The United States stands out among developed countries for being home to approximately one third of all firearms in the world and weak controls on access to firearms.
The rate of gun ownership in the US is much higher than most comparable countries, with approximately 42.8% of American household owning firearms, including 17.6% owning handguns in 2005. The developed country with the next highest ownership rate was Finland, where 37.9% of the population owning firearms, though only 6.3% owned handguns. Switzerland was the country with the second highest handgun ownership, at 10.3%, with an overall rate of 28.6% for all firearms. In Canada, 15.5% of households own firearms, with 2.9% owning handguns.
Where there are more guns, more deaths usually follow. The death rate by firearms in the United States was 10.2 per 100,000 people in 2009, for a total of 31,347 deaths. This is nearly as many as in car accidents, where 34,485 Americans died that same year. The American rate of death by firearms is nearly twice as high as the nearest other developed country, again Finland, with a rate of 4.47 in 2008. In Canada, the rate was 2.5 in 2009, while the UK had only 0.25 in 2011.
Some studies have examined the link between gun ownership rates and firearm death rates, with one comparing rates in Canada, the US, England/Wales and Australia. It concluded that 92 percent of the variance in death rates was explained by differences in access to firearms. The rates of death from firearms in Canada in the United States have also been studied, with one of the most well-known analyses being a comparison of Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia that showed that despite similarities in size and demographics, the rate of firearm homicide is considerably different as a result of the differences in the availability of firearms in the two countries.
Like with overall firearm deaths, the consequences of permissive access to firearms can also be seen in homicide and crime statistics. The US homicide rate (per 100,000) committed without guns is only slightly higher (1.4 times) than the Canadian rate. However the rate of homicide with guns in the U.S. is 6 times higher than that seen in Canada and the rate of homicide with handguns in the U.S. (2.41 per 100,000) is 7 times higher than the Canadian rate (0.33 per 100,000). The pattern with robbery is similar. In the United States, there were more than 408,000 robberies in 2009, 36 percent of them with firearms, with a rate of 55 per 100,000. In Canada, in contrast, there were 32,200 robberies, 14 percent of them with firearms, for a rate of 13 per 100,000. Yet the rates of robberies without firearms are roughly the same in the two countries. (Click on this link for table and graphs)
Global Trend on Firearms Regulations
The majority of industrialized countries have some form of licensing for gun owners and registration of firearms, and also have strict controls on access to assault weapons. Most also strictly regulate access to handguns. Few controls exist on access to these weapons in the United States, with devastating consequences. The Small Arms Survey for 2011 provides an interesting comparison of firearms restrictions on automatic and semi-automatic firearms and handguns in many countries, found in table 9.2. Of countries included in the study, only two – the United States and Yemen – treat gun ownership as a basic right. All others treat the possession firearms as a privilege.
The global consequences of weak regulations in the US have been well documented. All illegal guns begin as legal guns, with firearms purchased easily and legally in one area diverted illegally to those with more controls. According to a Globe and Mail report in February 2010, of crime handguns recovered by Toronto Police, approximately 70% originated in the US and were trafficked illegally to Canada. In 2011, Canada sent 1184 tracing request to the US for guns manufactured or imported in the country. About 38% of the guns Canadians police have sought trace data for were long guns (non-restricted). Mexico has also seen the devastating consequences of weak American gun laws. More than 68,000 people have died from guns in Mexico since 2006. Of the guns recovered and submitted for tracing, 70% were smuggled from the US, according to American government statistics. Mexican authorities sought tracing data for over 14,000 guns in 2011, nearly half of the requests being for rifles or shotguns.
An Overview of Gun Laws in Canada and the US
A principal difference in the way gun laws are administered in Canada and the US is the level of government responsible. While gun control provisions in Canada are set mainly at the federal level, with some provinces implementing additional rules on the margins, the American situation is reversed. The US federal government has set some laws, such as on background checks before handgun sales and requiring firearms dealers to maintain records of their sales, gun policies are mainly set at the state level. As such, gun control policies can vary widely across the United States and stronger policies in one state can be negated by easy access to firearms in neighbouring states. Even so, analysis shows that states with stricter gun control provisions have lower rates of death than those with lax provisions. With the elimination of a national gun registry and Quebec implementing a registry at the provincial level, Canada’s own laws may also become a more patchwork system than one with strong, uniform protections across the country.
While a patchwork system of rules in itself creates many loopholes to make access to firearms easier, even federal provisions have been designed with large loopholes that make them far less effective. While federally licensed firearms dealers are required by law to complete a background check before a gun sale, those considered to be private sellers, including those trading in high volumes at gun shows, are exempt from this provision. With an estimated 40% of gun sales falling under this category, thousands of sales are done with no checks at all. A similar loophole exists for records of sales, where federal licensed dealers are required complete a specific form with each firearm sale as well as maintain a ledger book, while private sellers are not.
Similar loopholes are being opened up in Canada. Bill C-19, which eliminated the registration of rifles and shotguns, also eliminated the obligation for sellers to validate the licence status of a buyer, with the law now requiring only that a seller have “no reason to believe” that a person does not hold a valid licence, and no requirement to even see the licence. This is a loophole that is known to have been exploited by criminals and abusive spouses in the past, such as in the case of Arlene May, where her estranged partner was able to purchase the firearm that killed her with a permit that had been revoked but the paper copy not seized.
Bill C-19 also eliminated the obligation for dealers to maintain records of their sales of rifles and shotguns that had been in place federally since 1977, which as stated above, is required even of US gun dealers. The elimination of the requirement was followed a few months later with a regulation by the federal government forbidding provinces from requiring their dealers to maintain these records. While these records are occasionally used by police with a warrant to trace guns used in crime, which requires them to manually search the paper records, their principal use is to detect illegal gun sales and trafficking. Regulations on gun shows were also eliminated by the federal government, which police fear combined with the loss of the registry will also facilitate illegal trafficking.
Influence of Gun Lobby and the Firearms Industry
The influence of the gun lobby and the firearms industry in the United States is well known, as is the related reluctance of the part of many politicians to challenge their power. The National Rifle Association, the NRA, is one of many well organized and well funded American gun lobby groups who fight any proposed restrictions on what they believe is their constitutional right to bear arms. This can include fighting against things such as restrictions on the types of weapons that can be sold, such as a ban on assault rifles, against restrictions on where concealed weapons may be carried, waiting periods, and many other controls.
In addition to fighting against gun control provisions at both the state and federal levels, the American gun lobby has also been successful in their quest to limit research that could show the effectiveness of such provisions. After research from the Centre for Disease Control showed the risks from guns, the gun lobby successfully pushed to have the agency banned from any using funds to research the gun control.
While many Canadians are horrified that groups like the NRA hold such power in American politics, few are aware of the influence of the Canadian gun lobby over politics in this country. The Canadian gun lobby has a long history of working with the NRA and other American groups.
The influence of the Canadian gun lobby was strongly in evidence this past year, in the many changes to Canadian laws they successfully pressed the government into making. One place where they exercise this influence is through the powerful Firearms Advisory Committee to the Public Safety Minister, a group composed solely of gun lobby members and other opposed to gun control provisions. After the radical recommendations coming from this committee were revealed in December 2012, the Prime Minister announced that one recommendation, to eliminate the prohibited weapons category, would not be considered, and that the composition of the committee would be reconsidered. However, other proposals, including to extend the term for gun licences from to a 10 year period from the current 5 against police advice, were still being considered, while others, such as to eliminate gun show regulations, had already been implemented.
The American situation, and the changes in Canada this past year, are a reflection of what can happen when only those with the most radical viewpoints have the ear of the government on such a complex and important matter. When police associations, public health groups, women’s safety experts and others do not have opportunities to give input into proposed weakening to gun laws, the full effect and potential dangerous consequences are not fully considered or understood. The gun lobby and the firearms industry should not be shaping important matters of public safety.