H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
Home Page E-Mail: taylorbuckner@earthlink.net  

 

Chapter 12 - Conclusions

C­68 radically changed the firearms legislation in Canada. The Justice Minister has claimed that the public strongly backs these legal changes, and cited public opinion polls to back up his claims. But other than media polls, public support for this law has been surprisingly modest.

Very few Canadians were familiar with the legislation existing before C-68. Even requirements that have been in place since the 1970s are unknown to many people. The result was that opinions about the effectiveness of further gun control legislation were based almost entirely upon wishful thinking.

The introduction of draconian legislation, such as C­68, needlessly exacerbates deep divisions within Canadian society and threatens to undermine public support for the police and law and order itself. C­68 gives breath­taking powers to government. Universal firearms registration, for example, requires a bureaucratic system of staggering complexity. Many citizens, who would otherwise be respected members of their community, will get criminal records for failing to comply with a complex and intrusive set of regulations.

Values played an important, though often denied, role in the gun control debate. If a person has anti-gun values they are likely to support anything called gun control, if they have pro-gun values they are likely to resist anything called gun control.

A segment of the population would like to see all guns disappear from Canada, and the world, and arguments of recreational use and wildlife management are meaningless to them. While the official spokespersons for this viewpoint often say, as a tactic, that they do not want to ban hunting guns, their actions belie their words. Certainly many of their supporters would like to see the practice of hunting ended. Another segment of the population, those who lawfully own and use firearms find the views of the first group incomprehensible. A majority, 58% of the respondents with an opinion, think that Canadians should have the right to own a firearm. A minority, 42% of those with an opinion disagree, often strongly. Overall, 55% of the respondents favour hunting and 45% are opposed.

From the "No Right No Hunt" point of view the goal of gun control is to reduce the number of firearms in the country, to reduce firearms use, and to reduce hunting. If firearms and hunting could be eliminated from Canada, even better.

Two basic value conflicts in the gun control debate are over the right to own firearms and opinions on hunting. When these two positions are combined into a single measure the outlines of the value conflict become clear. On one side we have central Canadian urbanites, females, and non-gun owners. On the other side are those from the "hinterlands," rural and suburban residents, males, and gun owners. While it is possible to find a non-gun owning woman in Montreal who supports the right to own a firearm and favours hunting, or a male gun owner from the rural prairies who thinks no one should have the right to own a gun or hunt, they are exceptions.

There are probably a few hundred people in Canada who have a reasonably comprehensive grasp of current firearm control legislation - none of the respondents in this survey appear to be among them. The discrepancy between a basically uninformed public which calls for ever increasing restrictions on firearms, and increasingly informed gun-owners guarantees conflict. Value conflicts are rarely resolved by legislation, but a successful attempt by one side to outlaw the other side can produce extreme responses when people feel the political system no longer works for them.

If one were to ask Canadians if they think that crime and violence is a problem, many would agree. When they are asked for their perception of the "most important" problem facing Canada, few think of crime and violence. It is a matter of attention and direction. Respondents may not have been thinking of crime, but when directly asked about it they will express an opinion.

Some 45% of Canadians think that violent crime has increased a great deal in the last ten years, an additional 35% think it has increased somewhat, so 80% believe crime has increased. Less than 20% think it has stayed the same, decreased, or say they do not know.

A majority of those with recorded opinions, 28% of respondents, favoured changes in the justice system to reduce violent crime. Increasing education and reducing violence on television appealed to 15%, while various forms of gun control attracted only 4% of the suggestions. More than twice as many respondents called for bringing back capital punishment than suggested more gun control laws.

Only one Canadian in twenty sees crime and violence as the major problem facing Canada, but four of five think that crime has increased. Only one Canadian out of twenty spontaneously suggested more gun control measures to reduce violent crime; more than one out of four suggested changes to the justice system instead.

As most respondents do not know what the present laws are, it is hard to know what they mean when they call for "stricter" laws. Presumably what people mean when they call for "gun control" is control of misuse, though for some with "No Right No Hunt" values "gun control" may mean eliminating all guns.

Of the respondents who had an opinion, 58% say that stricter regulations for authorized firearms owners would not lower the violent crime rate. Overall, more than three out of four Canadians think that criminals will be able to get guns in spite of restrictive laws. Of the respondents with an opinion, 54% do not think stricter gun control would be effective in reducing the level of violence against women in Canada. Throughout Canada, barring Quebec, a majority believe stricter regulations would be ineffective in reducing suicide. A substantial majority of the respondents think stricter regulations will reduce homicide, but there is a curious contradiction: In the same interview, one third of the sample responds that stricter gun control will not be effective in reducing violent crime, but will be effective in reducing homicide. Overall, of those who had opinions, 77% think stricter regulations would be effective in reducing accidents, while 23% do not.

The basic values - attitudes about the right to own firearms and go hunting - were the most important determinants of the respondent's perceptions of the effectiveness of stricter gun control. The opinions people express about legislative proposals appear to be rational, in most cases, because they believe that they will be effective. The assumptions of effectiveness are largely determined by basic value assumptions, rather than an analysis of evidence.

The Parliament of Canada, in Law C-68, has now mandated universal registration. Various rationales for registration have been advanced: registration will make owners more responsible, encourage them to store their firearms safely; allow the police to enforce prohibition orders and take guns from dangerous individuals; and will let the police know what they face in hostage taking situations. Yet, if all firearms in Canada were actually to be registered (that is, if compliance were to be near 100%), there might be some instances in which the police would find the data useful. Compliance, however, is likely to be at a lower level overall, and still lower among the most troublesome members of Canadian society.

In all public opinion research, a distinction must be made between mass opinion and public judgement. In an abstract way almost everyone agrees that poverty should be reduced. On the other hand, when it comes to taking money from their pay check to do it, most realize that public issues always involve trade­offs. This is also true with registering firearms. A good idea, so long as it does not involve any cost or inconvenience, not quite so good an idea when one realizes that it will cost a fair amount of money and tie up a number of police officers in paperwork. Support for universal firearm registration declined in every situation where costs or trade-offs had to be considered. The greater the cost and reduction in public services, the less the support.

In general, those who think gun control effective are more likely than those who think it ineffective to support universal registration. There are, however, some people who favour registration and confiscation whether or not they think gun control is effective.

Overall, support and opposition to universal firearms registration is a reflection of individual values. Those who would like to see a future Canada without guns support registration regardless of whether they really believe it will be effective, and regardless of the cost. The majority, who are not ideologues, are more concerned with costs and trade-offs. Those who support the right to own firearms, or favour hunting, or are gun-owners are least likely to support registration, though many of them would do so if they thought that it would provide worthwhile results.

For universal firearm registration to do anything beyond harassing gun-owners, there must be a high level of compliance. If there is a low level of compliance, the police will not be able to use the data with any certainty. Gun owners can not be coerced into "safe storage." Unregistered stolen guns will not be reported to the police. Without nearly absolute compliance, millions of guns will only be able to be sold on the gray (not registered, for non-criminal use) or black (not registered, for criminal use) markets.

The values driving the registration debate are deeply felt, but not often discussed. For some of the people who support universal registration it is only a step toward the elimination of all firearms. For others, it is a public policy they believe will produce benefits, worthwhile so long as the costs are not too high. Those who oppose registration often see the costs, which they will likely wind up paying, as greater than the benefits. It is important to realize that the depth of feeling, while great at both extremes, is more personal for the gun owner.

The strongest proponents of registration are those who think Canadians should not have a right to own a firearm. For many of them matters of cost and trade-offs are irrelevant. Whether or not it will be effective is irrelevant. They feel it to be a moral decision, something like the prohibition of alcohol used to be. They rarely have a personal stake in the law. It is not their property which will be prohibited, and it will not produce any direct benefit to them in most cases. They will probably not be completely satisfied with any law which allows anyone in Canada to continue owning a gun. It is safe to predict that passage of Law C-68 is not the end of the conflict, but the beginning of a wider conflict between government and gun owners.

There is some question whether Canadian citizens have any property rights. They are not mentioned in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but are a tradition of British Common Law. Traditionally, compensation is paid for property taken by the government. If the government confiscated a million registered handguns, which, conservatively, are worth $300 each on average, the total payment to gun owners would be in the range of a third of a billion dollars, not counting legal and administrative costs. This has led the government to its "confiscation in place" policy of "grandfathering" categories of current owners. The owners are stripped of many of their property rights, they can only sell to other owners in the same category, on their deaths the guns will be confiscated - no compensation need be paid.

According to the Coalition for Gun Control, 71% of Canadians support a complete ban on handguns for civilian use. But does the public support the measures that would be necessary to achieve such a prohibition? We asked whether the handguns of collectors, target shooters, and those who had them for self-defense should be confiscated. Only a minority of respondents said "yes." About three out of four respondents said that collectors' handguns should not be confiscated, an additional 5% said they did not know. Three quarters of the respondents do not favour confiscating the handguns of target shooters. Only a minority of the respondents favour the idea of confiscating self-defense handguns.

Overall, 45% of the respondents did not support confiscating any handguns, 41% supported confiscating handguns from one or two types of users, and 13% supported confiscating from all three types of users. This result stands in remarkable contradiction to the findings of the Coalition for Gun Control Survey which found that 71% of Canadians favoured entirely prohibiting handguns for civilians. When Canadians are asked to make a "public judgement," rather than expressing a "mass opinion," support for prohibiting all handguns drops from 71% to 13%.

Many people "wish" all handguns would go away, just as many wish for a world without war, injustice, or poverty. When it comes to making a judgement about actually seizing someone's property, other values become relevant.

No one knows how many firearms or firearms owners there are in Canada. Estimates range from six million to over twenty million firearms. Every method of estimating these figures has serious flaws. Universal registration will not improve these estimates greatly because it will be widely ignored and evaded, as this study has shown will be the case, and as handgun registration has been ignored and evaded since 1934.

Neither the survey interviewer nor the respondent may know whether something is a firearm. The old flintlock over the mantle is only a firearm if the owner intends to discharge it. The boy's air-gun in the closet is a "firearm" only if it shoots a pellet at over 152.4 meters per second, under the Criminal Code definition.

There are numerous reasons a respondent may have for not telling an interviewer about the firearms in their household. They may not think of the old shotgun or unregistered pistol in the attic when the interviewer asks. They may not know it is there. They may be totally uninterested in firearms; or they may be the hobby of another member of the household. They may fear that telling an unknown telephone interviewer is an invitation to burglary. They may feel that it is nobody's business to know that they have guns. They may fear that their ownership may become known to the police and they will be forced to register. They may be uncertain of the legal status of their firearms - as most Canadians currently are.

This survey found a serious discrepancy in the number of married males and married females reporting a gun in their home. It is probably not only married women who under-report, this is just the one area in which comparison can be made. Additional suggestive evidence that under-reporting is not limited to married women comes from Alan Lizotte reporting on the Rochester Youth Development Study where 27.2% of boys and 16.8% of girls reported a gun in their parent's home.

One of the serious drawbacks of the 1991 Department of Justice/Angus Reid survey of firearms ownership, on which the government's estimate of firearms depends, is that they used a screening question and only interviewed people who acknowledged firearm ownership. In this study our principal focus was on the attitudes of the Canadian population, not specifically on estimating the firearms stock in the country, so we interviewed everyone in the sample. This allows us to know the demographic and attitudinal characteristics of those who refused to answer the question about their households' gun ownership.

In Reid's 1991 survey, 23% of the households were found to own firearms. We also found 23% of the households acknowledged owning firearms. When we make adjustments for the under-reporting by married women and the "refusers", we calculate that at least 28.5% of the households in Canada have firearms. This is a minimal estimate, 24% higher overall than Reid's estimate. We have not taken into account under-reporting by anyone except married women and "refusers", because we do not have the data to do so. Undoubtedly more under-reporting exists and more than 28.5% of Canadian households have guns.

The "main" reason for owning firearms in Canada is hunting. A strong majority of respondents in rural areas are favourable towards hunting, as a majority of big city respondents are opposed to it. This difference in attitudes is an underlying, but seldom mentioned, value conflict that drives much of the "gun control" debate. As urban regions gain ever more ascendancy in political calculations and media reportage, urban values come to dominate political discussion in many subject areas, not least of which is gun control.

There appear to be considerably more firearms and firearms owners in Canada than was estimated by previous surveys. Many of these unacknowledged firearms are in the hands of people who refuse to acknowledge ownership and who are consequently likely to resist registration and other attempts to regulate them.

Self defense is a troublesome right. Canadians typically view the debate on self protection as one that is restricted to the United States. The prevailing attitude is that there is no need for self defense in Canada - our superior social systems have eliminated these problems. It should come as no surprise that there are surprisingly few organized groups that officially support self defense, even in principle, or that teach it in any form. Talk show hosts discuss "violence against women" for hours without mentioning the possibility that women might use physical force to defend against assault or rape them. Not only do the police actively discourage armed self defense, but it is widely considered illegal. Exceptionally few Canadian organizations argue that citizens have the right to defend themselves with weapons.

Self defense is a right that is severely circumscribed by more conditions than are typically found in the United States. A wide range of self defensive weapons (e.g., Mace, pepper spray, small handguns, tasers and stun guns) are prohibited, and ownership of these is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. For all practical purposes, it has been impossible to legally own a handgun for self protection since 1977. Recent firearms legislation now requires firearms to not only be unloaded when stored in one's residence but must also be put under lock and key. Judging from newspaper reports, many of those who use a firearm to defend themselves, are charged with one or more criminal violations ­ unsafe storage, careless use of firearm, or possession of a prohibited weapon ­ and then they have to prove in court that the firearm had been used in self defense.

Do Canadians really believe that they should be passive victims when faced with death? Is the legal culture created by Parliament an accurate reflection of Canadian thinking? Or, as in the debate over capital punishment, where the public overwhelmingly supports it and Parliament forbids it, is the "liberal" political elite imposing their view of probity on Canadian society? Sixty percent of the respondents said they would defend themselves with a firearm. A majority (54%) of those who wanted to confiscate the self-defense handguns of other people would use a gun for self defense if they themselves were threatened.

Perhaps those who say they would personally use guns they favour confiscating from everyone else have not worked through the logic of their position. Perhaps they have never considered that they, themselves, might be in a situation in which a gun could be a lifesaver - although being untrained, they would probably be quite dangerous with a gun in their hands. These inconsistencies do, however, provide an interesting insight into the depth of thought that goes into much of the gun control rhetoric.

Denying that guns are sometimes used for self-protection is absurd. If there is to be a debate it should be on the relative merits of having a firearm for self-protection or not having one, under Canadian law, in differing circumstances.

Given the Canadian legal climate it is not surprising that the police are not informed of the use of guns for self defense in the overwhelming majority of situations where the gun was not fired. To report such an incident is to ask to be charged with some offense. Given the complexity of the law, neither a home owner nor the average police officer is likely to be sure whether an act of self defense was legal. Moreover, why would a geologist report to the police that she had fired her rifle to scare off a bear? A majority of Canadians say they would use a gun to defend themselves or their family from death or serious injury. Some have had to do so.

How could so many Canadians use firearms in self defense without it having become common knowledge before this? Self defense activity is basically invisible to government. First, there is no reason to report it, such as there is with property crimes or serious victimization. Given the moral ambiguity of the act, both the defender and aggressor have strong reason not to report the incident. If the defender used a firearm or other weapon to defend him or herself, there may even be a motive not to report the incident, since there is a strong possibility of facing legal charges for defending him or herself. Finally, even though medical doctors are required to report gun­shot wounds, the available statistics suggest that few self defense uses of firearms result in serious physical harm, so that there are few injuries that would require reporting (Kleck, 1991, pp).

As a general rule people feel more strongly about things that affect them personally. There have been gun control referendums in the United States where the polls indicated that the new law would pass, but when the vote came it failed. Gun owners are a small and seldom unified segment of the population and do not, by themselves, decide elections. They can constitute a swing vote. In a multi-party democracy, where governments are frequently elected by a minority of the electors the hostility of 10% of the population can be significant, if it is not countered by an incremental 10% who support the policy. The negative effects of stricter gun control for governing parties have been frequently noted, but the positive effects are rarely, if ever, noted.

It is quite clear that the "effectiveness myth" underlies political support for gun control. If the new gun control measures come to be seen as not having produced significant reductions in homicides, suicides and accidents a significant loss of support for gun control can be anticipated. It may well be that the principal reduction will be among the "Right and Hunt" and "Mixed" value positions; those with "No Right No Hunt" values may call for even stronger measures, such as total confiscation of firearms.

If registration is enacted as passed the response of many of those who supported it is likely to be, "thanks, but what have you done for me lately?" The response of those who have to comply with it is likely to be a vote for a candidate who will get rid of registration.

Confiscation is clearly a losing issue. If the handgun prohibitions and confiscation-in-place contained in Law C-68 are enforced about a half million Canadians will be infuriated, and millions more will anticipate that they will be next. Even those who favour confiscation may well ask, "if these guns are dangerous why are you leaving them with their owners?"

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H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
Home Page E-Mail: taylorbuckner@earthlink.net