use a number of means to illegally acquire the guns they desire.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating for a wild west society where every random Joe is conceal carrying, nor am I suggesting that certain gun control projects aren’t worthwhile. Canadians must be willing to examine the complexity of why we live so peacefully while our neighbours to the South do not.
Access to guns is certainly one component of violent crime, but are gun laws alone going to prevent another Sandy Hook? I am not convinced. Furthermore, the only way to truly prevent school shootings is at the site, with armed security guards at every school. Many people cringe at that notion, but guards can and will actively prevent violence while stricter laws passively ask for compliance. Decreasing access to guns will likely have a greater impact on everyday violence, but we must also ask who typically perpetrates these crimes? Criminals are not going to be affected by gun control laws, and common sources of violence (ie. gangs and drugs) do not involve random Joes who depend on legally registered firearms. The literature seems to suggest that successful gun control depends on other factors that shape violence in society. The current debate and its Canadian critics ignore many of these problems and focus exclusively on the merits of gun control.
Convincing ourselves that gun control alone will prevent mass violence and gun violence in the U.S. implies that gun violence is predicated on access. What does this say about Canadians? If we believe violence will decrease by restricting access to guns in the U.S., does that not imply that Canadian bloodlust and violence is stifled only by our limited legal access to firearms? If we believe that Americans are violent because they own guns, does that not imply that Canadians are less violent because we do not? There must be more going on here.
It is common knowledge that gun ownership per capita is very high in the United States (88.8 per 100,000 in 2007). In comparison, the next highest rates of ownership for developed countries are in Switzerland (54.2), Finland (45.3), Sweden (31.6), Norway (31.3), France (31.2) and Canada (30.8). In 2007, Canada had the 13th highest guns per capita in the world, although recent estimates suggest that we have moved up on the list. While handgun ownership is significantly lower in Canada, rifle ownership per capita is similar to the United States. In fact, recent estimates suggest that nearly one-quarter of Canadian households own at least one firearm. And yet, Canadian gun violence remains low.
Gun ownership has long been a staple of Swiss society due to its citizen army. For years many Swiss citizens have been asked to store firearms – without ammunition – inside their homes in case of a national military emergency. Swiss citizens grow up around firearms, which are used in the same outdoor hobbies that define the countryside in North America. If access to guns is the driving force behind gun violence, we should expect to see a troubling rate of gun violence per capita in Switzerland. However, gun violence in Switzerland is significantly lower than in the U.S. and on par with Canada, despite a much higher rate of ownership.
As of 2007, firearm deaths per 100,000 were:
- 3.6 in the United States;
- 0.52 in Switzerland;
- 0.50 in Canada.
Other countries that ranked ahead of Canada in ownership demonstrated even lower rates of violence – 0.22 in France and 0.04 in Norway, for example.
So why is America so violent? It could be access to guns, but then we should expect to see high rates of gun violence in Switzerland, Norway and Finland. We would also expect to see huge increases in Canadian gun violence if gun control is relaxed, which is unlikely. So what then?
“Britain has had a lower murder rate than the United States for more than two centuries– and, for most of that time, the British had no more stringent gun control laws than the United States. Indeed, neither country had stringent gun control for most of that time.
In the middle of the 20th century, you could buy a shotgun in London with no questions asked. New York, which at that time had had the stringent Sullivan Law restricting gun ownership since 1911, still had several times the gun murder rate of London, as well as several times the London murder rate with other weapons.
Neither guns nor gun control was not the reason for the difference in murder rates. People were the difference.” [Source]
Low gun violence in Switzerland has been attributed to its superior gun culture. Similarly, I am sure my countrymen would argue that Canadians are peaceful by nature and that greater access to firearms would not drastically increase violence in Canada. So why then is gun control promoted as the grand solution to America’s ills? Perhaps it is time to give equal attention to the mental health system, drug and gang problems, gun culture, and American culture in general. And perhaps it is time to devote our attention to the sources of violence rather than the tools of violence.
I will restate that I believe gun control legislation may be an important part of the solution. Nevertheless, numerous developed European countries – and Canada for that matter – have relatively high rates of gun ownership without the gun violence experienced in American states. While gun control is not without its merits, President Obama’s recent endorsements of new legislation appear to offer a false promise. I can’t blame him for wanting to do something, but I am not convinced that magazine restrictions and background checks alone are going to solve America’s gun problem.
The problem is much too complex for a silver bullet.