A Canadian Perspective on Gun Control

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November 3, 2009
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Miriam Kramer and Aaron Levy

In the three years since we moved from New York to Toronto, we’ve been asked countless times, in all seriousness: “Isn’t it dangerous in the United States?” We laugh each time at the seeming absurdity, the way our Canadian colleagues relate to America with the same fear that Americans usually reserve for developing nations engaged in active civil war.

The frequency of the question seems to stem from many Canadians thinking of America as a gun-loving, gun-toting country with dangerous, crime-ridden cities. Conversely, many Americans regard Canada (okay, most Americans never really think about Canada, but among those who do) as a liberal, safe haven where everyone, including people who live in urban centers, leaves his or her doors unlocked. Of course, neither of these oversimplifications is true. Americans own guns and Canadians own guns. Each country has its relatively safe cities and its less-safe cities and each country has crime and gun-related violence. But is there any truth to the generalization that Canada is much safer than the U.S.?

It would seem so: the U.S. has a substantially higher rate of gun-related crimes each year compared to Canada. In 2004, there were about six firearm homicides per 100,000 people in the U.S.; in Canada less than two per 100,000. Why does Canada have one third the gun violence of the U.S.?

Reason One: Gun Prevalence

The U.S. has more guns overall, with 200 million civilian firearms in 2004 among a total population of 293 million people (or 68,259 guns per 100,000 people), compared to seven million civilian firearms among 32 million Canadians in the same year (21,875 guns per 100,000 people). In other words, there are three times more guns per person in the U.S. than in Canada.

Reason Two: Gun Type

While in both countries the overwhelming majority of gun-related crimes were committed using a handgun, America has a higher proportion of handguns as opposed to long guns or rifles, types of guns used for hunting and other recreational purposes. There are approximately 80 million handguns in the U.S. (comprising 40 percent of all guns) but only one million handguns in Canada (14 percent). Comparing per capita handgun ownership rates is even more striking: some 26 percent of Americans own one or more handguns compared with a mere three percent of Canadians. More handguns lead to more gun-related crime.

While it’s possible that Canadians feel less scared and are therefore less motivated to buy guns — a sentiment Michael Moore played up in Bowling for Columbine — there are other, more measurable policy factors in play as well. For starters, Canada has no equivalent to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with its oft-debated declaration that “the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Therefore, Canada has no long history of court battles and judgments regarding the intended meaning of this phrase and whether preventing people from buying, possessing, or carrying a gun is an infringement on their constitutional (or Canadian Charter) rights. In Canada, owning a gun is not a legal entitlement.

Reason Three: Handgun Laws

In America, handgun regulation is left to the states and just about anyone can buy a gun. If you’re over 21 years of age, live in the state where you’re trying to purchase the gun, and aren’t a felon, a fugitive, mentally ill, or an illegal immigrant, you can purchase a gun. (In most states there are actually more restrictions on voting and receiving welfare assistance than there are on buying a handgun.) A background check may or may not be performed on you. In addition to the ease with which Americans can purchase guns, it’s also relatively easy to obtain a gun permit, which is not actually required for the purchase of a gun.

In contrast, Canada has extremely strict federally mandated handgun regulations. In 1977, handguns were classified as “restricted weapons,” requiring a permit before one can be purchased. In order to obtain a handgun permit, a Canadian must prove that she or he needs the gun for a particular occupation, is part of an approved shooting club, is a collector, or needs the gun for self-protection. Each weapon must be registered and authorizations are required to transport them between different locations. Attending a gun-safety training course is mandatory and all gun purchases are subject to a 28-day waiting period.

It’s true that neither of us often think about guns, and we can’t think of anyone we know who owns a gun in either country. But Canada does feel safer, and not because Canadians are more relaxed, trusting, and laissez-faire about life; serious government policies on gun control account for the vastly dissimilar rates of gun ownership and gun type, and therefore gun violence between the U.S. and Canada.

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Miriam Kramer is director of the Canadian Education Project. Aaron Levy is rabbi of the Kiever Synagogue and founding director and spiritual leader of Makom, a joyous, grassroots, downtown community in Toronto, where the two live with their son, Elior.

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