H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
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Chapter 4. Knowledge and Salience of the Current Gun Control Laws

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.

Public opinion surveys encourage people to express opinions. When interpreting these opinions it is useful to know whether they are based on a sound grasp of the issue, or are less well grounded. If a person supports a change in the law, do they know what the current law is? In the ordinary course of events, one pays more attention to those who are well informed than to those who professes ignorance. This relationship may not always hold - some politicians can find controversial projects are easier to complete if the public is not well informed.

Gauging people's levels of knowledge through a survey requires a number of judgements. What knowledge is relevant? How much knowledge is necessary to say that a person is reasonably well informed? How is it to be measured?

We decided to use a combination of subjective and objective approaches. First we asked how familiar respondents thought they were with the present Canadian firearms law, followed by factual questions to see how much they really knew. Roberts (1994: 84), in a review of research carried out for the Department of Justice titled, "Public Knowledge of Crime and Justice," wrote:

"Research conducted for the Department of Justice in 1992 and 1993 sheds light on public awareness of gun control legislation in Canada. On both occasions, respondents were asked if they had heard anything about "new Canadian gun control laws" and on both occasions more than two thirds of the public responded affirmatively (Insight Canada, 1994).

"Moving to the level of familiarity shows less public awareness. In 1992, a Decima poll asked respondents to state how familiar they were with gun control legislation. Only 9% responded that they were "very familiar". A further 37% were "somewhat familiar", while more than half said they were not very, or not at all familiar with the legislation (Decima, 1993)...

"As with other areas of legislative activity reviewed in this paper, awareness did not correspond to accurate knowledge of specific provisions. In fact, one quarter of the respondents who had heard about the new gun laws could not identify any specific reforms introduced by the laws (Insight Canada, 1994)."

Our findings are similar. We asked, "How familiar would you say you are with the present Canadian firearms laws?" Eight percent said "very familiar," 33% said "somewhat familiar," and 59% said "not very" or "not at all familiar," or replied that they did not know.

Q4. How familiar would you say you are with present Canadian firearms laws? Would you say (READ LIST)?
Responses Number Percent
Very Familiar 120 8.0
Somewhat Familiar 501 33.3
Not very Familiar 476 31.6
Not at all Familiar 401 26.7
Don't Know 7 .4
Total Responses 1505 100.0

After examining "Familiarity" in combination with a number of other variables it became clear that only those who said they were "very familiar" with the law had even a passing acquaintance with it. Some of the rest might have meant that they knew Canada had a law, and so were familiar with that fact. For analysis, then, responses to "Familiarity" are condensed into "Very", and "Less," which includes all the remaining replies.

Overall 8% of respondents said they were "very familiar" with the current law. Respondents in British Columbia were most likely to say they were "very familiar" (13%) while respondents in Quebec were the least likely to give the same response. People in rural areas were slightly more likely to say they were "very familiar," (11%) than people in cities of any size (7%). Men were significantly more likely to say they were "very familiar" (12%) with the law than women (4%). The same difference exists between older people (11%) and younger (5%). Those with higher incomes were more likely to say they were "very familiar" (11%) with the law than those with lower incomes.

These results can be partially explained by gun ownership, which is more prevalent amongst males and rural people. Among gun owners, 30% claimed to be "very familiar" with the present law, while only 4% of non-gun owners made the same claim. Of those with "Right and Hunt" values, 15% said they were "very familiar" with the law, but only 2% of those with the opposite values said they were "very familiar" with the law.

Sixteen percent of those who knew two or more factual items about the law said they were "very familiar" with the law, while 7% of those who did not know two or more factual items said they were "very familiar" with the law. People who discuss firearms and gun control frequently are significantly more likely to say they are "very familiar" (30%) with the law than those who discuss firearms and gun control less often (5%).

A person's notion of how familiar they are with a law is highly subjective. With the same level of knowledge one person might say she was very familiar with the law, another that he was not. A person who knew how staggeringly complex the current law is, might quite reasonably say they were not very familiar with it. Another person who has a fragment of knowledge might not know just how much there is to know, and say they were very familiar with it. On the other hand, any objective test of familiarity with the law is, of necessity, limited to a few questions, and a person might be quite well informed about provisions of the law not covered by the questions.

Objective Measures of Knowledge

Q5. If a Canadian who has never owned a firearm wants to buy a rifle or shotgun for the first time, can they go to a store and buy it or do they have to do something first?
Responses Number Percent
Go to the store and buy it 140 9.3
Do something else first 1227 81.5
Don't Know 138 9.2
Total Responses 1505 100.0

Some 18% of the respondents either thought a first time gun buyer could just go to a store and buy a gun (9%), or did not know (9%). A huge majority knew that the potential buyer has to do something first before going to the store. This question, being so basic, does not discriminate well. There were no significant differences between regions of Canada, between rural and urban residents, or between those with differing levels of education. Women were slightly more likely to say they did not know the answer, younger people, gun owners, and those who strongly favour hunting were significantly more likely to know that something had to be done. (Graphic - Flow Chart on Steps Required to Purchase a Firearm in Quebec, Canada)

Multiple Unaided Responses Number Percentage
Take a government safety course 322 21.4
Produce letters of reference 20 1.3
Apply to the police to get a permit (FAC) 713 47.3
Have the store keep an official record of their name and address 26 1.7
Total Responses 1,508 **

* Each item had a potential total response of 1,505. The number beside each item is the number of people who said something had to be done and mentioned that item. Some people mentioned two or three items, others none.

** The percentages are not totaled as they do not include those who said "just go to store and buy," or "don't know," to the screening question, or those who gave some other answer or said they did not know what had to be done in response to this question.

Canadian law has required potential gun buyers to have a "police permit" or FAC since 1978, so the fact that almost half of the respondents knew this is unsurprising. Firearm retailers have had to keep a record of the name, address and Firearms Acquisition Certificate Number of purchasers since 1978, but this is obviously not well known. The requirements for letters of reference and the safety course were introduced in 1993. About one in five respondents mentioned the safety course, but only 1% mentioned that applicants for a FAC needed letters of reference.

As much of the controversy around C-68 has been about handguns, the question was asked "What is the maximum penalty in Canada for having a handgun that is not registered with the police?" As previous research at Concordia University found that only 1% of the students knew that there is a five year penalty, a much higher level of knowledge in the general population was not anticipated. One might think such a question could discriminate between those who really knew the law and those who did not, but it appears that many respondents simply guessed.

Q7. What is the maximum penalty in Canada for having a handgun that is not registered with the police?
Responses Number Percent
No Penalty 20 1.3
A fine 110 7.3
Less than one year in prison 27 1.8
Between one and four years in prison 84 5.6
Five years in prison (correct answer) 44 2.9
More than five years in prison 37 2.4
Other 40 2.7
Don't know 1,143 76.0
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

Overall only 3% knew or guessed the correct answer. Even gun owners were not significantly more likely to know than non-gun owners. Among handgun owners, who should know because a copy of this part of the law comes printed on a slip enclosed with their registration certificate, only 11% knew the correct answer. As Roberts noted in his study, "...awareness did not correspond to accurate knowledge of specific provisions."

Answers to the "what do they have to do?" and "handgun penalty" questions were combined into a single scale of "knowledge." There were five factual items: knowing of the safety course; the reference requirements; store records; the necessity of Firearms Acquisition Permits: and the five year maximum penalty for unregistered handguns. The five responses were counted in each case, and it was determined that anyone who gave two or more correct responses "knew" the law. Obviously this is not a very high level of knowledge, but only 13% of the respondents qualified. A single correct response could not be taken as an indicator of knowledge as gun control has been in the media more or less constantly since 1988 - but only 15 respondents (1% of the sample) gave three or more responses.

Index of "Knowledge" of current Firearms Control Laws
The Respondent: Number Percent
Knows none of five items 588 39.1
Knows one of five items 726 48.2
Knows two of five items 176 11.7
Knows three of five items 14 1.0
Knows four of five items 1 .1
Knows all five items 0 .0
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

"Knowledge" was very unevenly distributed across Canada. In Quebec 20% knew two or more items, in the rest of Canada it was only 10%. There were no significant differences between rural and urban respondents, education levels, or income brackets. Sixteen percent of men and 10% of women knew two or more items. Younger respondents were twice as likely to know two or more items (15%) as older respondents (7%).

Of gun owners, 20% knew two or more items, against 11% of non-gun owners. Those who supported "Right and Hunt" values were significantly more likely to know two or more items than those who opposed them. Twenty-six percent of those who said they were "very familiar" with the law knew two or more items, as opposed to 12% of those less familiar with the law. People who discussed firearms and gun control "frequently" were almost twice as likely to know two or more items (20%) as those who discussed firearms and gun control less frequently (12%).

Salience of the Firearms Law

One way to determine whether is an issue is meaningful to someone is to ask if they talk about it with peers. Talk generates and sustains realities. Talk may be idle or informed, it may reaffirm values or be a factual discussion. Just discussing a topic casually may not make one particularly knowledgeable about it.

How often do Canadians discuss the subject of firearms or gun control in Canada with friends, relatives or co-workers? A total of 36.1% said they had such discussions frequently or occasionally, but only 10.6% said frequently. Firearms and firearms control are not pressing or salient issues for the majority of Canadians.

Q9. How often do you discuss the subject of firearms or gun control in Canada with your friends, relatives or co-workers? Would you say (READ LIST)
Responses: Number Percent
Frequently 159 10.6
Occasionally 384 25.5
Rarely 574 38.1
Never 386 25.7
Don't Know 2 .1
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

After examining the impact of the frequency of discussion on a number of other issues, the categories were collapsed into "Frequently," and "Less," which includes all other responses. A person who discusses firearms and gun control "occasionally" may mean once a year or less.

While 11% discuss guns or gun control "frequently" across Canada, there are significant differences between regions. In BC, 14% say they discuss guns or gun control "frequently," as do 15% in the Prairie provinces and only 5% in Quebec. People in rural areas are almost twice as likely (15%) as people in large cities (8%) to discuss guns frequently. Men (13%) are more likely than women (8%) to discuss guns and gun control "frequently." Older people (14%) are significantly more likely to discuss the issue than younger people (9%). Frequent discussions of guns and gun control are inversely correlated with education; among those who have not finished high school, 14% discuss guns "frequently," while only 7% of university graduates do so.

For obvious reasons, gun owners (27%) are much more likely to discuss guns and gun control "frequently" than non-gun owners (7%). People who hold "Right and Hunt" values are twice as likely (16%) to discuss firearms "frequently" as people who hold "No Right No Hunt" values.

Values, Knowledge and Salience

The basic values which people have influence their actions. Only a minority of Canadians are interested in firearms and firearm control, but in that minority those who hold "Right and Hunt" values are much more likely than others to say that they are "very familiar" with the current law, to actually know two or more elements of the current law, and to discuss firearms and gun control "frequently."

Basic Values and Familiarity, Knowledge and Discussion of Current Laws
  Right to Own and Attitude Toward Hunting Typology

Indicators of Knowledge and Salience
Right and Hunt Mixed No Right No Hunt
Percent saying they are "very familiar" with current law 15% 5% 2%
Percent actually knowing two or more factual items 17% 10% 11%
Percent discussing guns and gun control frequently 16% 7% 8%
Total Responses 529 609 368

These three indicators point to the relative importance of firearms for those with the "Right and Hunt" value orientation, and their relative lack of importance for those with the "No Right No Hunt" value orientation.

Gun Ownership, Knowledge and Salience

If values are important, activity has even more direct influence on actions. Gun ownership in Canada is not a casual affair for most owners. A study done for the Department of Justice (Reid 1991:Table 9) found that in 49% of firearm-owning households, a member of the household had received safety instruction in the last five years. Following the implementation of C-17's requirement that all applicants for an FAC pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course, this figure will undoubtedly rise. The course covers firearm legislation in great detail, so it is logical to expect that gun owners will become even more informed about legal issues than they are now. Moreover, the following table clearly demonstrates that firearms owners are far more acquainted with the laws on ownership.

Gun Ownership and Familiarity, Knowledge and Discussion of Current Laws
  Gun Ownership
Indicators of Knowledge and Salience
None
In Home,

Not Owner


Owner
Percent saying they are "very familiar" with current law
4%

5%

30%
Percent actually knowing two or more factual items
11%

15%

20%
Percent discussing guns and gun control "frequently"
7%

15%

27%
Total Responses 1136 127 242

The discrepancy between a basically uninformed public which calls for ever increasing restrictions on firearms, and increasingly informed gun-owners guarantees conflict. At the time the survey was taken (January, 1995) fewer than 100,000 gun owners had taken the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. Over the next five years millions will have to take it. Many long-time gun owners had not yet been touched by C-68, but as more and more of them discover personally what has been done, the level of opposition will rise. The implementation of Firearms Possession Permits, and universal registration will cause some to give up their guns, others to keep them illegally, fostering a black market (Thompson 1995), and still others to organize politically. 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. One need only consider the Prohibition Era to see what repressive firearms legislation may produce.

Conclusions

Men are more likely to say they are familiar with the law, to actually "know" the law than women, and to discuss it more. People in Quebec are more likely to say they are not familiar with the law and do not discuss it frequently, but are more likely to know two or more aspects of the law than people in other regions of Canada. Older people say they are familiar with the law and discuss it frequently, but are less likely to "know" the law than younger people. Gun owners and those who are pro-hunting are more likely to say they are familiar with the law, to actually "know" the law, and to discuss the law than non-gun owners and those who oppose hunting.

Although we do not have a simple and clear measure of those who actively oppose firearms ownership (except from their values), there are a few relatively well informed people who think Canadians should not have the right to own firearms, and who discuss the topic among themselves frequently.

Overall Canadians are not particularly knowledgeable about or interested in firearms or gun control. The informed debate is taking place between a very small portion of the population who "know" the law and oppose firearms ownership, and a somewhat larger, but still small, portion who "know" the law and favour ownership.

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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