An Address to the St. James Literary
Society, 98th Session 17 October 1995
GUN CONTROL - WILL IT WORK?
H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D.
When people ask if gun control will work, the answer depends on
what is meant by gun control and what is meant by working. There
is much confusion and dissent over the meaning of "Gun
Control," and considerable disagreement over what might be
taken as evidence of it "working," or "not
working." It appears to me that much of this confusion
arises from the fact that the discussion simultaneously involves
questions of fundamental values and questions of practicality,
with the two not being clearly distinguished. Indeed, sometimes
fundamental value assumptions are not acknowledged, sometimes
even denied, and the debate over practicalities becomes chaotic,
and full of accusations of bad faith.
My interest in "Gun Control" started thirty years ago
when I was a police officer. It has continued through-out my
academic career. Though I did a bit of shooting as a young man,
as a soldier, and as a police officer, during the twenty years I
lived in downtown Montreal I was not involved in the shooting
sports. Since moving to a rural area seven years ago I have taken
up target shooting, and have started a small collection of old
and unusual firearms. All of my firearms, both those that must be
registered and those that under current law are not subject to
registration, are listed with the police. My wife and I shoot
together, and we are Instructors for the federally mandated
Canadian Firearms Safety Course. I tell you this because
occasionally people object to a speaker who owns a gun speaking
about firearms control. Curiously, people rarely object when a
speaker proudly unfamiliar with guns speaks about firearms
In January, Professor Gary Mauser of Simon Fraser University and
I, developed, and carried out, the most comprehensive survey on
attitudes towards gun control ever undertaken in Canada. The
questionnaire was administered by phone by professional
interviewers from the firm Canadian Facts, to a sample of 1,505
Canadian adults. We are currently preparing a book based on the
results of this survey. I would like to share with you tonight
some of our findings.
In the course of analyzing our survey data a number of things
became clear. First, only seven percent of our sample overall,
and only 18% of gun owners, had even a minimal level of knowledge
of the current gun control laws. Second, some people, because of
their basic values, support universal registration and the
confiscation of handguns even when they do not think stricter gun
control will be effective. Third, many people have impossibly
high expectations about the effectiveness of stricter gun
The lack of knowledge is not surprising, many other surveys have
found low levels of knowledge about justice matters (Roberts 1994). One effect of not knowing that there is
already an extremely comprehensive and strict law on the books is
that people continually think there must be a need for more laws.
Even when a new law is passed most will not learn of it, and as
long as murders continue to take place there will always be a
demand for more laws.
The lack of knowledge among gun owners is worrisome, as they are
presumed, in law, to know the law. I suspect most gun owners in
Canada are not certain whether or not they are obeying the
current law completely. The present law is so complex (it has
more than 17,000 words), and has changed so often, that only a
few dedicated professionals can claim to really know it.
Graphic on Procedure Required to Acquire
a Firearm in Quebec, Canada
Did you know, for example, that to buy a
handgun for target shooting in Quebec that, amongst other things,
you have to take two safety courses, be investigated by the
police on three separate occasions, and produce 12 letters of
reference? It takes about a year to complete the process.
We asked two questions that go to basic values, first: Do you
agree or disagree that Canadian Citizens should have the right to
own a firearm? Note that our question is not the American
"Right to Keep and Bear Arms," but just whether a
citizen should or should not have the right to own a firearm.
Overall, 56% agreed that Canadians should have the right, 40%
disagreed, and 4% were undecided.
Second, we asked: Do you generally favour or oppose hunting?
Overall, 51% favoured hunting, 43% opposed, and 6% were
Attitudes on these two basic values drive the gun control debate,
but are rarely mentioned. One of the rules of discourse in our
rational society is that our proposals have to be justified on
utilitarian grounds. If someone was to say, "I am for gun
control because I don't like guns and no one should have
them," or, "I am against gun control because I like
guns and want to keep mine," no further discussion would be
Public proponents of additional gun controls are frequently heard
to say, "We don't want to confiscate your hunting guns, or
stop legitimate gun use." But is this really true? Could it
be they are denying their basic values?
An indication that they may be concealing their basic values
comes when it is suggested that controls will be costly and
ineffective. Proponents of new controls then say, "it is
about the kind of society we want twenty years from now,"
without always specifying that this is a society in which no one
but government agents will have guns. A society in which the gun
culture, wherein parents teach their children how to shoot and
hunt, is apparently to be extinguished.
Probably a majority of Canadians are now second or third
generation urbanites. Many urbanites think hunting is barbaric.
Their conception of hunting and hunters is sometimes quite
fantastic. Among people I have questioned in other surveys a
frequently mentioned image is of a drunken hunter killing animals
for the joy of killing, and leaving the bodies to rot in the
field. Few think of the lower income family man purchasing a
permit, hunting under strict regulations designed for wildlife
management, in the hope of feeding his family better for the
While the two values, right and hunting, both influence opinions
on gun control, the two combined make for a better delineation of
the value conflict in the gun control debate. We grouped
responses in three categories: those who think Canadians should
have the right to own a firearm and who favour hunting (35%),
those whose responses were mixed (41%), and those who oppose the
right to own a firearm and oppose hunting (24%). These basic
values are strongly influenced by three background
characteristics. Those from large cities, Quebec, and females,
tend to be in the "No Right No Hunt" category. Those
from rural areas, the Prairie provinces, and males, tend to be in
the "Right and Hunt" category.
Effectiveness of Gun Control
Expectations about the effectiveness of stricter gun control were
measured by six questions: If there were stricter regulations for
authorized firearms owners, would you say that the violent crime
rate would increase, decrease or stay the same? Do you agree or
disagree that Gun control laws affect only law-abiding citizens
as criminals will always be able to get firearms? Do you agree or
disagree that stricter gun control would greatly reduce the level
of violence against women in Canada? How effective do you think
stricter regulations would be in Reducing suicides? Reducing
homicides? Reducing accidents?
While a slight majority felt that stricter regulations for gun
owners would not affect the violent crime rate, and
three-quarters felt that criminals would still be able to get
guns, opinion was about evenly divided on whether violence
against women would be reduced.
On the other hand, 44% percent thought stricter regulations would
be effective in reducing suicides, 68% in reducing homicides, 74%
in reducing accidents. These answers have to be characterized as
wishful thinking. Very few of our respondents know what the
current regulations are, probably fewer still know much about the
dynamics of firearms homicide, suicide and accidents.
Graphic showing that 9% of Homicides
in Canada are female shooting victims, one third of total
homicides are by shooting.
I often find people are astonished when
they discover that there are only about 60 fatal firearms
accidents a year in Canada, that firearms are used in only about
a third of suicides and homicides, that over 90% of those who die
from a gun shot are males, and that last year in all of Canada
there was a total of 21 women killed by a domestic partner using
a firearm. If all firearms were to magically disappear, including
those held by the police, the army, and the criminal population,
people determined to kill themselves would mostly find other
means, violent husbands would mostly use knives or blunt objects,
and, obviously, there would be no gun accidents.
Realistically, if there were no firearms at all, probably far
fewer than 100 lives a year would be saved. A great portion of
these would be in the police and army where the accident and
firearms suicide rates are high. No amount of regulation and
enforcement acceptable in a democratic society will produce
anything like this reduction. Though the accuracy of our
respondents' perceptions may be in doubt, the answers to these
questions give us a guide to what people hope will be the outcome
of stricter gun control.
We combined the answers to all six questions into an index of
perceived effectiveness. In this index 27% thought gun control
ineffective, 42% had mixed responses, and 31% thought gun control
Graphic showing effects of Background,
Basic Values, and Opinions on Effectiveness on Attitudes Toward
In general, those who think gun control
effective are more likely than those who think it ineffective to
support universal registration and confiscation of handguns.
There are, however, some people who favour registration and
confiscation whether or not they think gun control is effective.
These people provide the clue to the values-practicality
confusion in the debate over the effectiveness of gun control.
We asked six different questions on universal registration,
first: "Do you agree or disagree that All firearms should be
registered?" If the respondent agreed with registration they
were then asked if they would still agree under five different
sets of assumptions: If it would cost $100 million; If it would
cost $500 million; If you knew it would increase your taxes; If
you knew the police were opposed to registration; If registration
would force the police to pull constables off the streets in
order to deal with the paper work involved. Support for
registration fell considerably when people considered the costs.
Fourteen percent were simply opposed to registration
("none"), 61% favoured it in general but found at least
one of the scenarios too costly ("soft"), and 25% of
the population favoured it regardless of the cost
In the "Values, Effectiveness and
'Hard' Support for Registration" graphic we can
see that there is a strong and statistically significant
relationship between thinking that gun control is effective, and
wanting registration, for those with "Right and Hunt"
values, and for those with "Mixed" values. For those
who have "No Right No Hunt" values the relationship
between effectiveness and "hard" support for
registration is not statistically significant. In other words
they support registration at any cost whether or not they think
gun control will be effective. Perhaps they see registration as a
step towards eliminating all guns.
Confiscation of Handguns
We also asked whether the handguns
belonging to collectors, target shooters, and those who kept a
handgun for self-defense, should be confiscated. Only 20%
favoured confiscating collectors guns, 24% target guns, and 47%
self-defense guns. Interestingly, a majority of those who
favoured confiscating self-defense handguns said they would
personally use a gun to defend themselves.
Overall, 13% of the sample said that the handguns of all three
types of users should be confiscated. This response was highly
concentrated among the people in the "No Right No Hunt"
As the graphic shows there is a strong and statistically
significant relation, among those who have the "Right and
Hunt" values or the "Mixed" values, between
feeling that gun control is effective and wanting to confiscate
handguns. Among the "No Right No Hunt" respondents,
support for confiscation is very high and not significantly
related to their views on the effectiveness of gun control. As
with registration, this group supports confiscation even when
they do not think that gun control produces utilitarian benefits.
Returning to the title of the talk, "Gun Control - Will It
Work?," I think that there are two definitions of working, a
value definition and a utilitarian definition. Were it not for
the confusion caused by the mixing of these two levels of
discourse no one would have to ask if gun control will work, the
answer would be obvious.
From a utilitarian point of view the goal of gun control is to
reduce the misuse of firearms resulting in a reduction of
homicides, suicides and accidents.
Research in Canada and other countries has
shown that stricter gun control has two effects: it reduces
firearms robberies and it increases the burglary rate We have
already had both of these take place in Canada following the 1978
law. From 1975 to 1989 there was a 36% decrease in firearms
robberies rates, from 39 per 100,000 to 25 per 100,000 (Wolff 1991).
Robberies with other offensive weapons increased (DuWors 1992). Canada's burglary rate, always before
lower than that of the United States, passed the U.S. rate in
1982 and still remains above it. (Graphic). (Fedorowycz 1992)
Stricter gun control laws will probably not offer much further
reduction in the firearms robbery rate, but have a great
potential, as British experience has shown, for increasing the
burglary rate of occupied premises. (Mayhew 1987)
There are countries that, for a variety of
cultural reasons, have high or low rates of homicide and suicide,
but changes in gun control do not appear to have any marked
effect. In Canada the homicide rate was high when the
baby-boomers were in the "killer years" of 15 to 30, in
1975. It has declined as this group aged, and a smaller portion
of the population was in the 15 to 30 age group. (Graphic) A slightly larger decline took place in the
United States, which did not have any new firearms legislation
during this period.
In the United States, where guns are more easily accessible,
about two-thirds of suicides are carried out with firearms,
compared to about one-third in Canada. But the United States'
suicide rate is lower than Canada's. In Japan, where essentially
no one has guns, the suicide rate is higher than Canada's.
Suicide rates are determined by cultural factors, not by the
availability of a specific means.
While it is certainly true that if there were no guns there would
be no gun suicides, registration will not produce this effect.
The argument that because an owner is forced to register his gun
he will be more likely to store it safely so that in a moment of
depression he will not use it to kill himself applies to an
incredibly small portion of suicides. Most suicides follow months
or years of depression or illness, unlocking a gun takes at most
a couple of minutes, and the vast majority of people who use guns
for suicide are certain they want to die. Using a gun is not like
taking a dozen pills and calling 9-1-1. Taking away guns from
those people doctors and family members think are depressed,
already possible in the current law, might help in a few cases.
Still using a utilitarian point of view, it is hard to see how
the involvement of thousands of police officers keeping track of
the millions of households that have informed the police that
they have guns, is an effective deployment of police resources.
Of the eight million guns in Canada, only 1/20th of 1 percent
will be misused in homicide, suicide, accidents or by being
stolen in any given year. That is to say that 99.95% of the
police effort will be wasted.
When I was a police officer I was told "you don't find many
criminals in church," the point being, you look for
criminals where they are, not where they are not. Registration
will put the police, already declining in numbers, in the
position of tracking church congregations and looking for minor
sins, arresting people for not tithing, while diverting attention
from crack houses and violent families.
An additional problem that our survey revealed is that about a
quarter of gun owners do not intend to register all their guns.
This resistance will produce around three-quarters of a million
new criminals, some of whom will be prosecuted at great cost, and
little social benefit.
From the "No Right No Hunt" point of view the goal of
gun control is to reduce the number of firearms in the country,
to reduce firearms use, and to reduce hunting. If firearms and
hunting could be eliminated from Canada, even better.
From this value point of view, gun control
has already been extremely effective in reducing the
participation of Canadians in the shooting sports and hunting. I
asked 27 experts, representatives of wildlife and shooting
federations from across Canada, to evaluate the effect on their
sports of the last gun control law passed in 1991, with major
provisions coming into effect in 1993.
As the graphic shows, these experts indicated that membership
in the shooting clubs they knew about had declined by 14%. The
turnout for competitions involving pistol shooting declined by
23%, rifle competitions 14%, shotgun competitions (trap and
skeet) by 25%. The number of hunting licenses issued declined by
nearly 13%. The number of gun dealers declined by 21%. The
political involvement of gun owners in the gun control debate
increased by 50% during the same period. These figures are hardly
definitive; they represent only the averaged educated guesses of
people deeply involved in recreational firearms use. While the
accuracy of the percentage declines may be questioned, the
overall trend is clear.
The decline in hunting licenses has both direct and indirect
costs for wildlife management. Much of wildlife management is
paid for by hunting licenses, and if hunters can not be counted
on to control excess populations many more animals will starve
and crop damage will increase. There are also economic costs
associated with the decline in other shooting sports. It appears
that it is easy to discourage the law abiding Canadian from
participating in a sport by simply increasing the regulations
every year. For those with "No Right No Hunt" values
these arguments are irrelevant, and a decline in hunting is a
The R.C.M.P. reports a stunning drop in the
issuance of new Firearms Acquisition Certificates (graphic), another success from the "No Right No
Hunt" value point of view. If we take the rate of FACs
issued from 1984 to 1990, about 600 per 100,000 as the normal
rate there will probably be a rebound from the 1994 rate of 169
per 100,000, but with all the new regulations many will be
discouraged from applying for the Firearms Possession Permit with
Additionally, a number of firms have been
forced out of business (graphic)
At one meeting I attended gun control
advocates cheered when a sporting goods store owner said he was
Bill C-68, presently before the Senate, will have little or no
effect on homicides, suicides or accidents. Its proponents have
not offered a single piece of evidence or research that it will
reduce homicides, suicides or accidents, because there is no such
evidence or research. It may well allow for an increase in
violent crime as police efforts and funds are diverted into
bureaucracy. It will certainly increase the overall crime rate as
almost every gun owner in Canada will inadvertently be in
violation of one or another of its confusing provisions.
Bill C-68 will work extremely well at promoting the values of
those who are in the "No Right No Hunt" camp. With its
39,000 words and mind-boggling complexity it will insure that
almost no gun owner or police officer will be able to say for
certain whether an act is criminal. It will allow the government
to ban any firearm it wishes, regardless of whether it is
commonly used in hunting or target shooting. It will add layer
after layer of regulations for shooting clubs, create five kinds
of Firearms Possession Permits and five categories of Prohibited
weapons, some grandfathered, some not. It will discourage even
more people from recreational firearms use through increasing
costs and red tape.
So, will gun control work? Clearly it has not and will not from a
utilitarian point of view, clearly it has and will from the
"No Right No Hunt" value point of view. It depends
entirely on what you mean by work; it depends entirely on your
1992. "Robbery in Canada." Juristat: Service
Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 12:10. May.
1992. "Break and Enter in Canada." Juristat: Service
Bulletin. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 12:1.
1987. Residential Burglary: A comparison of the United States,
Canada and England and Wales. National Institute of Justice.
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
1994. Public Knowledge of Crime and Justice: An Inventory of
Canadian Findings. Technical Report, Department of Justice
Wolff, Lee, Shelley Trevethan and Tracy Hoskins.
1991. "Weapons and Violent Crime." Juristat: Service
Bulletin, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 11:12.
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