H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. P.O. Box 320, South Hero, Vermont 05486-0320 (802) 372-5236
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Chapter 10. Self Defense

Self defense is a troublesome right. On the one hand, it would seem obvious that all people have ­­ or should have ­­ the inherent right to use force to defend themselves from assault. Criminal codes in many countries include self defense as a legitimate justification for the use of deadly force. On the other hand, the right of self defense threatens the rule of law. It is too easy for revenge or even aggression to be confused with legitimate self defense.

Canadians typically view the debate on self protection as restricted to the United States. The prevailing attitude is that there is no need for self defense in Canada as superior social systems have eliminated these problems. Many Canadians prefer to believe that problems of violent crime are limited to the rather tumultuous republic to the south.

It should come as no surprise that there are surprisingly few organized groups that officially support self defense, even in principle, or that teach self defense in any form. Talk show hosts discuss violence against women for hours without mentioning the possibility of women using physical force to defend against those who seek to assault or rape them. Not only do the police actively discourage self defense in general, but armed self defense is widely considered illegal.

In Canada the topic of weapon use in self defense has been almost completely ignored. Only recently have studies been published that attempted to estimate the frequency with which firearms are used in self defense in Canada. (Mauser 96). A few recent studies have investigated the carrying of weapons by Canadians (Sacco 1995; Kong 1994), while others have examined attitudes towards the use of firearms in self defense (Mauser 1990; Mauser and Margolis 1992). Does Canada differ from the United States with respect to the defensive use of firearms? Although dangerous animals and criminal violence exist in both countries, firearms ownership is not as widespread in Canada.

Unlike the United States, the federal government is responsible for criminal law and the provinces are generally responsible for enforcement - although most provinces rely upon the RCMP to act as the provincial and local police force. This introduces a further element of national uniformity. Despite disavowals by police officials, the Canadian Criminal Code does include the right of citizens to use deadly force to protect themselves (sections 34, 35, and 37).

In Canada, the key provision in the criminal code is that no one may use "more force than is necessary" and then only when "he believes on reasonable grounds that he can not otherwise preserve himself from death or grievous bodily harm." In section 35, the code goes on to require that one must show that, "he declined further conflict and quitted or retreated from it (the assault) as far as it was feasible to do so before the necessity of preserving himself ... arose." Moreover, the right to use physical force to defend non­family members is more limited than it is in many states, as are a Canadians' rights to repulse trespassers on one's own property, or to use force to stop the commission of serious or violent crimes (Sections 24, 40, and 41).

Self defense 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, ownership is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. For all practical purposes, it has been impossible to 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 news 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.

Another important difference between the United States and Canada is enforcement. Anyone who uses a weapon in self defense is likely to be charged in Canada and have to defend themselves in court, even if the attacker is not injured seriously. The charges may be "possession of a prohibited weapon," or "careless use/storage of a firearm," rather than "assault" or "attempted murder." The Crown apparently is determined to discourage people from forcefully defending themselves.

In Montreal, a citizen who struggled with an robber who placed a gun against his head was referred to the crown prosecutor for possible murder charges after the gun discharged, killing the robber (the Crown considered but declined to prosecute). A store owner who armed himself and arrested four thieves in his store was termed a "vigilante" in the press (Montreal Gazette, "Spectators cheer as vigilante shopkeeper with shotgun goes free," 9 Aug 95, p. A8). An American couple were barred from Canada for five years, and fined $700, because they had a can of pepper spray to ward off dogs when they were jogging (Montreal Gazette, "Tourism loses its spice," 8 Jul 95, p. A12).

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 is this a replay of the debate over capital punishment, a concept which the public overwhelmingly supports but Parliament repeatedly forbids.

Would Canadians Defend Themselves?

This hypothetical question was first suggested by David Young (1991). "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?" Legally, such a situation would allow for the use of deadly force. Obviously, most Canadians do not have access to a firearm, and few have ever faced such a situation. The question also ignores the requirements imposed by law - all firearms have to be stored locked and unloaded - which make successful self defense unlikely for the law abiding. But the question gets to the heart of the matter, if it were possible, would Canadians defend themselves or their families by using a firearm?

Q.24. 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? ( Question suggested by Young)
Responses Number Percent
Definitely yes 489 32.5
Probably yes 407 27.1
Probably no 199 13.2
Definitely no 202 13.4
Would never have access to a firearm 50 3.3
Refused 7 .4
Don't know 151 10.0
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

Some 60% of the respondents showed a willingness to themselves with a firearm. There were no significant differences between regions of Canada. Residents of rural areas, small and medium sized cities and large cities were all equally likely to say they would use a firearm to defend themselves. Men (71%) were significantly more likely than women (48%) to say they would use a firearm to defend themselves or their families, which probably reflects traditional gender roles. Younger people were significantly more likely to say they would defend themselves (68%) than older people (49%). Those in the highest educational category, university graduates, were significantly more likely to say they would defend themselves with a gun (66%) than those with less than high school (55%). Those with higher incomes were significantly more likely to say they would defend themselves (63%) than those with lower incomes (54%). In some of these instances, people with characteristics that usually lead to being in favour of gun control are the people most willing to use a gun to defend themselves.

A majority of gun owners (67%) and non-gun owners (59%) would use a gun to defend themselves. A majority (53%) of those who disagree strongly with the idea that Canadians should have a right to own a firearm said they would defend themselves with a gun as do a majority (56%) of those who strongly oppose hunting. Even among those with "No Right No Hunt" values, a small majority (52%) say they would defend themselves,.

A majority (53%) of those who feel that gun control laws are "effective" would use a gun to defend themselves, and a larger majority (69%) of those who feel gun control is ineffective would do so. A majority (56%) of those who want to register all guns without regard to the costs would use one to defend themselves, while a slightly larger majority (61%) of those who oppose registration would do so. Only among those who would confiscate all handguns do we find something less than a majority (47%) who would defend themselves, 58% of those who would confiscate some handguns and 65% of those who oppose confiscation would defend themselves.

It appears that, when personal or family safety is at risk, most of those who oppose guns would still use one for their own protection. To see just how far personal interest went, those who were in favour of confiscating self-defense handguns were examined to determine if they would use a gun to defend themselves. As the following table shows, 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. This is similar to the finding that 75% of the students at Concordia University who signed a petition to ban all handguns said they would use a gun to defend themselves (Buckner 1994 Graphic).

Q24. 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 defend yourself or not?
  Q13.3 Do you think that people who own handguns for self-defence should have their guns confiscated
  No, DK   Yes  
Responses to Q.24 Number % Number %
No, DK, Refused 280 35.4 328 45.9
Yes 511 64.6 386 54.1
Total Responses 791 100.0 714 100.0

Perhaps those who say they would personally use guns they favour confiscating from everyone else have not worked through the logic of their position. These inconsistencies do, however, provide an interesting insight into the depth of thought that goes into much of the gun control rhetoric.

The Use of Guns for Self Defense in Canada

When Mauser reported that a few Canadians said they had used a gun for self-defense (Gun Control is not Crime Control - Fraser Institute), there was an immediate derogatory response from the Coalition for Gun control:

"I would no more rely on the arguments put forth by the gun lobby about arming for self-protection than I would rely on the advice of the tobacco lobby, which steadfastly insists that smoking is not addictive," said Wendy Cukier, president of the coalition. ... Ms. Cukier said respondents could also have meant that they felt the presence of a gun in their homes offered protection, even if they didn't use it. "Mauser's study only measures perceptions. There is no evidence these perceptions are based on fact. And the police report very few cases where there is evidence to support these claims." (Globe & Mail, 19 Mar 95, p A6). Why is it so important for the Coalition for Gun Control to deny that guns are sometimes used for self defense? Why does a government spokesman say: "The questions are too vague, protection against an animal could mean the treat from a skunk. That's not self defense." James Hayes, head of the Justice Department's task force on firearms. (Globe & Mail, 19 Mar 95, p A6).

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.

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 just asking 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 the self defense was legal. Moreover, why would a geologist report to the police that she had fired her rifle to scare off a bear? Why would a farmer report to the police that he had fired a shotgun at coyotes who were menacing his sheep? Would the police bother to make a formal written report if they did? The wonder is that any incidents at all are reported.

Respondents were asked, "Within the last five years have you, yourself, or another member of your household used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection or for the protection of property at home, work or elsewhere? Please do not include military service, police work or work as a security guard."

Q19. Within the last five years have you, yourself, or another member of your household used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection or the protection of property at home, work or elsewhere? Please do not include military service, police work or work as a security guard.
Responses Number Percent
Yes 31 2.1
No 1468 97.5
Don't Know 3 .2
Refused 3 .2
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

The figures reported here, and in subsequent tables, are from the un-weighted sample as it deals with a small number of discrete cases, not at attempt to estimate a national average.

Thirty­one respondents, 2.1% of the sample, said they had used a firearm for self-protection, three said they did not know, and three refused to answer. Those who responded "don't know" may have meant that they did not know if another member of their household had used a gun for self-protection, or they were unclear whether the use constituted self-protection. Two of the three who refused to answer also refused to answer whether or not they had a gun in their home, the other was a gun owner. These people are perhaps unsure of the legal status of their guns, or of their actions.

Defensive uses of firearms were reported in every region of Canada, but were somewhat higher in the western half of the country. It was more frequently reported in rural areas and big cities than in small and medium sized cities. Male respondents were somewhat more likely to report defensive use than female respondents. Younger people were slightly more likely to report defensive use than older people, higher income respondents somewhat more likely to report defensive use than lower income respondents. There was no consistent pattern by educational level.

In terms of attitudes, defensive use was more likely to be reported by those who feel that Canadians should have a right to own a gun, by those who have a gun in their home or are gun owners, by those who say they are "very" familiar with the law, by those who discuss firearms and gun control "frequently," by those who oppose registration, oppose confiscation of handguns, favour hunting, and think gun control ineffective.

Logically, it is unlikely that those without a gun in their home would have the opportunity to use a gun for self-protection. While the attitudinal correlations are clear, the direction of causality is not. Most of the self-protection users simply have the attitudes of most gun owners, but in some cases these attitudes may have been developed or reinforced after successful self-protection.

The next question was, "Was this to protect against an animal or person?"

IF Q19 (YES), ASK:    
Q20. Was this to protect against an animal or person?
Responses Number Percent
Animal 19 61.3
Person 4 12.9
Both 1 3.2
Refused 7 22.6
Total Responses 31 100.0

A total of twenty uses against animals and five against person were acknowledged. The high level of refusals, seven, possibly reflects an unwillingness to discuss use against a person - more consequential from a legal point of view.

Protection from animals was principally reported in the West, with four instances in Ontario, ten in the Prairie provinces and six in British Columbia. Protection against persons was reported in Quebec and Ontario with two cases each, and one in British Columbia. Respondents in rural areas and in small and medium sized cities reported only use against animals, while all reports of use against persons came from respondents in big cities. Men were more likely to report use against animals than women (but most women may have been reporting on male use). Younger people were more likely to report use against a person than older respondents. Uses against persons were reported by middle and higher income respondents, almost all of who had college or some university education.

Finally, "Was it you who used a gun defensively or did someone else in your household do this?"

Q23. Was it you who used a gun defensively, or did someone else in your household do that?
Responses Number Percent
Respondent 13 41.9
Someone else 12 38.7
Refused 6 19.4
Total Responses 31 100.0

No women reported having used a firearm for self-protection, they all said someone else had done so or refused to answer. Men mostly reported that they themselves had used a gun defensively, or refused to answer, with only two reporting that someone else in the household had been the user. A majority (8) of those who said they did not have a gun in their home said that another member of the household had used a gun for self-protection, while gun owners reported that they themselves had used a gun in seven of the eight reported cases.


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.

Three surveys (including this one) in Canada on the self defense use of firearms have found, within the range of sampling error, the same general results.(Mauser 96) While it is only a small percentage of households that report defensive use, there are over ten million households in Canada. By projecting the survey results to the total number of households, estimates of the total defensive use of firearms from the three studies range from 62,500 to 80,000 per year, and defense against persons from 19,000 to 37,500 per year. Whether the actual figures are at the lower or higher end of this range, they certainly exceed the 1,400 deaths inflicted by firearms every year.

How could so many Canadians use firearms in self defense without it becoming common knowledge? Self defense activity is basically invisible to government. There is no reason to report it, such as there is with property crimes or serious victimization.. This is especially true given that a firearm used in self defence is not discharged in three out of four occasions (Kleck and Gertz 95). Given the moral ambiguity of the act, both the defender and aggressor have strong reason not to report the incident. If someone used a firearm or other weapon, there may even be a motive not to report the incident, since there is a strong possibility that they would face legal charges for defending themselves. Finally, although medical doctors are required to report gun­shot wounds, the available statistics suggest that few self defense uses of firearms result in serious physical injury, so that there are few injuries that would require reporting (Kleck, 1991:116).

If anything, the survey estimates presented here of the number of people who use firearms in self defense are probably too low. A number of criminologists have shown that survey estimates of criminal and defensive gun uses have been underestimated (Kleck 1991)

These survey results show that firearms are used in Canada more often than many may believe in the defense of people and property. Indeed, Canadians use firearms defensively about half as often as Americans do, but tend to use firearms disproportionately against animal threats, not against human threats, as in the U.S. Of necessity, these estimates are only approximate, given the small sample sizes and the low incidence rates. However, the high level of agreement among the three samples of the general public in Canada provides strong support that firearms are used in Canada to protect people.

More research is needed to provide a firm estimate of how many Canadians use firearms to protect themselves or their families from violence. In addition, further research must be conducted into what respondents meant when they reported they had "used" a firearm in defense - did they shoot to kill, fire a warning shot or merely display the weapon? Given the sensitive nature of defensive use of firearms, it is possible that many respondents have concealed actual incidents so the true number may be even higher than reported here. It is even possible that some respondents may have included carrying or having the firearm available in case of an attack as an example of "use." The only way to answer these questions would be to study this issue by using a larger sample survey.

A larger sample size would enable researchers to understand what Canadians do to defend themselves in repelling animal and human threats. It would be particularly important to study defensive efforts to repel aggression by violent criminals, either in sexual assaults or armed robberies, and how effective these efforts are. Policy makers should know the frequency with which defensive weapons of all kinds are used in personal self defense in Canada.

If firearms are actually used in Canada to defend against either human or animal threats, then the private ownership of firearms may contribute significantly to public safety as well as pose a danger through firearms misuse. It is unknown how many lives are actually saved, but if a life were saved in only 5% of these incidents, then the private ownership of firearms would save more than 3,000 lives annually in Canada. This study shows that the private ownership of firearms has benefits for the Canadian public as well as costs. Additional firearms legislation may not act to save lives as claimed, but may actually cost lives by rendering it difficult to obtain a firearm when one is needed.

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