Gun Control: The Myth of a Silver Bullet?

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.


8 thoughts on “Gun Control: The Myth of a Silver Bullet?

  1. I’ve been reading opinions re. gun control and am thoroughally bemused. First of all, ‘fast food’ and ‘complications from selective surgery’ kill several thousand % more people than guns every year. There are hundreds of other examples but here’s the real conundrum. Overpopulation has dealt a death blow to the planet. Our Oceans are toilets, most animals are nearing extinction(we think a few thousand is more than enough of anything other than human)and people are incapable of making “truly hard” sacrifices to correct the inevitable. We would need to shrink the human population, roughly in half, just to insure another 100 years! It’s mind blowing that we divert the human consciousness(with 10,000 gun related deaths)away from issues
    that threaten our very existence! There are 300,000,000 million people in this country and deaths from a firearm is such a small percentage, most adults couldn’t even do the math! Keep your kids away from violent movies, games etc. and educate yourselves on real issues, so ponderous. PS I’m not a proponent of gun ownership, it’s just irrelevant.

  2. Brian, I don’t necessarily disagree with you – there are certainly many other global issues that deserve attention. However, the very fact that countless lives are lost around the world each day due to malnutrition and preventable diseases demonstrates that national priorities still reign supreme. That’s just the way it is, right or wrong.

    As for the gun control issue: my post is partly a critique of the common government tactic of proposing ‘silver bullet’ solutions to complex problems. There are many more examples – for both national and international problems – but I was interested in exploring the limitations of the current gun control debate. You’re right to wonder why we should care so much about a problem that impacts a relatively small portion of the population, but that’s just how politics works. Americans (and Canadians) will always be a more concerned about the deaths of a few thousand nationals than a hundred thousand foreigners. Without passing judgement on the legitimacy of the debate, my post was meant to suggest that if Americans are truly interested in decreasing violent/gun crime (as they appear to be), there must be greater dedication to complex solutions for complex problems.

    Thanks for reading and contributing!

  3. You cite the UK as proof gun control doesn’t work but its rate of gun deaths is less than 1% per 100,000, well below Canada’s. The U.S. rate, however, is smack in the middle. That is, the middle of a list of third world country gun deaths and just a little better than Panama, Columbia and Mexico.

    And bear in mind that the U.S. loosened its gun control laws relatively recently through a decision of its courts. In addition, Canada HAS gun controls, so it can’t really be shown that our lower gun death rate is due to having a different attitude–though we do have a different attitude as far as gun culture goes!

    I don’t know about anyone in favour of gun controls considering it a “silver bullet”. However, in any society where people become mentally ill, are ever badly brought up, have anger management issues or grudges, or are sometimes careless (oh, is that all societies?), unrestricted access to guns ensures that more of these social problems are GENERALLY going to result in greater carnage each time.

    It’s unfathomable how anyone can justify unrestricted access to large rounds of ammunition and assault-style weapons. It’s not like the carnage isn’t happening! I don’t think the notion that it gun controls aren’t a “silver bullet” in any way impacts the fact that it IS a huge step forward.

    • Hi Patina, thanks for reading and contributing.

      What is important to remember re: the UK is that its low crime rate was not a product of gun control. Its crime rate was low before 1997, and violent/gun crime actually continued trending upward while ownership declined ( Moreover, recent reports (as linked in my post) show that gun crime has increased 89% in the past decade. And Chicago, with its strict gun control, has faired no better.

      And you’re right that Canada has gun control, but there are plenty of countries with less control and similar or even lower levels of violence. Norway and Finland, for example, have higher rates of ownership but less gun homicides per capita. Thus, your assertion about social problems leading to carnage in societies with loose control is problematic. Do the same social problems not exist in Switzerland? If you believe that they don’t, should we not focus on correcting those issues in a combined solution?

      Proponents may not call gun control a silver bullet, but its advocates and the mainstream media portray it as such. The other issues that contribute to violent crime and mass violence are all but ignored in these circles while gun control is highlighted as the most suitable crusade. Like I said, I don’t believe that gun control is the reason why gun crime is lower in Canada. If I really want to get my hands on a gun then I’m going to be able to do it, as will criminals.

      I agree with your sentiments and I do not believe that abandoning gun control is necessarily a more productive venture. But we also can’t remain blinded by the grand promises of gun control while continuing to ignore the root causes of violent crime. Gun control studies have produced mixed results, and at best it appears as though gun control (alone) has neither a positive nor negative impact of violent crime. We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, just as we shouldn’t focus only on the benefits of gun control. Peace in other countries with high levels of ownership demonstrate that there is more to this complex problem than the recurring debate on gun control would lead us to believe.

      • Not sure how the UK having gun controls and having a gun homicide rate 1/40 of that in the U.S. proves that gun controls have been ineffective! The UK has had gun controls since guns were around, and before that restrictions on crossbows. As for more recent enactments: “Whilst intentional firearm homicides did in fact eventually decline there is no doubt that homicides involving the class of firearms prohibited initially increased in the early years following the legislative change before commencing a downward trend from 2003 onwards.[14]”

        The introduction of reasonable limits in the U.S. by ANY political party, regardless of whether I like the leader or the party, is a huge component of cutting this ridiculous rate of carnage. I feel the NRA is doing a fabulous job (tongue in cheek!) of ensuring other issues are not overlooked, and I would welcome stricter limits on violent video games as well.

        You don’t think it’s a little weird having a first world power with a gun death rate comparable to the third world?

        As for you wanting to get your hands on a gun, of course you could if determined, but surely you would recognize that the amount of planning and effort required would at least eliminate a huge number of impulsive and accidental shootings and plenty of shootings resulting from temporary spells of anger and imbalanc AND you would have an even harder time trying to get an assault rifle or large round.

  4. Patina, I happen to agree that the gun death rate is appalling.

    “As for you wanting to get your hands on a gun, of course you could if determined, but surely you would recognize that the amount of planning and effort required would at least eliminate a huge number of impulsive and accidental shootings and plenty of shootings resulting from temporary spells of anger and imbalanc AND you would have an even harder time trying to get an assault rifle or large round.”

    Perhaps. But why are these events not common in other developed countries with high ownership? Countries like Norway have higher ownership than Canada but significantly less gun deaths per year. Moreover, why is Switzerland’s armed populace not committing the same types of acts you describe?

    “One of the reasons the crime rate in Switzerland is low despite the prevalence of weapons — and also why the Swiss mentality can’t be transposed to the current American reality — is the culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation. Kids as young as 12 belong to gun groups in their local communities, where they learn sharpshooting. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association runs about 3,000 clubs and has 150,000 members, including a youth section. Many members keep their guns and ammunition at home, while others choose to leave them at the club. And yet, despite such easy access to pistols and rifles, “no members have ever used their guns for criminal purposes,” says Max Flueckiger, the association’s spokesperson.” (Source:

    So it is access to guns that leads to gun violence, or something else entirely? Realistically, it is likely a combination of the two. Canada, for example, doesn’t have the same ‘gun culture’ as Switzerland but also lacks the culture of violence, drugs and gangs present in the United States. Perhaps that is one aspect of our low violent crime rate?

    Gun control isn’t likely to stop mass violence, and it probably won’t stop violent crimes perpetrated by criminals. I agree that it may help limit accidents and crimes of passion, but how much do these events add to the overall gun crime rate? Moreover:

    “The number of guns in the U.S. surged from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. That includes 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There are now about as many firearms in the U.S. as people. These stats have been widely reported. What has not been so widely reported is that the number of firearm-related homicides fell from 17,073 in 1993 to 9,903 in 2011 (up slightly from 9,812 in 2010). Per capita, the gun-related murder rate has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past two decades.” (Source:

    I think you believe that I am against gun control and that I support unfettered access to firearms. I personally don’t know a single person who owns a handgun and only know a few people who own rifles to hunt. I am not a gun advocate. However, I also don’t believe that gun control alone is going to solve America’s gun problem. It might be a necessary component of a multi-facted solution, but if gun control is the only thing that comes out of Sandy Hook, I fear the U.S. will be only marginally better off.

    Thanks again for contributing to the discussion!

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