This article appeared in the Winter, 1995 issue of Next City magazine. Back issues of the magazine can be ordered from 225 Brunswick Ave., Toronto, Ontario M5S 2M6 or by telephoning toll-free (800) 263-2784 or in Toronto (416) 964-9223. This article may be freely copied for non-commercial use provided that the author's name and this paragraph are reproduced with all copies. To republish for commercial use, the author's permission is required. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 1327, Belleville, Ontario, Canada K8N 5J1 or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the time this article is published, many Canadians will think the gun control debate is--pardon the expression--a dead issue. Bill C-68, containing the most recent changes to Canadian gun laws, has already been passed by the House of Commons and will probably have been approved by the Senate. But the debate that raged throughout Canada in 1994 and 1995 will ultimately prove to be just one of many battles in a long, long war.
Neither side will have got what it wanted. Gun control advocates consider Bill C-68 to be a severely compromised, watered-down version of their early suggestions, bearing little resemblance to their ideal. Justice Minister Allan Rock, the chief architect of the bill, has said he "came to Ottawa with the firm belief that the only people in this country who should have guns are police officers and soldiers." Even Bill C-68's enactment would leave him far short of this goal. Anti-gun groups will undoubtedly press Rock or his successors to push ahead when the political climate appears more opportune.
Meanwhile, those who support the right of private gun ownership don't feel that fending off Rock's initial vision was much of a victory. The same legislation that Rock views as moderate, they view as oppressive. Each new stage of the eight-year phase-in period will rub salt into their wounds. Each new Order in Council, expanding the scope of the legislation without further parliamentary approval, will rankle. This pro-gun group will continue to argue that Bill C-68 and prior legislation should be repealed, and that further gun control should be rejected. So, far from being defunct, the issue of gun control is very much alive. Justice Minister Rock says it is a debate about the kind of country we wish to live in. On that point, virtually everyone agrees. However, Rock seems to assume three things: first, that all Canadians should naturally want to live in the same kind of country; second, that this kind of country is his kind; and third, that gun control is the way to achieve it. This article challenges those assumptions, both by showing why gun control will fail to make Canada a better place to live in, and by exposing the deeper implications of gun control for the kind of country it will turn us into.
Yet the number of gun-related murders in Canada has remained relatively stable over the past two decades. (See graph #1.) Shootings may account for 99 per cent of the rhetoric, but they cause fewer than one-third of the murders. Rock's figures are actually out of date: in 1993, 45 women were murdered by killers using guns. That's one every eight days, not every six.
If that number of deaths constitutes a crisis, then what should we make of the more than 24,000 Canadian women who die each year of cancer? That's one every 22 minutes--clearly a far more serious problem than the number of gun homicides. Why is parliament not in an uproar over this much larger public health crisis?
Or consider gun deaths from accidents--63 of them in 1992. Compare this to the 3,456 deaths from car accidents, the 2,138 from falls, the 726 from accidental poisonings, the 331 from choking on food or other objects, the 290 drownings, and the 154 accidental deaths from medical treatment. Compared to cars, stairs and standard household substances, guns get the blue ribbon for safety. Insurance companies dispassionately attest to gun safety: Canadian shooting organizations offer their members $2 million worth of liability insurance for less than $5 a year. Compare that with the liability insurance premium for your car.
Gun accidents have declined drastically over the past 60 years, mostly since 1960, well before any significant degree of gun control. The rate of fatal gun accidents per capita is now less than a quarter of what it was throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. (See graph #2.)
Again one has to ask: if a national uproar is justified over accidental deaths, why focus on the relatively minor problem of guns, rather than the much larger problem of falls? Or if the number of accidental gun deaths constitutes a crisis now, why was the country not in an uproar 50 years ago, when the problem was much more serious?
It is questions like these that make people wonder whether the justifications offered by the government for its anxiety about guns are genuine, or whether they are simply a smokescreen for some other concern.
suicides 75 percent homicides 15 percent accidents 6 percent undetermined 3 percent legal intervention by police 1 percent
Gun control proponents argue that there would be fewer suicides if we had stricter gun controls. They theorise that some suicides are spur-of-the-moment decisions, made by people suffering from a temporary misfortune or depression. Suicide with a gun is quick and usually successful, so there is little opportunity to change your mind or to "botch the job" and survive. If guns were unavailable, the argument goes, people who decide impulsively to kill themselves would have to choose another method. They might lose their nerve and not make the attempt at all, or they might choose a less effective method and survive.
This is an intuitively appealing argument, but it is not confirmed by the empirical evidence. International comparisons show no correlation between the availability of guns and the suicide rate. For example, the United States is estimated to have approximately twice as many firearms per capita as Canada, but has a lower suicide rate (12 suicides per 100,000 Americans versus 14 suicides per 100,000 Canadians). Japan has very strict gun control, resulting in a gun ownership rate that is only about one-sixtieth of Canada's, yet the suicide rate is higher still (16 per 100,000 population).
When guns are not available, people simply substitute other equally fatal methods of suicide. Forcing people to jump from tall buildings or hang themselves instead of shooting themselves does not seem to be a very rewarding goal for legislators to pursue.
Also instructive are comparisons within the same country over a long time. Canada's suicide rate has fluctuated widely over the past six decades, unrelated to either the level of gun ownership or the degree of gun control. (See graph #3.) Both the suicide rate and the proportion of suicides involving guns are higher today than they were in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, even though gun ownership was far more prevalent in the earlier decades and subject to far less restriction prior to the 1977 firearm legislation.
But even if it were true that reducing the number of guns in private hands would reduce the number of suicides, one has to ask: is this a proper function of government? Does government exist to protect people from themselves?
There is certainly nothing to prevent individuals who believe the arguments of thegun control movement from taking precautions on their own behalf. Those who are concerned about the possibility that they themselves or the teenagers in their household might some day be tempted to commit suicide can choose to live in the same kind of gun-free environment that gun controllers would like to impose on the whole country. Indeed, approximately three quarters of Canadian households have already chosen to make their homes "gun-free zones." This solution need not be imposed from above, and need not be universal in order for those who choose to adopt it to achieve its anticipated benefits.
The overwhelming majority of gun owners in years gone by have lived their entire lives without ever committing suicide and without having their guns used by anyone else for the purpose of suicide. The overwhelming majority of today's gun owners will undoubtedly follow the same pattern.
Therefore, the proposition that gun ownership should be restricted by law in order to reduce suicides boils down to the proposition that some people who are certain never to be at any risk of harm should nevertheless have their freedom restricted on the off-chance that others--who could take precautions to protect themselves but choose not to--might be saved.
It's a communal, socialistic sort of notion--an involuntary pooling of risk and re-assignment of responsibility. As Karl Marx, might have put it, it's "From each according to his stability, caution and diligence, to each according to his instability, carelessness and lethargy."
If saving people from their own deliberate acts is a valid purpose for legislating, then the possibilities are endless. For starters, the government should ban alcohol, which is involved in a greater percentage of suicides than guns (50-60 percent for alcohol versus 25-30 percent for guns).
Banning garages might prevent some people from killing themselves by carbon monoxide poisoning. Canadians don't need garages--plenty of us prove this by getting along without one. People could store their lawn mowers and garden hoses in tool sheds too small to hold a car.
The government could then go on to ban tobacco, sugar, high-fat foods and any number of other things that some people voluntarily consume to excess even though they know it might damage their health or even be a form of slow suicide.
Of course, legislative experiments like this have already been tried. Many believe that the prohibition on alcohol earlier this century and the current prohibition on drugs such as marijuana and cocaine have created social ills far greater than those they were supposed to have cured: an active smuggling trade, an increase in theft by addicts trying to support expensive habits, a consolidation of power by organized crime, gangland-style violence in the streets, and general disrespect for the law. And as with gun control, the social costs of these prohibitions are borne not only by the substance abusers whom the laws were designed to protect but also by the sensible, self-controlling majority of the population who never needed such laws to protect them in the first place. Laws of this kind shift the costs of self-destructive behaviour from those who choose to engage in it to those who don't.
This is not a new debate--it's just a variation on a theme that emerges whenever the discussion turns to any form of victimless crime. Whether the subject is gambling, prostitution, drug use, sex on the Internet or violence on television, there is always a faction that wants to impose restrictions on everyone in the name of protecting a few, while that few either don't want to be protected or could easily protect themselves and their children by exercising self-control and discipline.
I have been unable to find a breakdown of accidental gun fatalities between those suffered by the owner or user of the gun and those suffered by a bystander. However, one piece of evidence indicates that most gun accidents involve some voluntary assumption of risk: the ratio of male to female accidental deaths.
In 1992, for example, only two of the 63 Canadians who died in firearms accidents were women. If the victims were genuine non-participants in gun-related activities (as you would expect if the deaths arose from someone accidentally shooting through the interior wall of an apartment building, for example) this vastly disproportionate result would not arise. The reason for the lopsidedness is simple: relatively few women choose to engage in activities involving guns. If you don't play, you can't get hurt.
So once again, this is a problem that could largely be solved by a self-initiated change of behaviour on the part of those most likely to be affected. If men are genuinely worried about the possibility of being killed in gun-related accidents, there is a simple way for them to eliminate the risk: behave like most women do. They shouldn't play with guns themselves, and they shouldn't hang around with other people who are playing with them.
The statistics regarding the risk of accidents are readily available to anyone who cares to inform himself. Gun owners are undoubtedly all aware that accidents do sometimes happen and that they could be accidentally killed either by their own foolish mistake or by the mistake of a companion.
However, we don't all have the same temperament. We don't all enjoy the same things, and we don't all have the same degree of risk tolerance. I might think it's foolish (in fact, I do think so) to drive racing cars, climb mountains or jump from airplanes with a parachute strapped to my back. The promise of great thrills is not enough to outweigh my concern about self-preservation. For some people, however, life wouldn't be worth living if they couldn't do these things.
Yet government is not proposing to outlaw these high-risk activities. Here, the state seems willing to say, "To each his own," even though racing cars do go out of control killing innocent bystanders, and a mishap by one rock-climber or parachute jumper can jeopardize others in his party. Why can't the state simply shake its head in perplexity at the eccentric pleasures and derring-do of gun owners and leave them alone, both to reap the rewards and to suffer the consequences of their chosen pastime?
If the state can legitimately prohibit people from undertaking risks that might harm them, the list of forbidden activities would once again be virtually endless. It would include almost every kind of recreational activity except reading or watching television: skiing, skateboarding, bicycling, swimming, boating, scuba diving, and playing hockey, to name just a few. Even balloons would have to be outlawed. Some 600 children choke to death on them in the U.S. every year, and the death toll in Canada is probably proportionate.
Again, this is not a new debate. Usually it arises in the context of compulsory safety legislation--for example, seat belt laws or helmet laws. The freedom-of-choice argument doesn't faze the supporters of the interventionist state. They have their counter-argument ready. They say each of us has an interest in preventing other people from hurting themselves because we all pay for everybody's medical treatment through our taxes.
Of course, this argument is irrelevant in the case of deaths, because we don't all pay for everyone else's funerals through our taxes. Nevertheless, having permitted state control over our health care, we are now expected to take one further step in the same direction and permit state control over activities that could cause us to consume health services. Why not step back instead and undo the communalization of health care expenses? Why not make people who injure themselves through voluntary, risky activities pay their own medical expenses, or at least pay risk-based health insurance premiums to cover the extra costs they incur? Bearing the full cost of one's own risky behaviour would encourage people to be safety-conscious without state coercion.
Advocates of gun control do a cost-benefit analysis that goes something like this:
A cost-benefit analysis like this is meaningless. There are no units by which to measure either the pain caused by an unnecessary death or the pleasure derived from sports and hobbies. Even if an individual could compare the strength of these conflicting emotions within his or her own mind, it is impossible to compare degrees of pain or degrees of pleasure between different people. And finally, there can be no-one qualified to judge whose pain or whose pleasure is the more important.
A cost-benefit analysis makes sense only when the costs and benefits to the same person can be compared. Every individual adult can weigh the disadvantages of gun ownership against the advantages. Every individual will come up with his or her own unique weighting, depending upon the person's likes, dislikes and temperament. Some individuals will decide to own guns; some will decide not to.
The notion that the state should protect us from our own voluntary actions implies that the state knows better than we do what's good for us. In a democracy, where the people theoretically are the state, this is a profoundly illogical idea. If each of us is so witless that we can't figure out what is best for ourselves, how do we suddenly acquire the wisdom to govern our neighbours through the democratic process? If each of us is smart enough to be entrusted with the rights to vote, to stand for public office, and thereby to decide what's best for our neighbours, why are we not smart enough to decide what's best for ourselves?
Only in an autocracy or an oligarchy, where there is no pretence of legal equality between the rulers and their subjects, does the argument in favour of the state protecting people from themselves escape this internal contradiction.
So when the government promotes gun control on the grounds that it will protect people from suicide or accidents, it is proclaiming that Canadian citizens are not the legal equals of their members of parliament, but their inferiors. It is proclaiming that Canada is not a democracy but an oligarchy, ruled by an elite group who miraculously know better than the individuals they control what's good for them. It is proclaiming that Canada is not the free, diverse, pluralistic society we have always been taught to think of ourselves as, but a regimented, conformist, monolithic society where all must be made to behave in the same way--even when that behaviour imparts no benefits and imposes unwanted costs.
A debate about the kind of society we wish to live in? You bet it is.
Proponents of gun control appear to deliberately foster the notion that so-called ordinary people commonly commit murders and other violent crimes--that we are all in potential danger from our spouses, relatives, friends and acquaintances because a great percentage of violent crimes occur between people who are thus related. If ordinary people are allowed to own guns, the argument goes, the violence will more often end in death.
Don B. Kates, Jr., a constitutional law professor who has written widely on gun control in the United States, disputes this characterization. Says Kates: "Murderers(and fatal gun accident perpetrators) are atypical, highly aberrant individuals whose spectacular indifference to human life, including their own, is evidenced by life histories of substance abuse, automobile accident, felony, and attacks on relatives and acquaintances."
While about one-third of Canadian homicides do involve family members, and one-third of domestic homicides involve firearms, this does not imply that you need fear your family, or that banning firearms would prevent these murders. In fact, there are certain characteristics common to domestic homicides that make the risks for any particular household relatively predictable.
A study of husbands killing wives in Canada between 1975 and 1991 showed that in 80 percent of the cases, there had been a history of previous violent incidents. In 73 percent, these prior disputes were "reasonably well known to acquaintances" of the victim; however, in only 22 percent was the prior violence known to police. (This last figure may be low because people were less likely two decades ago to report problems of this kind. This attitude may be changing. For 1993 alone, Statistics Canada says that 43 percent of domestic homicides "involved a history of domestic violence known to police.")
This pattern of prior violence is even more thoroughly documented in the United States. In studies done in Detroit and Kansas City, researchers found that in 85 percent of domestic homicides, there had been a previous history of domestic violence known to police within the preceding two years, and that 54 percent of these cases had required five or more police interventions.
However, Canadian women still demonstrate extraordinary reluctance to report marital violence to the police. A recent Statscan survey showed that only six percent of women who had experienced a single such incident reported it. Much more significant, however, is that only 49 percent of women who had experienced more than 10 incidents of violence had ever reported even a single incident.
Apart from previous household violence, other factors also correlate strongly with the murders of Canadian wives by their husbands. Almost two-thirds of the husbands were alcohol abusers and were under the influence of alcohol when the murder occurred. More than half had a criminal record. Forty-two percent were receiving unemployment insurance benefits or welfare. Almost half the murders occurred during separation or divorce proceedings.
In short, men who kill their wives are not usually "average guys" who suddenly snap. They almost always give plenty of danger signals to anyone who cares to pay attention.
Culture may also play a part in spousal homicide. Although existing gun control laws are uniform across Canada, the rate of spousal homicide was 40 times higher in the Northwest Territories (16.1 per 100,000 couples) than in Prince Edward Island (0.30 per 100,000 couples) over the years 1974-1992.
Canada's Criminal Code has for many years permitted police to seize an individual's firearms without a search warrant in an urgent situation where there are reasonable grounds to believe that someone's safety is in danger. The Code also permits police to apply to a court for a firearms prohibition order, lasting up to five years, on similar grounds. Whenever a person is convicted of any violent offence, the court may impose a five-year firearms prohibition order. If the conviction is for a particularly serious offence, the court must do so.
Probably the single most effective measure that could be taken to prevent spousal gun homicides would be for potential victims to start using the legal remedies already available to them. Women who are assaulted by their husbands should call the police. If their husbands own firearms, a prohibition order--the violent man's own, personal, tailor-made gun control law--can be requested. If the women themselves are unwilling to report, their friends and relatives should.
Of course, there will always be a few people who would violate a prohibition order. After all, if you're determined to commit a major crime like murder, you're not likely to worry about a relatively minor crime like breaching a court order. But gun control would be no better at stopping such people. Either way, it would be illegal for them to acquire a gun. If we dismiss prohibition orders as an effective remedy because people like this would be inclined to ignore them, then we have to dismiss gun control for the same reason.
Murders between acquaintances are also unlikely to be "ordinary guys" killing their neighbours over a back fence argument. According to Kates, "the term `acquaintance homicide' covers, and far more typically is exemplified by, examples such as a drug addict killing his dealer in the course of robbing him; a loan shark or bookie killing a nonpaying customer; or gang members, drug dealers and members or organized crime `families' killing each other."
A study of firearms crimes in Toronto from 1991 to 1993 found that more than half the homicide victims were known to the perpetrators but were not family members. Of the suspects charged, 65 percent had been previously convicted of some criminal offence. Also noteworthy: almost half of all homicide victims have a criminal record.
When people engaged in illegal activities have disputes with one another, they will inevitably resolve them in a different manner than people who are doing something perfectly innocent. Prostitutes don't call the police when they are robbed by a trick--they call their pimps. Drug dealers and bookies don't sue their customers in court--they draw their guns.
So again, the lesson is that if you want to minimize your risk of dying from gunshot wounds, don't associate with people who are known criminals and don't engage in illegal activities yourself.
Of course, there is also a lesson in this for the state, if only it had the wisdom to see it: if you want to minimize violence in society, don't force whole industries into the black market. If prostitutes could call the police without the fear of facing criminal charges themselves, they would probably prefer this over having to pay a pimp for protection. If a marijuana wholesaler could sue a deadbeat distributer in court without being prosecuted himself--just as a tobacco wholesaler can sue a convenience store--there would probably be far fewer gun fights.
To answer yes, you would have to believe that gun control will not only get guns away from the criminals who already have them, but also prevent more guns from falling into the hands of future criminals.
Few people believe this is possible. Even public opinion polls showing strong support for gun control often show, paradoxically, that the same respondents believe criminals will always be able to get access to guns.
Justice Minister Rock himself takes part in the paradox. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Rock balked at giving a conclusive reply when asked whether his proposed law would reduce crime: "I think it will help. [But] I don't want to overstate it. I don't want to give any guarantees."
"No laws we can put into place can stamp out all criminal actions," he told Canadian Press reporters.
Criminals make their living doing illegal things. Having to do one extra illegal thing is not likely to deter anyone for whom law-breaking is a way of life. If anything, more gun control will simply create new opportunities for black market profits and draw more people into the world of crime.
With thousands of miles of unguarded border, Canada can't realistically expect to prevent gun smuggling, any more than its "zero tolerance" policy on drug smuggling prevented illegal drugs from pouring across the border unabated. Drugs are bought and sold within the very walls of Canadian prisons, despite the guards and security measures. Cigarette smuggling, too, was rampant until the 1994 tax cut reduced the profit. Guns can be transported quite profitably in the same space that cigarettes or marijuana would occupy.
Earlier this year, researchers at The Mackenzie Institute estimated that as many as 12,000 restricted firearms (i.e. handguns) were smuggled into Canada in 1994 alone. In the same study, 39 percent of the taxi drivers interviewed in four Canadian cities reported that they had been offered black market handguns within the past two years.
Firearms can easily be manufactured in secret by those not spending a normal eight-hour day in gainful employment. Crude but functional guns can be made using common household objects such as the metal tubing found in chair legs. Polish patriots made guns right under the noses of occupying Nazi troops during World War II, and criminals have made them by hand in such improbable places as jails. Hand-crafted gun-making is virtually a cottage industry among peasants in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Canada, where many home hobby shops are equipped with lathes and other metal-working equipment, manufacturing guns would be even easier. After all, criminals don't demand the same quality in their firearms as Olympic target shooters.
In short, gun control won't keep guns out of the hands of criminals. The slogan, "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" is more than just a catchy expression on a bumper sticker.
Ironically, today's law-abiding gun owners, merely by keeping guns in their homes, confer a benefit on non-gun owners, including those who advocate depriving them of their guns. Criminals don't know for sure which homeowners might be armed, so they have to regard all burglary as risky. Even the most zealous advocates of gun control are probably not imprudent enough to post "gun-free zone" signs on their doors.
The United Kingdom introduced strict gun control legislation in 1988. Many legal gun owners chose to surrender their guns to the authorities, and armed robberies immediately began to rise. Within five years, the rate of legal gun ownership had dropped by more than 20 percent, while the robbery rate using firearms had more than doubled. (See graph #4).
The rate of gun homicides in Great Britain rose slightly despite the drop in legal gun ownership, and the violent crime rate, which had been rising steeply before the legislation, continued to climb just as if nothing had happened. (See graphs #5 and 6.) These results support the conclusion that it is a clearly defined group of outlaws, not average, above-board gun owners, who use guns to commit crimes.
Comparing home burglary rates in Great Britain, Canada and the United States shows the obvious: criminals don't relish dealing with potentially armed victims. The higher the rate of legal gun ownership by homeowners, the lower the percentage of household burglaries taking place with the victims at home. (See chart.)
Rate of legal Percentage of household gun ownership burglaries occurring Country by homeowners while owner is at home ------- ------------- ---------------------- Great Britain low 59 percent Canada middle 44 percent United States high 13 percent
A U.S. survey of more than 1,600 convicted criminals by sociology professors James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi confirms these conclusions through the criminals' own words. The statement "One reason burglars avoid houses when people are at home is that they fear being shot," drew agreement from 74 percent of the convicts. The statement, "A smart criminal always tries to find out if his potential victim is armed," drew agreement from 81 percent. Thirty-four percent of the criminals admitted that they had at some time in their criminal career been "scared off, shot at, wounded or captured by an armed victim" and 39 percent admitted that they had on at least one occasion "decided not to do a crime because [they] knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun."
But when Justice Minister Rock speaks of a debate about the kind of society we wish to live in, we all know it's the issue of self-defence he's referring to. His rhetoric calls to mind the common (and false) image of the United States, with its Wild West origins, where everyone walks around armed and ready to blow away a stranger at the slightest provocation. Few Canadians find this an appealing way of life.
This imagery, however, confuses cause and effect. Crime in the United States is not high because the average person is permitted to own a gun. On the contrary, the average gun-owner chooses to own a gun at least in part because crime is so high. To get this backwards is to fall back into the myth of the average guy as potential killer. It simply isn't so.
Switzerland is an example of a country in which the rate of gun ownership per capita is even higher than in the U.S., yet there is virtually no gun crime.
Several U.S. states have recently enacted laws permitting citizens to carry concealed handguns for self-defence. Applicants must first pass a background check and take a safety class. In most states, between one and four percent of the population chooses to obtain a permit. In Florida, 188,106 licenses were issued over a six-year period. Only 17 (less than 1/100th of one percent) were subsequently revoked for a firearm crime. Meanwhile, according to a study by the Independence Institute, "...a murder rate that was 36% above the national average when carry reform went into effect in 1987, fell by 1991 to 4% below the national average."
Rock's statement evokes memories of a time when Canadians were free of fear, when people could leave their doors unlocked and stroll confidently down a city street after dark. He seems to forget that in this utopian Canada of yore, gun ownership was far more widespread than it is today, and gun control was extremely lax compared to his ideal.
Although Canadian crimes rates have declined modestly in the past few years, they are still almost four times as high per capita as they were during the first 60 years of this century. Over the last three decades, state-run law enforcement methods have tried to restore order and failed, leaving Canadians with the choice of being passive victims of crime or active participants in stopping it.
The official attitude in Canada for years has been to discourage all attempts at self-defence. Although the law provides for the issuance of a restricted weapon permit "to protect life," giving this reason virtually guarantees that your application (and all future applications) will be denied. Only 50 people or so have been permitted to own guns for this purpose. Even non-lethal weapons such as Mace, pepper spray and stun guns--sold openly in the United States for self-defence--are outlawed in Canada.
Those who have actually used guns to defend themselves or their property--frequently store owners fending off robbers--have often found themselves charged with a crime if they report the incident to the police--the same police who were theoretically supposed to have prevented the crime in the first place. In a 1992 interview with the Globe and Mail, Metro Toronto Police Services Board chairwoman Susan Eng commented disapprovingly on a store owner's shooting of a burglar, alleging that the victim's use of a gun was like "saying that the police can't come to his rescue fast enough."
The fact is, they can't. The existence of a police force serves as a general deterrent against crime--similar to a criminal's awareness that some store owners might be armed--and as a means of apprehending criminals after the fact. But police are almost never present when a crime is in prog ress. Criminals plan it that way. The one person who frequently is present--the victim--is the only person who has a chance of preventing the crime.
The advice given by Canadian police these days is that it's safer for victims not to resist a criminal. That is indeed true--but only because the law prevents citizens from using the one method of safe and effective resistance: a gun.
The U.S. National Crime Survey reported on 180,000 actual crime incidents from 1979-1985. Assault victims (to take just one example) who defended themselves with a gun were injured only 12 percent of the time, versus 27 percent for those offered no resistance at all. Other methods of resistance resulted in injuries as high as 52 percent. Crimes of all different types were also significantly less likely to be successfully completed if the victim was armed with a gun.
So given that Canadians are not legally permitted to carry guns for self-defence, the advice that the police give us--"don't resist"--is the next best thing we can do to protect ourselves.
But the real question here is not what's the second best thing we can do. It's whether we should have an opportunity to do what makes us safest. The National Crime Survey is available for everyone to consider. We don't all have to make the same choice. People who don't want to own guns for their own defence aren't required to. But there seems to be no good reason why people who do want to defend themselves should be forbidden from doing so. In fact, those who prefer passive non-resistance would probably end up being free-rider beneficiaries of the general crime deterrent effect if the law would only permit those who are inclined to defend themselves to do so.
Nobody knows for sure how many Canadians owe their lives to having had a gun available when they were faced with a life-endangering threat. We do know, however, that there are some. One gun owner I interviewed for this article told me about three incidents (one involving a bear and two involving burglars) in which he successfully fended off threats. Only the bear required a warning shot. The humans broke off their attacks and fled simply upon seeing his gun. Although this man acted responsibly and to the best of his knowledge legally, he doesn't want his name published for fear of being charged with some offence, as so many others have been. This widespread concern makes it impossible to determine how many Canadians might have had similar experiences.
The Self-Defence Network on the Internet publishes cases of people saving themselves or their families from almost certain death using legally owned firearms. Virtually all of these reports, authenticated by local police or news reporters, originate in the United States, where self-defence does not ordinarily lead to criminal prosecution of the victim. The subjects of these reports would be dead today if Justice Minister Rock's vision of gun control had been in place where they lived. (Readers can subscribe to this list by e-mailing email@example.com with the message "subscribe self-defense" followed by an e-mail address.)
Professor Gary Mauser of Simon Fraser University, has estimated from surveys that even here in Canada, firearms are used more than 62,000 times a year to defend people or property from criminals or animals. If only one out of every 300 defensive uses of a firearm saves a life, more lives would be saved annually than are lost through firearm violence.
Simply put, further gun control will cause innocent people to die who would not have died otherwise. Some will not have the best possible defence available when they are attacked by either a wild animal or a human criminal; others will die because criminals will become bolder. We don't know who these innocent victims will be, or how many of them there will be. It is a virtual certainty, however, that there will be some.
None of us--not Parliament, nor the Justice Minister, nor the voters--are qualified to play God. Preventing our law-abiding fellow citizens from owning guns is tantamount to sentencing some of them to an early and probably grisly death. This is something we have no right to do.
Gun control advocates often call for extremely rigid restrictions on gun ownership with the argument that no price is too high to pay if even a single life can be saved. If they applied this criterion consistently, they would also have to reject the form of gun control they advocate.
They have been met with astonishing indifference and closed-mindedness. Those who appeared at the Commons Committee hearings on Bill C-68 report rude and dismissive treatment by most of the Liberal and Bloc Quebecois members of the Committee. Their presentations lead to no significant changes in the bill. Rock appeared unmoved by the possibility that his pet policies, had they been enacted years earlier, might have resulted in the death of the man he was speaking with.
What does this say about the kind of society the Liberal government and Justice Minister Rock want us to live in? Several things:
In fact, the evidence that gun control will fail to prevent suicide, fatal accidents or violent crime is so overwhelming that it is hard to believe that educated, intelligent people who have had an opportunity to consider the evidence could genuinely continue to advocate it. Much more plausible is the hypothesis that gun control is attractive to governments for other reasons.
Indeed, there is one thing for which gun control has proven itself to be admirably suited: the control of civilian populations. Authoritarian governments around the world have on many occasions subjugated rebellious peoples first by requiring gun registration, and later by confiscating the registered guns.
Canada is currently facing several potential threats to its internal order: provincial secession, aboriginal uprisings, and (perhaps more remotely) civil unrest arising out of growing dissatisfaction with big government itself--something akin to the militia movement in the U.S. Clearly, a disarmed population would be easier for the state to deal with than an armed one. In fact, the silence of the government on the subject of armed violence in connection with these issues has become almost conspicuous. However, the timing of the call for universal gun control is a suspiciously convenient coincidence.
Perhaps the most revealing and worrisome aspect of this whole debate has been the rhetoric of the primary debater, the Justice Minister himself.
"There's no room for an American style gun lobby in this country," he said in one speech. In a letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail, he dismissed the arguments of two of his most potent critics by labelling them "gun enthusiasts" and members of the "gun lobby." Even if these labels were true, it wouldn't change the accuracy of their statistics or the logic of their arguments. Who else would normally be expected to take an interest in legislation if not the people most affected?
Since when has Canada started deciding whom it has room for on the basis of their political opinions? What's next--forbidding the "gun lobby" the right to speak because they disagree with government policy?
Here, then, is my challenge for the Justice Minister. I was born in Canada. I've lived here all my life. I have never owned a gun and have no plans to get one. I'm too squeamish to hunt and I think target shooting would bore me. I have never belonged to or worked for any gun-related organization. In short, I am neither an American, nor a gun enthusiast nor a gun lobbyist. I do not wish to live in the paternalistic, authoritarian, crime-filled society that gun control promises to impose. Now, Mr. Rock, tell me why I should have to.