H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. P.O. Box 320, South Hero, Vermont 05486-0320 (802) 372-5236
Home Page   E-Mail: taylor@buckner.cc

Presented in the Firearms and Society section of the Law and Society meetings, University of Calgary, 14 June 1994.

Concordia's "Gun Control" Petition:
Ignorance of the Law is the Only Excuse. (


H. Taylor Buckner (2) E-Mail: taylor@buckner.cc


A representative survey of Concordia University undergraduate students (n=780) taken in February and March 1984 was the basis of an experiment designed to discover whether the students who signed the Concordia "gun control" petition were in reality asking for a new law that would prohibit the possession of handguns, except for the police and army. In a random double-blind experiment half of the students were asked if they supported the policies demanded by the petition, the other half were asked if they supported the present law. There were no significant differences on background variables between the experimental and control groups, and they were equally likely to support either policy. Other questions revealed that the students had very little knowledge of gun control laws, Canadian handgun murder rates, or guns. This finding brings into question the validity of public opinion polls that suggest a majority of Canadians support handgun prohibition, and sounds a warning to politicians who would formulate policies on the basis of uninformed public opinion.


In the current debate over gun control we are told that public opinion polls show that a large percentage of the Canadian population supports some very specific proposals for gun control. (
3) Quite apart from the effects of the loaded and biased questions, do Canadians really know the alternatives, or are they just giving the easy response to a "motherhood" question?

Evidence from an experiment at Concordia University indicates that students who signed the Concordia "gun control" petition were so ignorant of the present law that they were just as favourable to it as they were to the change in the law requested by the petition they signed . The supposed support for specific gun control measures found in public opinion polls is probably similarly uninformed (
Sudman:7,89; Mauser and Kopel; Kopel).

The issue of gun control is not terribly salient for most people, when they are asked in a poll whether guns should be more restricted most answer "why not?" Most people know very little about existing firearms laws (
Wright, et. al.:232), so when a poll asks, usually after a dramatic incident (Kukla, 1973:260; Kleck, 1991:368), if there should be more laws an overwhelming majority says yes. What the public is saying is that they think "something" should be done. An example of this is the "handgun prohibition petition" presented to the Minister of Justice by the former Rector of Concordia University.

On August 24, 1992, four professors at Concordia University, in Montreal, were murdered by Valery Fabrikant, an engineering professor, using three handguns.(
4) The Rector of the University responded by launching a petition (5), placed under a poster that said, "Please sign in memory of our late colleagues and of all victims of violence." (6)

"The undersigned call on the Parliament of Canada to enact immediately laws prohibiting anyone in Canadian territory from having in their possession any handgun, with the exception of members of the Canadian Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Officers for the purpose of their duties."

This petition was presented to the Minister of Justice with 200,000 signatures, about 50,000 collected at Concordia. The students at Concordia thus represent a large part of the petition, and by questioning them we can find out whether they were expressing a desire for new legislation, or just expressing concern.


Sample Design

This study is based on 780 questionnaires filled out in a sample of classes at Concordia University in February and March of 1994. The classes were selected by systematic cluster sampling with the final cluster selection being proportional to the registration in each class. Specifically, a listing of all courses being given at Concordia was obtained from the Registrar. From a random starting page every 10th page was sampled. On each sampled page a cumulative total of the actual number of students registered in second term and full­year courses was calculated. A random number was then drawn to select one of the courses. To select alternates, in case of refusal, the page was turned over and the same procedure followed with the courses listed on the back of the page. This is the same sampling procedure used in the 5 previous representative Concordia Student Surveys. A total of 44 classes (and alternates) were selected by this procedure.

Sample Execution

Forty-two of the 44 classes were successfully sampled either with the primary or alternate class completing the questionnaire. Attendance in many of the full year classes was not high. While a very small number of students refused to fill out the questionnaire, the principal loss was from students who did not attend the class that day. Much of the questionnaire administration was done in the week of February 14 - 18, 1994 when temperatures often fell to -30 Celsius, reducing class attendance somewhat.

The students from SOCI 410, the Honours Research Design and Analysis course, distributed the questionnaires in the sample classes, and read aloud the instructions from a prepared script. The sampled classes were told that the questionnaires were confidential and anonymous, that only statistical results would be reported, that they were free not to fill out the questionnaire, and that they could quit at any time. The completed questionnaires were put in a confidential envelope and returned through internal mail to the Sociology Department.

Coding and Data Entry

The completed questionnaires were numbered, edited to eliminate double answers, inappropriate responses to contingency questions, and to code missing responses as missing. They were then gathered in packages of 30 questionnaires each. The SOCI 410 students then took their packages, entered the data, and had another student verify that it was correctly entered. A 10% random sample of questionnaires from each student was re-verified by the teaching assistant. Possible code and contingency cleaning was then carried out.


Although it is not a simple random sample, a sample this size (n=780) should be accurate within plus or minus 3.5%, 19 times out of 20. The margin of error for smaller sub­samples, and for variables directly connected with the sampled courses, such as the students' majors, is, of course, larger.


One question was used as an experiment to see if students who had signed Concordia's "gun control" petition actually favoured (or knew) what the petition asked. (
7) Half of the sample was randomly presented with question A that copied the wording of the petition, the other half was presented with question B that represents the present legal situation. The presentation of these questions was systematically altered, every other questionnaire had question A or B. The student administering the questionnaire did not know who was answering question A or B, and the respondents did not know that there were different questions. In essence, this is a randomized double blind experiment. The two questions were:

A. (Control Group) "Here is a question about pistols and revolvers. Do you favour or oppose a law which would forbid the possession of these types of guns (handguns)
except by the police and army?" (emphasis added)
B. (Experimental Group) "Here is a question about pistols and revolvers. Do you favour or oppose a law which would forbid the possession of these types of guns (handguns)
except by the police, army and other authorized persons?" (emphasis added)

There were no significant differences (Chi Square less than .10) between the students who answered Question A (the control group) and Question B (the experimental group) in terms of the students' gender, sexual orientation, age, age group, race, ethnic background, religion, self reported socioeconomic status, credits completed at university, day or evening class attended, grade point average, faculty of study, or whether they had signed the petition.

Significantly more students who grew up in small to medium sized towns responded to question B, and significantly more students who grew up in several communities of different sizes responded to question A. Since growing up in a rural, small town, suburb, urban area, or several of these situations, was not itself significantly related either to signing the petition, or to favouring handgun prohibition in either question A or B, this one difference between the experimental and control groups does not influence the outcome of the experiment.


Fifty-seven percent of the students questioned (n=441) had signed the petition. (

Those students who had signed the petition were equally likely to favour banning handguns for everyone but the police and army, and banning handguns for everyone but the police, army, and other authorized persons.

In the control group, 85.7% of the students who had signed the petition favoured banning handguns as requested by the petition (14.3% did not favour what they had signed).

Figure 1 Students who signed the petition are equally likely to favour the present law as the bans asked for in the petition.

In the experimental group, 85.1% of the students who had signed the petition asking for a ban on handguns except for the police and army, were favourable to letting other authorized persons, as well as the police and army, have handguns (which is the current situation, not what was asked for by the petition).

The difference between 85.1% and 85.7% is not significant (Chi Square = .854). The students were just as likely to favour both positions. Thus it can be said with certainty that the students who signed the Concordia petition were not calling for a total civilian handgun prohibition, as asserted by the sponsors of the petition, but are saying "something" should be done.


Figure 2 Simplified flow-chart of steps required to obtain a firearm in Quebec, Canada.

The students at Concordia seem to be almost completely ignorant of the system of gun control contained in Canada's Criminal Code. It is an extremely complex law, taking up 42 pages in Snow's Criminal code (1992, Rel.4). As
Figure 2 shows, the process of obtaining a firearm in Canada is long and complex. A person who wants a handgun will have to submit 12 letters of reference (in Quebec) and undergo three separate police investigations. Probably few Canadians are aware of these complex rules, so I tried to assess the students' knowledge by asking a simple question:

"Do you happen to know what the maximum penalty is in Canada for having a handgun that is not registered with the police?"

There is no penalty
A $200 fine
A $500 fine
6 months in prison
1 year in prison
2 years in prison
3 years in prison
4 years in prison
5 years in prison
I don't know for sure
Number of cases:


Among the petition signers 76.5% said they did not know the penalty, almost all the rest were obviously guessing. Only 0.7% correctly guessed that the maximum penalty was five years in prison, the most frequent guess was a $500 fine. Those students who signed the petition and those who did not sign had the same level of ignorance.

From the point of view of analysis, this is an unfortunate result, in that it can not be used to differentiate between students who had any knowledge and those who had no knowledge. In retrospect, given this response, I probably should have asked, "Does Canada have any gun control laws?" Though many students would have guessed "yes," those who said "no," or "don't know for sure," could have been considered profoundly uninformed.

Since the Concordia Petition, in response to murders, asked for a handgun prohibition, I wanted to see if the students were aware of the handgun murder rate in Canada:

"What percentage of the murders in Canada do you think are committed with handguns?"

0 to 9%
10% to 19%
20% to 29%
30% to 39%
40% to 49%
50% to 59%
60% to 69%
70% to 79%
80% to 100%
I don't know for sure
Number of cases:



The actual handgun murder rate, historically, has been around 10%, though it jumped to 17% in 1991 (
Wright:1992). I considered any answer up to 19% as being correct. Only 5.4% of those who signed the petition knew that the handgun murder rate was under 20%, compared with 7% among those who did not sign the petition. What may be more important than lack of knowledge, is the widespread erroneous belief that handguns are implicated in the majority of murders in Canada. Forty-three percent of the students believe that 50% or more of the murders in Canada are committed with handguns. This is probably a result of continual reporting of the situation in the United States combined with a lack of reporting on the different situation in Canada.

Since the sponsors of the petition assert that the signers are asking for a very specific change in the gun control laws, I thought it would be interesting to see just how much the students knew about guns in general. Two questions were asked:

Do you happen to know the main difference between a rifle and a shotgun?

A shotgun has grooves inside its barrel, a rifle is smooth inside.........................................
A rifle has grooves inside its barrel, a shotgun is smooth inside.........................................
A rifle shoots many bullets, a shotgun only one....................................................
I don't know for sure..................................

Knowledge of difference:
Knows (A rifle has groves, shotgun smooth)..........
Does not know (all other answers and non-response)

Number of cases:






Does the magazine of a gun have a trigger? (

I don't know for sure......

Knowledge of difference:
Knows Magazine doesn't have trigger....................
Does not know..............

Number of cases:




Students who signed the petition were slightly less likely to know the answers to either question than students who did not sign the petition. Among petition signers 89.3% did not know the difference between a rifle and a shotgun, among non-signers it was 87%. Among petition signers 71.4% did not know that the magazine of a gun does not have a trigger, among non-signers it was 63.1% (this difference is significant, Chi Square = .017)

Figure 3 Summary of students knowledge of the current law, the handgun murder rate, the difference between rifles and shotguns, and whether a magazine has a trigger.

It would be fair to say, overall, that the students in the sample do not know much about guns, gun control laws, or handgun homicide rates, and that they signed the petition just because it was there.


The only background characteristic that was significantly related to signing the petition was the student's gender. Women were much more likely to sign the petition, 64.8% did, than men, 53.2%. Other background characteristics: age group, ethnic background, faculty of study, grade point average, race, religion, rural or urban background, self reported socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation were not related to signing the petition.


One of the effects of a handgun prohibition, which, at the least, would eliminate handguns among the law abiding, would be to make self defense more difficult (Young). As Gary Mauser (1994) has pointed out there are around 60,000 defensive uses of guns per year in Canada, half against animals and half against humans. Logically, a student who signed the petition should think that armed self-defense was not justified.

Overall, students feel that armed self-defense by store owners is at least sometimes justified.

"Recently, there have been a number of incidents involving firearms used by retail store owners. How often do you feel that incidents like these ­ defending oneself with a firearm ­ are justified?"

SAMPLES: Stud93 same as Stud94;
Mauser & Margolis, representative national, RDD.

1994 Concordia Student Survey

93 Concordia Student Survey

Mauser & Margolis 1990



Always justified 7%
Usually justified 28%
Sometimes justified 48%
Rarely justified 13%
Never justified 3%
No opinion (not offered in 1994)
Number of cases: [764]


Always justified
Usually justified
Sometimes justified
Rarely justified
Never justified
No opinion
Number of cases:



Students who signed the petition are significantly less likely to think that store owners are justified in defending themselves with firearms than are students who did not sign the petition (Chi Square = .003). Still, 80% of the students who signed the petition thought that self-defense was at least sometimes justified, compared with 85.7% of the students who did not sign the petition.

"Recently, there have been a number of incidents involving firearms used by retail store owners. How often do you feel that incidents like these ­ defending oneself with a firearm ­ are justified?" BY "Did you happen to sign the Concordia "gun control" petition?"


Sign Petition?



Always justified
Usually justified
Sometimes justified
Rarely justified
Never justified
Number of cases:



Figure 4 Petition signers are almost as likely as non-signers to feel self defense is justified.

When it comes to personal self-defense the same pattern holds. Students who signed the petition were significantly (Chi Square = .041) less likely to say they would defend themselves with a gun, though a majority, 75.4% said they probably or certainly would, compared to 81.1% of the students who did not sign the petition.

"If you, or your family, were threatened with death or serious injury by an aggressor and you had access to a firearm, would you use it to defend yourself, or not?" (
10) BY "Did you happen to sign the Concordia "gun control" petition?"

Use Firearm to defend self or family?

Sign Petition?



Definitely Yes
Probably Yes
Not Sure
Probably Not
Definitely Not
Number of cases:



Figure 5 Students who signed the petition are almost as likely to say they would defend themselves with a gun as non-signers.

The willingness to defend oneself, and the recognition of its justification for others, is very strong in both groups. The contradiction - prohibiting handguns would make self-defense much more difficult for store owners, and for the students themselves - probably did not occur to the students when they signed the petition. (

Student who signed the petition were significantly more likely (Chi Square = .001) than non-signers to think that more firearms laws would make the crime rate decrease. Considering that the great majority have no idea of the extent of the present laws this has to be taken as an expression of faith in the law.

"If there were more firearms laws, do you think the crime rate would decrease, increase, or stay the same as it is now?" BY "Did you happen to sign the Concordia "gun control" petition?"

Crime rate would...with more firearms laws

Sign Petition?



Large increase
Stay the same
large decrease
Number of cases:



Figure 6 Petition signers are somewhat more likely to think that more firearms laws would lower the crime rate.

It is noteworthy that over a third of the petition signers thought more laws would make no difference, or would actually cause an increase in the crime rate.

Finally, petition signers were significantly (Chi Square = .009) more likely than non-signers to think that gun control laws will affect criminals.

"Some people say 'Gun control laws affect only law-abiding citizens, criminals will always be able to find firearms.' Do you agree or disagree?" BY "Did you happen to sign the Concordia 'gun control' petition?"

Laws affect only law-abiding

Sign Petition?



Strongly disagree
Strongly agree
Number of cases:



Figure 7 Some petition signers think laws will affect criminals, but most do not.

Fully 62.7% of those who signed the petition think that gun control laws only affect the law-abiding. Thus the majority of the students who signed the petition do not believe that the law they asked for would reduce the criminal use of guns.


The fact that students who signed the Concordia petition would have been just as supportive of the present law brings the meaning of the petition into question. While the sponsors claim the signers are demanding a prohibition of handguns for civilians, in fact they have simply exploited the students' emotional response to the Concordia murders and ignorance of the law to make this claim.

University students are not always the most informed or experienced members of society, they are subject to fads and fashions, and are likely to go along with authority figures who seem to be asking for popular, "politically correct," and "common sense" actions. The fact that 85% of both the experimental and control groups react favourably to the term, "handgun prohibition," whether for civilians or not, is a demonstration of willingness to go along with a "politically correct" idea.

At a more fundamental level this experiment cast doubt on the public opinion polls that show a high level of support for "gun control." Given the lack of salience to most people, and their ignorance of present law, their opinions are not held with much force. Some Canadians fear guns, anything called "gun control" will attract their attention for a while. No matter what controls are passed the perception of crime will continue (whether the crime rate is rising or falling) and they will always be in favour of more "control." When it comes to an election these Canadians will vote for jobs and safety, and a politician who supported a gun control measure that did not reduce the crimes reported in the media will win no votes.

For this large number of concerned citizens an advertising campaign that emphasized how strict the laws are, and the government's commitment to enforcing them, would be much more reassuring than adding yet another law that is so "tough" it is unenforceable.

For the small group of persons who have a continuing and passionate commitment to "gun control," given that all the guns in the world cannot be made to disappear, no law will ever be "enough." Any politician who makes a compromise that reflects the reality of the vast expenditures, and the limited utility, of sweeping regulations and prohibitions, will be characterized as having caved-in to the "gun lobby" and will become the enemy. All one has to do is to read the editorials that appeared after some of the strictest gun laws in the world were enacted two years ago, or reflect on the support the Coalition for Gun Control provided for the Conservatives in the last election, to see that this is so.

Left out of this discussion of public opinion are the minority who will be affected. When a person suddenly finds himself paying new fees, facing new regulations, or having his property seized, for reasons entirely unrelated to his own actions, a strong reaction is normal.

Gun control thus presents the paradoxical problem of baseless public opinion to the politician. If he votes on the basis of public opinion it will make no difference in the publics' perception of crime, it will alienate those who asked for a new law, and it will create enemies who will never forget. The motto of aggrieved gun owners when it comes to elections is
"Je me souviens."


Kleck, Gary.
Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Kopel, David B.
1989. "Media Bias in Coverage of Gun Control: The Press Evaluates the Popular Culture." Pp. 165-184 in
The Gun Culture and Its Enemies, edited by William R. Tonso. Bellevue, WA: Merril.

Kukla, Robert J.
Gun Control. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole.

Mauser, Gary A. and M. Margolis.
1992. "The Politics of Gun Control: Comparing Canadian and American Patterns,"
Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 10:189-209.

Mauser, Gary A., David B. Kopel
1992. "'Sorry, Wrong Number': Why Media Polls on Gun Control Are Often Unreliable."
Political Communication, 9:69-92.

Mauser, Gary A.
1994. "Is There a Need for Armed Self Defense in Canada?" Paper presented to the Firearms and Society session of the Law and Society Annual Meeting, Calgary, Alberta, 14 June 1994.

Sudman, Seymour and Norman M. Blackburn.
Asking Questions: A Practical Guide to Questionnaire Design. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wright, James D., Peter H. Rossi and Kathleen Daly.
Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America. New York: Aldine.

Wright, Christine.
1992. "Homicide in Canada 1991."
Juristat: Service Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 12:18. October.

Young, David W.
Reasonable and Necessary: Defensive Firearms Ownership and Use in Canada. RN, P.O. Box 312, Roxboro, Quebec H8Y 3K4.


(1) Presented in the Firearms and Society section of the Law and Society meetings, University of Calgary, 14 June 1994.

(2) H. Taylor Buckner, (Adjunct) Associate Professor of Sociology, Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve W., Montreal, P.Q., H3G 1M8.

(3) According to the Coalition for Gun Control Survey carried out by Angus Reid in September 1993, 86% support registering all guns, 84% want to ban "assault rifles," and 71% want to ban handguns. The questions developed by the Coalition are incredibly loaded and biased, but more importantly were asked in an information vacuum. No attempt was made to inform the respondents of the present law, no mention was made of the costs of the proposals. The responses have as much value as replies to, "Do you think the government should eliminate poverty?"

(4) None with large capacity magazines, one of which he had spent 23 months obtaining, and two of which were registered to his wife. Montreal Gazette. 27 Aug 1992:A1, A7.

(5) Montreal Gazette. 23 September 1992:A3; Globe & Mail. 23 September 1992:A4. When I spoke to the Rector just before he launched the petition he had not done any research on the matter, and was unaware of the small numbers of Canadians killed with legal handguns. There are those in the university who feel the petition was an effort to distract attention from academic mismanagement. If so, it was unsuccessful, the Rector and the Assistant to the Rector who coordinated the petition have both been fired.

(6) How many people signed the petition for these other reasons is unknown. Although there is a strong correlation between favouring some sort of prohibition of handguns and signing the petition which asks for the prohibition of handguns, many people probably signed it to express their outrage at the shootings. One staff member, who was personally involved in bringing the shooting to an end, said to me that he did not agree with the petition, but signed it in order to "do something."

(7) This experiment was suggested by Professor Gary Mauser, of the Faculty of Business Administration, Simon Fraser University.

(8) The same question was asked in 1993, and 51% had signed.

(9) This question was suggested by Professor Gary Mauser.

(10) This question was suggested by David W. Young.

(11) Personally, I would not want to be anywhere in the neighbourhood when most of these students tried to defend themselves with a firearm.

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