British and Canadian Crime Rates: Not Evidence For Gun Prohibition

by Clayton Cramer

Gun prohibition advocates frequently point to British and Canadian crime rates as proof that gun prohibition makes a dramatic reduction in crime rates. Does the evidence support this claim?

Equivalent Societies?

First of all, for such a comparision to be meaningful, here needs to be similiar cultural values and legal ystems. While most people can immediately see that Japan and the United States are dramatically different, the assumption of equivalence between Canada, Britain, and the United States is never questioned. Since the principal language of all three countries is English, and our legal systems are usually grouped together as "Anglo-Saxon law", this assumption is understandable. But scratch the surface similarities, and the differences start to appear.

If you ask the average white American where our culture comes from, as likely as not, the answer will be "England". The more careful may answer "Britain". A few will say "Western Europe". But if you ask much of the population of the Southwest the answer is likely to be "Por Favor Senor". American is a brew of imported cultures, of which British cultural norms are at most the predominant strain. Canada has experienced significant immigration, just like the United States, but the mix is different: less Hispanic, less African, more French, more English.

Another area of cultural difference may be the people that immigrated to America. Before the American Revolution, it was common for minor criminals to be transported to the United States. After the Revolution, they were sent to Australia. Keep in mind that many of the criminals who came to America were "criminals" because they refused to conform to the religious establishment of their home countries. Is non-conformity necessarily criminal in nature? Not necessarily -- but criminals are by definition those who refuse to conform the majority's values.

Culture is transmitted from one generation to the next -- does American culture's long noted love affair with non- conformists and outlaws reflect the criminal past of our ancestors? A good question -- and one that needs to be addressed by those who claim equivalence for these three societies. In the case of Canada, there may be another selection process -- many Canadians are descendants of those Americans who remained loyal to the King in 1776, and chose not to live under a government of "traitors".

What about our supposedly shared legal system? Again, beneath the similarities are many differences. American law diverged from British law at the time of the Revolution. The continuance of the grand jury system is one obvious difference between our systems. In this century, our Bill of Rights has dramatically extended the rights guaranteed to defendants in criminal actions. (Before you become too critical of these procedural guarantees, remember that the more certain we are of a convict's guilt, the more comfortable we can be imposing a severe punishment.)

British Crime Rates: Those Brits Sure Are Peaceful

I have spent some time locating British crime figures, and the numbers are quite interesting -- though they do strongly support my position that British crime rates are not the result of British gun control laws.

British and Canadian crime figures are remarkably difficult to locate, even in a university research library. It's not surprising that the claims of the gun control advocates have seldom been directly challenged. I found articles about British crime rates in both New Statesman (14 November 1986, "The absence of acceptable authority") and The Economist (21-27 March 1987, "Still unsafe on the streets").

How the numbers were used says a lot about the impact of partisan politics on journalism. New Statesman's article printed a chart showing total crimes reported to police (raw numbers) during this century. Not surprisingly, total crimes has risen dramatically, most of that increase since the late 1950s. Of course, the population has also dramatically risen, but New Statesman, while acknowledging that the population is much larger, didn't provide enough information to determine crime rates -- that is, crimes per people. Perhaps if the Labor Party were in power currently, they would have been more careful.

The Economist did take efforts to mitigate the unpleasant details of the numbers (and doubtless for the same reason New Statesman made no effort to do so) by pointing out the dramatic rise in population during that time, as well as improvements in how crimes are reported (rape in particular, being more likely to be reported now than it used to). The Economist's article also pointed out that:

Now we get to the numbers. There were 662 homicides and 2,288 rapes in England and Wales. Note that there were approximately 49 million people living in England and Wales at that time (a total derived from 1983 World Almanac). That gives a murder rate of 1.35/100,000 population. By comparision, the 1985 Uniform Crime Reports show North Dakota with a murder rate 1.0/100,000, and South Dakota with a murder rate 1.8/100,000. England & Wales would be between the lowest and the second lowest murder rate states in the U.S. The U.S. murder rate for 1985 was 8.2/100,000 (down significantly from its peak in 1980 at 11/100,000). But is this necessarily an indication of gun control at work? (Keep in mind that the Dakotas are among the least restrictive states in the U.S. on gun ownership).

The rape rate computes to 4.67/100,000 population. By comparision, the U.S. as a whole had a rape rate of 36.39/100,000 population, and even the lowest rate rape in the U.S. (again, South Dakota) was 7.30/100,000. "Big deal," you say, "It must be gun control at work." Except that firearms are used in rape only 7% of the time (Source: Report To The Nation On Crime, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1983). The very low British rape rate can't be because of gun control laws -- adding 7% to British rape rates they would STILL be lower than the safest part of the U.S. -- and by a large margin, and still be one-eighth of U.S. rape rates as a whole.

That rape is associated with warm weather seems quite clear.

There is a chart associated with this paragraph that shows a clear temperature association, and a table of forcible rapes for 1983-1987 that show this wasn't a fluke of 1987. That rape is very rare in Britain is not surprising -- it's a cold climate. Are there similiar relationships involving murder? I've read that high temperatures and murder are associated. Considering how tempers and temperatures seem to rise in even well-adjusted people, I don't find this surprising.

As I said at the beginning, the numbers are not persuasive that gun control in Britain is responsible for their low crime rate. In the U.S., homicides are 63% committed with firearms. Let's engage in a thought experiment and see if firearms laws explain Britain's murder rate:

+ Assume that firearms were as freely available in Britain as they are in the U.S.

+ Assume that none of the murders committed currently in Britain would be done with firearms in preference to other methods. (This is an unlikely assumption for premeditated murders).

+ Assume that no one successfully defended themselves with a firearm. (Another demonstrably bogus assumption).

The murder rate in England & Wales would STILL only be 2.1/100,000 people -- lower than almost every American state.

Are British people intrinsically less likely to commit rape and murder? Perhaps. After all, much of the population of the U.S. is descended from criminals transported from England, "troublemakers" who refused to subscribe to the preferred religion in much of England and continental Europe, and criminals sold into slavery by their own tribes in West Africa.

Canadian Crime Rates -- What Do They Tell Us?

First of all, the following caveat about Canadian crime statistics comes from an article titled "Crime" in The Canadian Encyclopedia (more accurately, a Canadian supplement to a real encyclopedia):

A little earlier in the article:

Note that this is the reason why the FBI developed the Uniform Crime Reports -- to deal with inconsistencies in crime reporting.

The following raw numbers are quoted from the same article and page:

1977 1981 Homicide 707 647 Attempted murder 684 900 Kidnapping 536 782 Sexual offences 10 932 13 313

Unfortunately, no rates are shown. From the 1983 World Almanac I get a population (1981 est.) of 24,100,000. This gives crime rates for 1981 of:

Crime raw rate/100,000 population Homicide 647 2.68 Attempted murder 900 3.73 Kidnapping 782 3.24 Sexual offences 13 313 55.24

I don't have 1981 crime rates for the entire U.S. available, but I was able to derive 1980 crime rates for the entire U.S. from 1980 census population and total crime reports (both in the same, now very dog-eared 1983 World Almanac).

Crime raw rate/100,000 population Homicide 23 044 10.17 Forcible Rape 82 088 36.24

Unfortunately, the FBI doesn't put figures for attempted murder or kidnapping in the Uniform Crime Reports, so a direct comparision is difficult. "Sexual offences" seems from the header to mean "rape", but there is no explicit statement of it. (To make it even more confusing, Canadian law was changed in the 1980s, according to another article in the same encyclopedia, so that "rape" was redefined as "sexual assault", with three degrees, corresponding roughly to "molestation", "rape", and "rape by savages in need of slow torture before execution". This will make it even more difficult to compare 1970s and 1980s Canadian crime figures).

As you can see, the evidence suggests that Canadians do a lot of rape, and relatively little murder -- and also that they are darn successful at it -- 41.8% of the attempts are successful. (Amazing what you can do, even with guns restricted). Do they have more crime than the U.S.? I'm not prepared to go that far -- and the following paragraphs will point out why.

On comparing different countries' crime rates, the article "Homicide" in The Canadian Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 828, has something to say which bears repeating when these sort of apples and oranges discussions come up:

It might be tempting to note the two data points above (1977 and 1981) and conclude that the murder rate declined because of the stricter Canadian gun control laws passed in 1977.

From the same article:

I've seen some Canadian gun prohibitionists claim that Canada's murder rate is as high as it because too close proximity to the U.S. causes gun diffusion. Again, the same article and page:

If U.S. gun diffusion is a cause of murder in Canada, the effect must be utterly overwhelmed by other factors, since the Northwest Territories have absolutely no contact with the U.S., while the Yukon directly borders Alaska, and has a much lower rate.

Notice that Alberta, directly bordering Montana, has a murder rate only 17% lower than Montana (1980 Uniform Crime Report murder rate for Montana: 4.0), and 11% higher than Idaho (1980 Uniform Crime Report murder rate: 3.1). Compare Alaska's murder rate (9.7 in 1980) with the Northwest Territories (11.57) and the Yukon (4.57). Compare Washington's murder rate (5.5 in 1981) with British Columbia's murder rate (4.02 in 1980). There are differences, but they aren't always in Canada's favor, as you would expect if gun laws were the dramatic factor that is sometimes claimed.

Remember also that we are comparing U.S. 1980 (the peak year for the U.S. murder rate since 1903), and Canada 1981 (the lowest recent year for the Canadian murder rate). I wish I had more Canadian crime data available -- but if Canada is going to be presented as an example of the success of gun control laws, the facts readily available aren't persuasive.

Crime rates are very multifactorial. If you want to argue that gun availability is a factor, I will agree it could be a factor -- though the evidence available suggests that it isn't a major factor, and something more persuasive than a few random crime rates needs to be presented.

World-Wide-Web html format by

Scott Ostrander: