When Canadians are asked in a public opinion survey what they think is the "most important problem facing Canada today," the typical response is something to do with the economy. This is unsurprising - the economy affects everyone.
Which aspect of the economy is considered most important varies depending on the recent focus of the media, and on the individual's situation. Sometimes "unemployment" is the most cited problem, sometimes "the recession." In early 1995 the most mentioned problem was "the deficit/government spending," which reflects intense coverage of the deficit and the promise of cutbacks. There is a certain tenuous link between reality and public opinion - if many people are unemployed, or a real recession is in progress, the answers are likely to reflect the situation.
Other persistent worries are crime and the environment. As these do not affect every individual every day, their saliency in a survey depends more on current media focus and, perhaps, isolated individual experiences. Thus, around the time of the Exxon Valdez accident, there were environmental disaster stories in the media on a daily basis, and the issue was frequently mentioned as a most important problem.
Crime, with few exceptions, does not vary much. In any given year, relatively few Canadians become victims of serious or violent crime . Unlike problems of the economy, which may directly trouble everyone, crime is experienced directly by a few victims and vicariously by many media consumers. Often, "crime waves" are a media creation. Sometimes, there will be a real crime wave in some small locality, usually occasioned by a small gang or an individual offender. Even a real crime wave is personally experienced by relatively few people. Rates of crime do change, relatively slowly, over the years, but media attention changes dramatically. A few unusual or brutal incidents may generate intense discussion of violent young people or paroled recidivists. As individuals only rarely experience crime personally, the level of worry tends to be directly related to the level of media attention.
As the above table shows, two-thirds of the respondents were concerned about various aspects of the economy in early 1995, and only three percent thought crime was the most important problem. Some portion of that three percent may have been victims, or may know a victim personally. Crime is far from the most important problem perceived by Canadians. Only one person (out of 1,505) thought gun control was the most important problem.
People living in small towns and rural areas are least likely to see crime and violence as a problem (2%); people living in large cities (4%) are most likely to have this perception. Women (5%) are much more likely to perceive crime and violence as the most important problem than are men (2%). This may reflect personal experience with violence or media coverage that gives the impression that women are more likely to be crime victims than men.
Crime and violence are perceived to be the most important problem more by young people (4%) than by older people (2%). This may reflect reality to some extent, younger people are more likely to be crime victims, and some respondents may have been recently victimized. Four percent of respondents at all educational levels except university graduates see crime as the most important problem. Almost no university graduates gave this reply. Three percent of low income respondents, 4% of middle income respondents, but only 1% of high income respondents saw crime as the most important problem. Those with "Right and Hunt" values are much less likely (1%) to see crime as the most important problem than those with No Right No Hunt" values (5%).
Knowing two or more factual items about the current firearms law made no difference in seeing crime as the most important problem. Those who were not familiar with the law were much more likely (3%) than those who were familiar (0%) to see crime as the most important problem. Interestingly, those who discussed firearms and gun control "frequently" were more likely (5%) to see crime as the most important problem than those who discuss firearms and gun control less often (3%). If one were to ask Canadians if they think that crime and violence is a problem, many would say "yes," but when asked for their perception of the "most important" problem facing Canada, few think of it. It is a matter of attention and direction. Respondents may not have been thinking of crime, but when asked about it they will express an opinion.
Some kinds of violent crime have increased over the last decade, some have diminished and some have fluctuated. Overall, based on statistics, the violent crime rate increased from 1984 to 1992, then decreased somewhat. Much of the increase was based on higher levels of reporting of minor assaults, which constitute 60% of "violent crime." If these minor assaults (Level 1) are removed the increase in the violent crime rate from 1985 to 1994 drops from 43% to 24% (Hendrick 1995:9). Gartner and Doob (1994) reported that the General Social Survey indicates no increase in the number of Canadians who were victims of crime between 1988-and 1993. People, however, do not live the average statistical experience. Some people have been victims; others have had friends or relatives victimized. Some people live in areas that have been terrorized by violent individuals, others have been frightened by media accounts of crime.
The media are faced with a dilemma - crime is news, statistics are not. If the other media are reporting a crime wave would people believe a news story that says it is not happening? Electronic media condenses space. A violent crime can be broadcast across Canada. A crime in downtown Toronto may seem close by, though a million people live between the viewer and the crime. A crime in the countryside may seem far away, though there are only a hundred thousand people between the viewer and the crime. Someone knifed in a bar fight may make the local news, but a child's murder is national news . Violent crime is heavily concentrated in the poorer classes, but is rarely reported; It is lightly concentrated in the richer classes, yet heavily reported when it does occur. A wellintentioned respect for individual privacy, and a laudable unwillingness to identify criminals by their backgrounds, leads to a situation in which the average Canadian can think that violent criminals are other average Canadians.
There is also the "golden age" myth. In the golden age children obeyed their parents, people admired and respected the police, everyone knew their place, and crime only occurred amongst the riffraff. Though its locus in time is uncertain, this halcyon era mostly seems to have occurred in the early adulthood of the recaller's parents. Greeks in the fifth century B.C. bemoaned the decline in respect of youth for their parents. Since the "golden age" everything has been going downhill. Crime, being ever reported, always seems to be worse than it used to be.
Many Canadian (45%) think that violent crime has increased a great deal in the last ten years, an additional 35% think it has increased somewhat. Among those who think that violent crime is the "most important" problem 62% think it has increased greatly, and a total of 89% think it has increased. One can dispute whether the changes in the violent crime rate constitute a "great" increase, "some" increase, or relative stability. Violent crime did go up, and recently has been going down. The belief that violent crime has increased has a reality of it's own; it is real in its consequences.
Because the numbers are so small (only 4% think crime has decreased) the responses of all those who said "stayed the same," "decreased somewhat," decreased a great deal," and, "Don't Know" have been condensed into a single category. The analysis will focus on those who think crime has increased a great deal.
Ontario residents are most likely to think crime has increased a great deal (50%), those in the Atlantic (38%) and Prairie (39%) provinces are least likely to believe it. There is no difference in the perception from rural areas to large cities, but women are much (52%) more likely than men (38%) to think crime has increased a great deal. Older people (49%) are more likely than younger people (39%) to think crime has increased a great deal, perhaps comparing it to the golden age. University graduates are least likely (37%) to think crime has increased greatly, perhaps because they are more likely to read analytical news stories. Lower income people are slightly more likely (49%) than higher income people (41%) to think violent crime has increased greatly.
Gun owners (38%) are less likely than non-owners (46%) to think crime has increased greatly, perhaps because some have been sensitized to crime statistics by the gun control debate. There is no relationship between attitude toward hunting, or the right to own a firearm, and seeing a great increase in crime, though those most opposed to hunting are slightly more likely (perhaps because of the large number of women who hold these values) to perceive a great increase in violent crime. Knowledge of firearms laws and discussion of firearms are not significantly related to belief in a great increase in violent crime.
For the question "What do you think should be done about reducing violent crime?", a number of response categories were provided. Respondents could to make six suggestions (the maximum number actually made was four). Responses that did not fit into one of the provided categories were recorded as "other." These included 158 total responses asking to bring back the death penalty - twice the number asking for stricter gun control laws, yet the issue has never been raised in Parliament. About half of the respondents suggested "other" solutions, or did not have any suggestions.
The most popular suggestion was "increased prison sentences" (338 total responses), followed by "more education" (209), followed by "reduce violence on television/media" (81), followed by "stricter gun control laws" (75).
This data had to be simplified for analysis. Individuals might make several suggestions for changes in the justice system, several suggestions for gun control, or suggestions for reducing media violence and increasing education. A fairly small number made suggestions in more than one of these categories. The answers were grouped into three categories. If the suggestion, or all the suggestions, of an individual fell into one category, as was usually true, the individual was assigned to that category. Four percent of the respondents made suggestions in two or three different categories, and almost half of the respondents made other suggestions, or did not know how to reduce violent crime.
As the table shows, 28% of respondents, a majority of those with recorded opinions, favoured changes in the justice system. Increasing education and reducing violence on television appealed to 15%, while various forms of gun control attracted only 4% of the suggestions. Each of these figures would be slightly increased if the suggestions of those with responses in two or three categories (4%) were counted, but this would produce answers that totaled more than 100%. By condensing the responses this way, the appeal of various solutions can be examined.
Changes to the justice system are most favoured in the Prairie provinces (36%), least favoured in Quebec (15%). Gun control is most favoured in the Atlantic provinces (8%), least favoured in the prairies (2%) and Quebec (2%). Providing more education and reducing violence on television is strongly favoured in Quebec (29%), least so in BC and the Prairie provinces (8%). While Quebeckers are strong supporters of gun control in other contexts, an "anti-media-violence" petition organized by a young girl in Quebec received much publicity and support, and this may have influenced this pattern of responses.
Community size has no significant impact on proposed solutions. Men are slightly more likely to suggest justice solutions, women slightly more likely to suggest gun control and education and television, but the differences are not significant. The age of the respondent has no consistent or significant effect on the suggestions made. Changes to the justice system are the most frequent suggestion made by people of all educational levels. Gun control is slightly more popular among university graduates (5%), and slightly less so among those with college and some university backgrounds (3%). The strongest effect of educational level is on the response to education and television items. Those with 1 to 12 years of education supported this option with 10% of their responses, while university graduates supported it with 20% of their responses. Higher income respondents are more likely to suggest changes in the justice system and reducing violence on TV than are lower income respondents.
Gun owners are strong supporters of justice options (35%), while non-gun owners support justice solutions at 26%. Non-gun owners are more likely to suggest gun control solutions (4%) than gun owners (1%). Non-gun owners are also more likely to support education and television suggestions (16%) than are gun owners (12%). There is no consistent or significant relationship between attitudes toward hunting, or the right to own a firearm, and the various crime control strategies. The respondents who did not know two or more factual items about the current firearm legislation were somewhat more likely (4%) to suggest gun control solutions than those who did (1%). Familiarity and Discussion are not significantly related to proposed solutions.
The belief that crime has increased greatly has consequences for political debate. Those who think that crime has increased are more likely to call for changes in the justice system: longer prison sentences; reduced parole; increased police services - a logical reaction to a firmly held belief. They are about average in calling for more gun control. Those few respondents who believe crime has remained the same or decreased, are more favourable to reducing violence on television and more education, and slightly more favourable to gun control than are those who think crime has increased.
Only one Canadian out of twenty sees crime and violence as the major problem facing Canada, but four out of five think it 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.
People in British Columbia and Ontario are more likely than people in the other provinces to see violent crime as the most important problem. People in Ontario are more likely to say crime has increased a great deal than are those in the other provinces. People in the Prairie provinces are the strongest supporters of changes to the justice system, while those in Quebec are the strongest supporters of more education and reduction of television and media violence. People in the Atlantic provinces were most likely to suggest gun control as a solution to violent crime; one out of thirteen did.
Women are more likely than men to think crime and violence is the most important problem, and to think it has become more common. This did not lead to any significant differences in proposed solutions; changes to the justice system were the most frequent suggestion of both sexes. Younger people were more likely to think crime and violence the most important problem, older people more likely to say it had increased greatly. People of all ages support changes to the justice system as the preferred solution to violent crime. Gun owners are more likely to suggest changes in the justice system than non-owners, though it is still the most popular option for non-gun owners. Not surprisingly, non gun-owners are more likely to support gun control than are gun owners.
Overall, Canadians are seven and a half times
more likely to suggest changes to the justice system than they
are to suggest changes to gun control laws. They are four times
more likely to suggest more education and a reduction of
television violence than they are to suggest changes to gun
control laws. They are more than twice as likely to suggest a
return to capital punishment than they are to suggest changes in
the gun control laws. Changing gun control laws was not a valid
response to what Canadians really want.