H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. P.O. Box 320, South Hero, Vermont 05486-0320 (802) 372-5236
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Chapter 9. Firearms Ownership

No one knows how many firearms or firearms owners there are in Canada. Estimates range from six million to over twenty million firearms. Every method of estimating these figures has serious flaws. Universal registration will not improve the situation as it will be widely ignored or evaded. Reliable estimates could make the cost of registration and other gun control proposals easier to calculate, but are hard to come by. The two principal methods used for making estimates are counting and questioning.

Counting relies on import, export and sales figures. Since these figures do not stretch back into the nineteenth century, some sort of estimate of the existing stock of firearms at a given time must be used as a starting point. These starting point estimates are themselves unreliable, depending as they do on educated guesses or survey estimates made some time in the past. Additionally, there is often confusion about the number of firearm owners - in some estimates everyone in the household is counted as an owner, in others only the actual owners are counted. The estimates based on counting tend to be at the higher end of the 6 to 20 million range.

Questioning relies on sample surveys in which individuals report the firearms ownership of their household. Sampling problems aside, estimates derived from interviews have several serious problems. The most important is whether respondents tell the truth - or know it. Households may have more than one firearm owner, but this has not been routinely determined. When estimating the number of firearms in the country survey researchers typically allow for up to five of any one kind per gun owning household. If they happen to call a collector with 300 rare shotguns, there is no way of recording this number or taking it into account in the estimates.

Neither the survey interviewer nor the respondent may know whether something is a firearm. The old flintlock over the mantle is only a firearm if the owner intends to discharge it. The air-gun in the closet is a "firearm" only if it can shoot a pellet at over 152.4 meters per second, under the Criminal Code definition. Some air-guns shoot at over 152.4 meters per second with one brand of pellets, making them firearms, and under 152.4 meters per second with other brands, making them non-firearms. The definition depends on the brand of pellets in the house.

A respondent may not think of the old shotgun or unregistered pistol in the attic when the interviewer asks - or even know it is there. They may be totally uninterested in firearms; they are the hobby of another member of the household. They may fear that telling an unknown telephone interviewer is an invitation to burglary. They may feel that it is nobody's business to know that they have guns or fear that their ownership may become known to the police and they will be forced to register. They may be uncertain of the legal status of their firearms - as most Canadians currently are. They may not know exactly how many guns of what types are in the household. The wife of a collector may only be able to say there are "many" guns in the house. The guns in the household may be stolen, and thus unlikely to be mentioned. The respondent may disagree with gun ownership, and not mention guns in the house that belong to someone else. Currently many Canadians consider gun ownership to be "politically incorrect" and do not want to mention that they or someone else in the household are gun owners. Because of these problems, estimates based on survey questions tend to be at the lower end of the six to twenty million range. Under- reporting of firearms ownership has been noted numerous times in the survey research literature (Erskine 1972; Kennett 1975; Stinchcombe 1980; Kleck 1991).


In this survey a serious discrepancy was found in the number of married males and married females reporting a gun in their home. The pattern is found in all community sizes and all regions of Canada. The following table shows this pattern, using the unweighted sample (actual responses), for the five regions of Canada. In every region of Canada married females are less likely to report a firearm in their home than are married males. The difference is most marked in Ontario and British Columbia, followed by Quebec. There is a much smaller amount of under reporting in the Atlantic and Prairie provinces. This result, in conjunction with other findings in this report, would seem to indicate that married female under-reporting is highest in those provinces where firearms are least appreciated.

Are there firearms of any kind in your home or garage, by Gender, by Region of Canada (Married Persons Only, unweighted sample)
Percent of Married Respondents Saying "Yes" Male Female
Atlantic 51.9% 44.8%
Quebec 37.5% 20.3%
Ontario 36.2% 11.2%
Prairies 46.1% 42.4%
British Columbia 42.3% 18.6%
Total 38.5% 22.8%

It is probably not only married women who under-report, but this is just the one area in which comparison can be made. If this is a general pattern, the estimates of gun owning households based on surveys are very much too low.

List of Studies Showing Under-Reporting of Firearms by Married Females
  Percent of Married Males and Females reporting a gun in their home
  Males Females
1995 Canadian Facts Representative National Survey n=1,505 38.5% 22.8%
1987 NORC GSS n1500 (Difference probably not significant) 59.3% 57.9%
1993 Kleck National Self-Defence Survey, n= 1832 50.1% 37.4%
Alan Lizotte - Illinois Survey in the 1970s Higher Lower

Additional suggestions that under-reporting is not limited to married women comes from Alan Lizotte's Rochester Youth Development Study where 27.2% of boys and 16.8% of girls reported a gun in their parent's home. One female Canadian commercial survey researcher, in a personal communication, suggested that the problem might be men over-reporting firearms ownership, rather than women under-reporting - possible, but unlikely. Currently, claiming to own a gun when one does not is as likely as a non-smoker claiming to go through three packs a day.

One of the serious drawbacks of the 1991 Department of Justice/Angus Reid survey of firearms ownership, on which the government's estimate of firearms depends, is that they used a screening question and only interviewed people who acknowledged firearm ownership. In this study the principal focus was on the attitudes of the Canadian population, not specifically on estimating the firearms stock in the country, so everyone was interviewed in the sample. This allowed the exploration of demographic and attitudinal characteristics of those who refused to answer the question about household gun ownership.

The "refusers" had roughly the same ratio of men and women as acknowledged owners. They tended to be a bit more concentrated in the 35 to 49 age group than the acknowledged owners, and came from slightly fewer middle income households, more than from low and high income households. They were disproportionately concentrated in Ontario and were heavily concentrated in the "some college or university" educational category. The "refusers" had the same rural - urban distribution as the acknowledged gun owners.

Do the "refusers" have guns? They are more likely than acknowledged gun owners to "strongly agree" that Canadians should have the right to own a firearm. They are considerably more likely to discuss guns and gun control "frequently" or "occasionally" than acknowledged gun owners. They are considerably more likely to reject registration than acknowledged gun owners. On these attitudinal variables the "refusers" think and act like acknowledged gun owners, only more strongly. They certainly appear to be gun owners.

On the basis of these results we have "coded" the "refusers" as gun owners for purposes of some of the analysis. Of course we do not have any details of the types of guns they might own, or their reason for owning. After their refusal they were not asked these questions. When the analysis turns on a question the refusers were not asked, they are obviously not included.

In Reid's 1991 survey, 23% of the households were found to own firearms. We also found 23% of the households acknowledged owning firearms. When we make adjustments for the under-reporting by married women and the refusers, we calculate that at least 28.5% of the households in Canada have firearms. This is a minimal estimate, 24% higher overall than Reid's estimate. We have not taken into account under-reporting by anyone except married women and refusers, because we do not have the data to do so. Undoubtedly more under-reporting exists and more than 28.5% of Canadian households have guns.

As detailed in Chapter 7, over a quarter of acknowledged gun owners say they will not register all their guns. What level of compliance can be expected of those who refuse to admit they have guns, or lie about it?

Firearms Ownership

The following table shows the responses to the two questions about a firearm in the household and personal ownership. It also shows the results of moving the refusers into the gun owner category.

Q.15 Are there firearms of any kind in your home or garage?
Q17. Do any of these firearms belong to you personally?
Responses Number Percent
Q 15. Yes 346 23.0
  No 1136 75.5
  Refused, DK 23 1.5
Total Responses 1,505 100.0
Q. 17 Yes 219 14.6
  No 127 8.4
  No or Refused,

DK on Q15

1159 77.0
Total Responses 1,505 100.0
Q 15 & Q 17 None 1136 75.5
Recoded to reflect "refusers" as In home, not


127 8.4
gun owners Owner (plus

refused, DK)

242 16.1
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

The number of cases may not add correctly because of weighting. Percentages may not add to 100% because of rounding

Despite recognising that refusers and some married women are probably gun owners, even though they say they are not, they cannot be included in the analysis because they were not asked any questions about their gun ownership. The analysis has to be based on those who acknowledge their gun ownership.

Acknowledged firearms ownership varies widely by region. Household ownership is highest in the Prairie provinces (39%) and the Atlantic provinces (36%), and lowest in Quebec (19%). In rural regions 44% of households own firearms, while in large cities only 11% own them. A third of households (33%) where a male was interviewed report ownership, while 16% of households where a female was interviewed report ownership. This may reflect different ownership patterns by gender as well as under-reporting. In terms of personal ownership, 30% of men and 3% of women say they own firearms.

In households where the respondent was over 50 years old, 31% had firearms, while only 18% of households where the respondent was younger than 35 had firearms. Personal ownership was higher in the older group (23%), and lower in the younger group (9%). Firearms ownership is more predominant in households with lower educational levels, 31% where the respondent had less than high school, 18% where the respondent was a university graduate. Personal ownership follows the same pattern, 23% for those with less than high school graduation, and 12% for university graduates. Higher income respondents were more likely to report both household (26%) and personal (18%) ownership than lower income respondents (16% and 12%); perhaps higher income households can better afford all consumer items, including firearms. Married respondents were most likely to report both household (33%) and personal (22%) ownership, followed by those in common-law relationships (23% and 13%). Single, separated, divorced and widowed respondents reported lower levels of ownership.

Types of Firearms Owned

The respondents who acknowledged that there was a firearm in their home or garage were asked if they had any shotguns, rifles or handguns.

If Q15 (YES) ASK            
  • Q. 16.1 Are there any shotguns?
  • Q. 16.2 Are there any rifles?
  • Q. 16.3 Are there any handguns?
Type of Firearm Shotgun   Rifle   Handgun  
Responses # % # % # %
Yes 242 16.1 268 17.8 50 3.3
No 95 6.3 61 4.1 291 19.3
Don't Know/Refused 9 .6 17 1.2 6 .4
Not Asked 1159 77.0 1159 77.0 1159 77.0
Total Responses 1,505 100.0 1,505 100.0 1,505 100.0

Numbers may not add to total because of weighting. Percents may not add to 100% because of rounding. Numbers and percents do not represent those who refused to say whether there was a firearm in their home.

Shotguns were acknowledged in 27% of the homes in the Atlantic provinces, but only 11% of those in Ontario. Rifles were acknowledged in 32% of Prairie households, but only 11% of Quebec households. Handguns were most frequently acknowledged in the Atlantic provinces (6%), and least often in Quebec (1%). Quebec was significantly different from the Rest of Canada in both acknowledged rifle and acknowledged handgun ownership. All types of firearms were more frequently acknowledged in rural areas than in urban areas. In the rural areas, 32% acknowledged shotguns, 34% rifles, and 6% handguns. In the large cities 7% acknowledged shotguns, 8% rifles, and 1% handguns. Males were more likely to acknowledge each of the three types of guns in the home, than were females.

Older respondents were significantly more likely to acknowledge each of the three types of firearm in their homes than younger people. This may reflect several factors: growing up in a period when guns were more freely available; having had a longer time to acquire them; having more financial resources; and having a longer time to inherit them from family members.

Respondents with lower levels of education were significantly more likely to acknowledge shotguns and rifles in their homes, but university graduates were very slightly more likely to acknowledge handguns. Higher income respondents were significantly more likely to acknowledge having each of the three types of firearm in their household than were lower income respondents. Married respondents were significantly more likely to acknowledge having each of the three types of firearm in their household than were single, separate, divorced or widowed respondents.

Reasons for Firearm Ownership

People may have many different reasons for owning firearms. Some are utilitarian - hunting, employment, predator control, and self-defense. Others are expressive, such as collecting and target shooting. Other reasons may be harder to classify. Probably most people have several reasons for owning a firearm. A farmer may keep a rifle put a deer in the freezer for the winter, but also for predator control. A single woman dairy farmer may keep a shotgun for predator control, but also to feel more secure during the hour she is waiting for the police when a gang of rowdy drunks shows up. Many people might be target shooters, but also collect guns, and think of one in particular as a home defense weapon. Although we asked, "What is the main reason your household has firearms?" we recommend future researchers make this a multiple response question.

Q16.4 What is the main reason your household has firearms?

Responses of those with firearms in home Number Percent
Hunting 242 70.0
Target Shooting 26 7.4
Collecting 36 10.3
Employment 3 .9
Predator Control 16 4.6
Self-Defence 5 1.5
Other 19 5.4
Total Responses 346 100.0

Numbers may not add to total because of weighting. Percents may not add to 100% because of rounding.

Numbers and percents do not reflect those who did not acknowledge ownership.

The main reason for owning firearms in Canada is hunting. A strong majority of respondents in rural areas are favourable towards hunting, a majority of big city respondents are opposed to hunting. This difference in attitudes is an underlying value conflict that drives much of the "gun control" debate.

In Quebec, 88% of acknowledged gun owning households cite hunting as their main reason for owning firearms, while only 58% of British Columbia households cite hunting as their main reason. In rural households, 75% own firearms for hunting, while only 58% of big city households cite hunting as their reason for owning guns. In large cities 15% cite target shooting, 12% collecting, and 5% self-defense, as their main reason for owning firearms.

Women (79%) are significantly more likely than men (65%) to cite hunting as the main reason for household firearms ownership. Presumably, in most cases, this reflects their husband's stated reason for owning a firearm. Hunting is somewhat more important in the under 35 age group than it is in the older age groups.

Though the difference is not significant, low and medium income households are slightly more likely to own firearms for hunting than high income households. This may be because the contribution of hunting to the household economy is greater for lower income families. Hunting is the most frequently cited reason for ownership in common-law households (84%), least likely among the divorced or separated (53%).

Target shooting is most frequently cited as the main reason for ownership in Ontario (15%), and British Columbia (12%). It is least cited in the Atlantic Provinces (0%) and Quebec (3%). It is significantly more likely to be cited as the main reason for firearms ownership by big city residents (15%) than by rural residents (2%). Rural use of firearms is more utilitarian, urban more expressive. Men were slightly more likely to cite target shooting (9%) as the main reason for ownership than women (5%). It is most popular in the 35 to 49 age group (13%), and less likely to be cited by younger (4%) and older (5%) respondents. Target shooting is most cited by university graduates (17%), and least by high school graduates (3%) as the main reason for owning firearms.

Target shooting is expensive, and produces no economic return, so it is concentrated among middle (8%) and high income (9%) households, with no low income households citing it as their main reason for ownership. Target shooting was cited by 16% of separated and divorced respondents as their main reason for owning firearms.

Collecting was cited as the main reason for 17% in British Columbia, and only 3% in Quebec. Given that 88% of Quebecois cite hunting as their primary reason for ownership there is not much room for other reasons. Collecting is equally cited in rural and urban areas. Men (13%) are more likely to cite collection as the main reason for household ownership than women (5%).

Collecting is significantly more likely to be cited as the main reason for ownership by those over 50 years old (15%) than by those in the youngest (8%) and middle (7%) age groups. This makes sense from a life course perspective, older people may not be able to hunt or target shoot as well as they used to, but maintain their interest in firearms through collecting.

Though the differences are not significant, low income households are slightly more likely to cite collecting as the main reason for ownership than are middle and high income households. Collecting is slightly more important among the lowest and highest educational groups, somewhat less for those in between. Collecting is cited by 23% of those who are separated or divorced as their reason for owning firearms, much higher than all other marital statuses.

Predator control is most frequently cited in the Prairie provinces (13%), and in rural areas (7%). Interestingly it is also high among single respondents (9%) and divorced and separated respondents (8%). Self-defense is most frequently cited as the main reason for ownership by big city residents (5%), and by persons in common-law relationships (8%).

Multiple Ownership

"How many people in this household personally own firearms?" - a question not asked by Reid. Yet it is important in calculating actual levels of personal ownership.

Q 17.1 How many people in this household personally own firearms?

Responses Number Percent
Zero 7 1.9
One 303 87.6
Two 30 8.6
Three 6 1.7
Four 0 0.0
Five 0 0.0
Six 1 0.2
Total Responses 346 100.0

Numbers may not add to total because of weighting. Percents may not add to 100% because of rounding. Neither numbers nor percents reflect those who did not acknowledge ownership.

As the above table shows, just over 10% of households cite multiple owners. Those who say there are no personal owners are mostly older widows who may have their late husband's gun in the house, or the firearm may belong to a son or daughter who is away from home. The one person who cited six owners is a divorced male in rural British Columbia. He may have five children living with him who own firearms, be living in a lumber camp, or it may be a recording error.

For analysis this question was collapsed into two categories, single owner (includes "zero" because they said there was a gun in the home, even if no member of the household acknowledges owning it), and multiple owners in the household.

Multiple ownership is most common in the Atlantic provinces (17%), least in Quebec (5%). It is most common in rural areas (13%) and among lower income respondents (19%). None of the background variables are significantly correlated with multiple ownership. In all probability, multiple ownership is most common in homes where unmarried young people still live at home, but the data to test this hypothesis is lacking. Respondents who acknowledge owning all three types of firearm (shotgun, rifle, handgun) also report a high level of multiple ownership (21%). Multiple ownership might be considered to be an indicator of family interest in hunting, or firearms in general.


There appear to be considerably more firearms and firearms owners in Canada than has been estimated by previous surveys. Many of these unacknowledged firearms are in the hands of people who refuse to acknowledge ownership and who are consequently likely to resist registration and other attempts to regulate them.

Acknowledged firearms ownership is highest among older men, in rural areas, in the Prairie provinces. Owners tend to have above average incomes, and slightly below average educational levels.

The overwhelming reason given for owning firearms is hunting, though collecting and target shooting are also important. The "No Right No Hunt" attitude found in urban areas is a significant, though not often admitted, motivation for demands for more "gun control." The conflict between those who enjoy hunting and shooting and those who would extinguish these activities seems destined to continue.

Slightly over 10% of gun owing households have multiple gun owners. This provides another indication that the estimates of the number of gun owners is larger than anticipated by the drafters of C-68.

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