Gun control in the United States is one of those issues that, as a Canadian, I almost feel uncomfortable commenting on. It’s not my country, and so I understand that I don’t really have any say on what happens inside it. That’s up to American citizens to work out together. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I have many American friends, and I care about their safety. Also, I’m a human being, and a parent. When I hear news of mass shootings, I’m every bit as devastated regardless of what country they occur in.
When I watched Bowling for Columbine I was surprised by Michael Moore’s assertion that gun ownership rates are similar in Canada and the US. It contradicted my preconceptions, and I doubted it. I decided to do some digging of my own. On Wikipedia I found a list of countries by per capita gun ownership. On that list, the US is first with 89 guns per 100 people, and Canada is thirteenth (behind Switzerland and Finland, among others), with 31 guns per 100 people. NBC News says that there were 310 million guns for 314 million Americans in 2009, which is about 99 guns per 100 people. The National Post says that in 2010 there were 7.6 million guns in Canada, when the approximate population was 34.1 million. That’s about 22 guns per 100 people.
It seems clear that Canadians own fewer guns than Americans. Even if we didn’t, though, there are other significant differences between the two countries. Of the 310 million firearms in the US in 2009, 114 million were handguns. In contrast, handguns are tightly controlled in Canada. As restricted weapons, owners must have a special license, above and beyond the license that any gun owner must possess. In order to transport a handgun, you need authorization, and the gun must be unloaded and stored in a secure case. Carrying a concealed weapon is simply not allowed. As a result, the rates of handgun ownership are much lower on my side of the border.
In order to own any type of gun in Canada, you must go through background checks and safety training to get a license. You need this license in order to purchase ammunition. Restricted and prohibited weapons require additional licensing, and the guns themselves must be registered. While you can own a gun in Canada, and I have family members who do, there are real controls in place. I wouldn’t say that Canadians are all on the same page about this, but I would say that most of us agree that the need for public safety outweighs any individual’s desire to own a firearm. And, since our constitution does not protect our right to bear arms, the result is that we have nationwide restrictions on who may own a gun, what type of gun they may own, and where and how they may carry it.
Canadian gun control laws do not make me feel as if my liberty is being infringed upon. On the contrary, the knowledge that the people I encounter on a daily basis are not likely to be armed makes me feel more free. For me, it’s similar to imposing car safety laws. I don’t think my freedom is impinged upon when I buckle up, or when I strap my children into their car seats. I feel safer, and therefore less afraid. Freedom from fear is more important to me than individual liberty at all costs. And, in the case of both gun laws and seat belt laws, I’m safer because of the controls.
The statistics support my belief that gun control laws lead to greater public safety. Deaths by firearm are almost 80% lower in Canada than the US on a per capita basis. The homicide rate is three times higher in the US than Canada. Rates of rape, robbery and assault are also higher in the US. The idea that I am somehow less safe because I’m not armed doesn’t hold up.
Certainly, there are a number of factors at play here, beyond gun laws and gun ownership rates. There are cultural differences, socio-economic factors, and a whole lot of other things that influence crime rates. Although I should point out that Canadians watch the same TV shows and movies, and play the same video games, as their American neighbours. What’s more, we’ve had mass shootings in Canada, too. There’s no such thing as perfect safety, regardless of where you live. And yet, if we can bring more safety even as popular media glorifies gun violence, isn’t that worth investigating?
While I recognize that there is some complexity around guns and gun violence, in my mind it’s pretty clear that the NRA’s executive vice president was wrong when he said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Gun control laws, when they’re enforced, make us safer. Arming more civilians does not, statistically speaking. I believe that the difference in gun laws explains the difference in rates of gun violence between Canada and the US, at least in part. As a result, I’m glad to see that there is now a real conversation about guns happening in America.
As I wrote at the outset, it saddens me when people die. It saddens me even more when I believe that, with some well thought-out laws, it would be less likely to happen. This is why, in spite of the fact that I’m not an American, I continue to hold a strong opinion about the gun control debate. Too many people have died already.