Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal values they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant. In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light - those "who just don't get it," in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude.
Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.
- Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, 1995.
The late Christopher Lasch captured the reality and spirit of Canada's not-yet concluded debate over Bill C-68 and gun control in general. There is a split in Canadian politics, indeed in political behaviour across North America, if not the world. The old Left-Right distinctions have grown largely irrelevant except to mark an old battlefield where old adversaries have not realized the new reality that is upon them. The new rift is between as yet inarticulate populists and an entrenched but sophisticated elite of urban educated professionals.
Traditionally, elites claim to know what is best for the citizenry. Populists would rather make their own choices. When the two collide, the elites ignore the opinions of the great unwashed and prefer to create their own reality. The populists will despise the constructed reality and decide to disobey the edicts of the elites. Each side does not trust the judgement of the other (with ample reason on both parts). Conflict between the two marks the course of the history of the democratic peoples - the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the 1837 Rebellions being examples.
The split in Canada is very real. It can be observed by voting habits in the 1992 Constitutional Referendum, by the new political mood in English-Canada, and the temper evident in suburban and rural areas. Support for the new Provincial government in Ontario can be traced by telephone area-codes. Populism sells in the 705 and 905 area-codes surrounding Metro Toronto, and is rejected, for now, inside Metro Toronto proper - the 416 and 613 (Ottawa) areas being heavily influenced by the elite. A similar phenomenon can be observed elsewhere in the country.
Gun control is an elite preoccupation and a populist nightmare. In the elite reality, gun owners represent dangerous and unstable people who adhere to pastimes that no sensible person would want to pursue. To populists, a great many of whom are gun-owners, gun control represents an unwarranted interference in private life and individual expression. To the many populists who are becoming concerned with the pace and direction of elite thinking, there is a deep rooted suspicion that, perhaps, there is more to gun control than meets the eye. It does not matter whether this uneasy belief is valid or not, it is dangerous enough that it exists.
So what is one to think of Bill C-68? How else to describe the current Canadian government but as a collection of the ruling elite? How else should one think of the single largest protest movement ever mounted in Canada but as a populist movement? How far down the line will both sides play? Bill C-68 does give police significant new powers. By Canadian standards it is an extraordinarily intrusive and dangerously open-ended piece of legislation. Many gun owners have given ample notice of their intent to ignore the bitterly resented new law.
Gary Mauser and Taylor Buckner make no secret of their own views on Bill C-68. In the passage of the Bill, the Government relied on a public opinion poll that claimed that a vast majority of Canadians supported gun control. Mauser and Buckner undertook a more precise process that reveals an altogether different attitude. It is also the only existing tool that charts how Canadians really viewed gun control during the debate over C-68.
For its part, the Canadian government now has something to answer to. Were its lawyers and policy makers, the very exemplars of a professional governing elite, being careless by not being as detailed as Mauser and Buckner? Or were they deliberately misleading the public? These are questions that must be answered, as several million very unsettled Canadians are still listening very closely.
John C. Thompson
Although the authors of Bill C-68 claimed to have wide public support for gun control, the evidence of this support was very superficial. What was far more obvious was the widespread and deep opposition to the Bill. The imposition of such controversial legislation is bound to have very serious repercussions.
In January 1995, the authors designed a public opinion poll to determine exactly how Canadians felt about gun control, and whether C-68 was necessary or even desired. The poll and their analysis were conducted according to the proper standards of legitimate statistical analysis. It provides a great many new insights into the debate and may fuel a second round of opposition.
The gun control debate is between two sets of people with opposite values - those who have no problems with owning firearms, and those who hate and fear guns (or gun owners). The authors outlined the two camps by finding out who believes that Canadians should have the right to own firearms and the right to go hunting, and those who believe neither right should exist. About 35% of Canadians are in the first camp, and 24% are in the second. Both parties who adhere to these two basic values have some very complex opinions. The same is true of those in the middle. Incidentally, a similar conflict in values was evidenced during the lead-in to Prohibition.
Early in the paper, the split in opinions and values becomes clear. Canadians with pro-firearms values tend to be male, from the Prairies and from rural/suburban areas. Those with anti-firearms values tend to be female, from Quebec and from urban centres. These, however, are tendencies and the actual picture is much less precise. Differences in education levels, income and age are not too pronounced either, although firearms owners tend to be middle aged and in a middle income bracket.
Very few Canadians know much about gun control, particularly about the many strict regulations in place before Bill C-68 was passed. Of those who oppose gun ownership and hunting, very few really know anything about the law. But then, even only some 20% of gun owners passed the author's criteria for familiarity with existing gun laws. Thus, a debate about the need for increased regulations is rooted in a profound ignorance about the existing laws. Hence, a large part of the demand for gun control may have been rooted in wishful thinking.
Many Canadians say they are worried about violent crime and believe that it is increasing, but only 3% hold this to be the most important public policy concern. Moreover, when Canadians are asked what should be done to limit violent crime, gun control came a distant fourth among the possible responses listed by Canadians. According to the authors, when asked for their opinions on solutions to violent crime, far more Canadians prefer a return to capital punishment to increased gun control.
To add insult to the injuries already done to Ottawa's arguments in favour of gun control, the poll actually found that only 31% of Canadians believe that it would be effective. A minority believes gun control will improve the safety of women, reduce violent crime or reduce the number of suicides - the promised benefits of the legislation. However, a majority believe it will reduce the number of accidental deaths and homicides. This last opinion may be based on the heavy stress placed by the proponents of C-68 on the shooting deaths of women, although this is certainly not the most common form of homicide in Canada.
Attitudes towards Bill C-68's registration system are very complex. Although most Canadians support the program, this support is very soft and falls drastically once the potential costs are mentioned. In sum, gun control sounds nice, but Canadians don't want to pay for it. Hard support for registration, regardless of the costs, is mostly found among those who reject the right to hunt or to own firearms. Interestingly, most gun owners and those with pro-hunting and pro-gun ownership values support registration but with strong reservations about the costs. However, at the time of the poll (January 1995), nearly 30% of gun owners said they would not comply with the registration program. No doubt this figure is much larger today.
Indeed, the authors found evidence that many gun owners will refuse to register their firearms. This finding is consistent with the experiences of other Commonwealth countries. Police in Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand estimate that between 25 and 60% of the firearms' owners in their countries remain unregistered. As a large number of Canadians seem ready to refuse to comply with C-68, one can expect the gray and black markets for firearms in Canada to increase - thus ensuring that the promised benefits of C-68 will not appear. More importantly, the withdrawal of support for the authority of law enforcement agencies by a significant number of Canadians will undermine the existing high levels of support for Canada's legally constituted authorities. Rejection of the firearms laws, coupled with increasing acceptance of tax evasion by many Canadians could seriously erode the consent to be governed which is the foundation of the democratic system. This erosion will occur among those who have traditionally been the strongest supporters of law and order.
The Coalition for Gun Control alleged that 71% of Canadians supported a complete ban on civilian handguns. In opinion surveys, much depends on the question and how it is asked. Mauser and Buckner asked if Canadians favoured the confiscation of collectors' handguns, but only 20% did. A tiny minority (24%) favoured confiscating target shooter's handguns. Despite the usual Canadian ambivalence towards self-defence, only 48% would take handguns from those who need them for protection. Only 13% of Canadians were willing to always confiscate handguns regardless of the purposes for which they are owned.
All previous attempts by pollsters to determine the extent of firearms ownership in North America have indicated that the presence of firearms appears to be consistently under-reported. This poll found that many respondents refused to answer the question or, if they admitted to the presence of firearms, became reluctant to answer any further questions about ownership. Obviously, there are more firearms and gun owners in the country than Ottawa may realize. Most owners mentioned hunting and collecting as their primary reasons for owning firearms. The unwillingness to discuss personal holdings of firearms supports the earlier indication that compliance with C-68 will be much less than total.
Issues of self-defence are touchy in Canada. However, 60% of respondents said that they would use a firearm to protect themselves or their families if the circumstance arose. Even a majority of those who favoured confiscating handguns which are used for self-defence, would use a firearm for protection. About 2% of respondents said they had used a firearm for the purposes of protection in the past five years. This led the authors to speculate, that if only 5% of these incidents actually did save a life, then perhaps 3,000 lives are saved by firearms in Canada every year. Even in the unlikely event that Bill C-68 did dramatically reduce the annual toll of 1,400 direct gun deaths, it might still cost far more lives than it saves.
Bill C-68 could be an issue in the next election - as a "lose-lose-lose" proposition for its supporters. It seems that gun owners constitute a significant swing vote and are unlikely to support the Bill's proponents. If the issue is raised in the next election, support for it will not garner votes. Indeed, raising the issue of gun control will lose votes if C-68 is seen to be ineffective and/or if harsher new measures are called for by a candidate. To the current government, the issue of gun control is a dead loss in the next Federal election and they would do well to let it lie. To their rivals, the issue is available to be exploited.