To prevent an illness or injury, public health experts advocate taking preventive action, both to control the agent and the vehicle of harm, in order to protect the host. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified “reducing access to lethal means” as one of its violence prevention strategies. In the case of injury due to gunshot wounds, the agent is the force deployed by firing a gun, the vehicle is the gun or ammunition and the human host is the victim. Access to firearms and ammunition constitutes the universal link—the one against which we can take action—in the chain of events leading to any injury with a firearm.
The link between accessibility of guns and levels of violence has been demonstrated in a number of contexts. While rates of violence are not directly affected by the availability of firearms per se, rates of lethal violence are. It has been established that gun ownership and gun violence tend to rise and fall in tandem.
Many people do not realize that the majority of gun deaths in Canada are suicide (72% in 2009). Suicides attempted with firearms are almost always lethal (93% completion rate) and in one third of them, the gun used belong to someone else. Consequently, a critical dimension of a suicide prevention strategy is to keep firearms away from individuals who represent a risk to themselves and this was explicitly built into Canada’s Firearms Act.
Public health experts have emphasized the importance of strong gun laws in reducing the death rate. Research has also shown that stronger firearms laws have played a role in the particularly pronounced decline in firearms deaths among adolescents in Canada. They argued that registration of long guns would result in better compliance with the safe storage regulations due to an increased sense of personal responsibility on the part of the firearm owners and allow preventive actions. They also advocated for renewable gun licences for all gun owners, strict screening for risk factors of violence and suicide and continuous eligibility checks. In other words, if an individual obtains a license and then exhibits behaviour which suggests that he may present a risk, there are mechanisms for flagging the license, revoking it and removing the firearms temporarily or permanently.
Establishing causal relationships between complex factors is difficult. However, firearm deaths in Canada have declined with stricter controls on firearms, particularly with controls on rifles and shotguns, introduced in 1977, 1991 and 1995.
- The rate of death involving guns is the lowest it has been in over 40 years. In fact, nearly 400 fewer Canadians died of gunshots in 2009 (730) compared to 1995 (1,125).
- Public health studies have assessed the impact of the Firearms Act. For example, the Institut de santé publique du Québec has concluded that it has led to 250 fewer suicides and 50 fewer homicides annually in Canada.
- Studies have also concluded that the drop in suicide has not led to an increase in suicide by other means.
- Since the long-gun registry and its related requirements for safe storage of guns were introduced, youth suicide rates by firearms have declined in relation to suicide rates by other means. While the rate of suicide by firearm has dropped 48% since 1995, the rate of suicide without firearm has remained stable. Research has also shown that stronger firearms laws have played a role in the particularly pronounced decline in firearms deaths among adolescents in Canada.
In 2006, the Geneva based Small Arms Survey singled out Canada’s gun law for its significant impact on reducing gun death and injury in Canada, and estimated the decrease in gun injuries and gun deaths since 1995 as saving up to $1.4 billion Canadian dollars a year. It was estimated that the cost of death and injury in the mid-nineties was $6.6 billion per year.