Disarmament begins at home

Domestic gun control

By Heidi Rathjen and Wendy Cukier | 1994-05-01 12:00:00


The costs of ready access to domestic firearms in the U.S. and Canada are staggering: 34,000 Americans are killed at home and in the streets each year. Over 2,000 of the victims are under the age of 19. Every two years American fatalities equal those accumulated during the seven-year Vietnam war. The "Death Clock" in Times Square, New York, now adds four firearms deaths every hour, or one every 15 minutes.

Politics of Gun Control

Despite the appalling cost in terms of human life, the politics of gun control in the United States have prevented effective action. Today in the U.S. there are 200 million guns, including 67 million handguns. In Canada the problem is less pronounced, thanks to controls introduced in 1978. But 1,400 Canadians are shot and killed each year in murders, suicides, and accidents; another 1,400 are injured. There are one million registered handguns and approximately six million rifles or shotguns currently in circulation.


Opinions on gun control range from those advocating no controls or even "arming for self protection" to those advocating a ban on all weapons. Some may see parallels in the attitudes to international weapons control. In framing its support for domestic control in 1991, the United Church of Canada argued that "the same principles that Canada has been pursuing in the international arena can be applied to controlling the spread of weapons of force within Canadian society." Its position included:

  1. a ban on trade and possession of weapons for which citizens have no legitimate need (e.g. assault weapons),
  2. restrictions on trade and possession of weapons for which citizens claim legitimate need,
  3. a federal gun registry (similar to proposals for an international arms registry), and
  4. licensing of people allowed to purchase, possess and use guns.

This position, essentially that of the Coalition for Gun Control, has been supported by an unparalleled alliance of police, health professionals, criminal justice workers, educational institutions, municipalities and community and religious groups. A ban on military weapons was supported by 560,000 Canadians who signed the petition of the students of the Ecole Polytechnique following the murders of 14 women. Polls have consistently shown substantial support among the public for further gun control, even among the majority of gun owners. Yet efforts to introduce even these modest improvements have been stymied by a surprisingly powerful gun lobby operating in a culture of violence.

Gun Culture

The gun lobby and "gun culture" have influenced the political process, in Canada as well as the U.S., and impeded the development of effective gun control. In 1991 Kim Campbell introduced legislation which offered improvements to the screening process involved in acquiring rifles and shotguns, improved storage requirements, and the banning of some military weapons and some large capacity magazines. However, the legislation was a compromise to the gun lobby, which in many ways dominated the legislative process. The law did not include registration of firearms, a complete ban on military weapons and large capacity magazines, or controls on ammunition.

Facts Belie Myths

Despite arguments that criminals will always get guns, the fact is that most murders are not random events committed by strangers with illegal guns. Usually the victim knows the killer. Almost half of the women killed by their husbands are shot. Gun theft is also a problem-3,000 guns are reported stolen every year. International studies show a significant correlation between access to guns and the suicide and murder rates. Because impulsiveness is a factor in many murders and suicides, access to guns increases the likelihood that an assault will become a murder and that a suicide attempt will succeed. But the gun lobby perpetrates the myth that "with gun control only criminals will have guns," which is based on the notion that there is a clear boundary between "law abiding citizens" and "criminals," or "us" and "them." This false dichotomy, similar to the ones used to justify warfare, is a significant impediment not just to gun control but to any effective crime prevention aimed at the roots of violence rather than merely its symptoms.

In Canada, the facts belie the gun lobby myth about "the criminal element." Legally-owned rifles and shotguns are used in most deaths. In Canada, the Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC) for rifles and shotguns involves a screening process, a test and a waiting period. But once issued, it confers the right to purchase as many rifles and shotguns as desired over a five-year period. No record is kept of who owns what guns (except at the firearms store) and there is no way to trace any of the estimated six million rifles and shotguns currently in circulation back to their owners. Afterthe murders at the Ecole Polytechnique, for example, the murderer was identified only after police conducted a store-by-store search to determine if anyone had recently sold a Ruger Mini-14. In most cities there is more information about who owns dogs than about who owns guns, and the law, in fact, prohibits police from inquiring about the number or type of rifles and shotguns an applicant owns or intends to purchase. Handguns are becoming an increasing problem. Although they are quite strictly controlled in Canada there are over one million registered to target shooters and collectors. Incidents such as the murders at Concordia University show clearly that "legal" handgun owners do not have pristine records. The Ruger Mini-14, used in the Ecole Polytechnique murders, remains an unrestricted weapon and is treated like a regular hunting rifle. Large capacity magazines, designed to allow soldiers in combat to fire many rounds without reloading, have been banned for some guns but a federal loophole introduced to accommodate gun owners allows exemptions for "competitive shooters." The U.S., by virtue of its lax gun control laws, is a major source of illegal handguns in Canada and throughout the world. Both countries have provided easy illegal access to military and other weapons.

One of the principal myths promoted by the gun lobby in the U.S. and increasingly in Canada is "arming for self-protection." Of course rather than decreasing the risk of crime, guns in the home increase the likelihood of accidental, criminal or suicidal killings. One study showed that for every case of a "self protection homicide" where an intruder was shot and killed, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides and 37 suicides involving firearms. Another showed that homes with guns had a fivefold greater chance of suicide and a threefold greater chance of homicide than homes without guns. Countries with high rates of firearms possession tend to have high rates of deaths by firearms. If arming for self-protection worked, the U.S. would be the safest country in the world but the evidence suggests that it reduces rather than increases public safety. The claim is a good way to sell more guns. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its Canadian counterparts have escalated their marketing efforts aimed at women, appealing to their sense of vulnerability with magazines such as Women and Guns or promoting the Lioness method of rape prevention. Needless to say, the principal sponsors are not women's groups or public safety organizations, but gun manufacturers. Given the persuasiveness of this notion in the U.S., the prospects for gun control in a country with 200 million guns are grim. In Canada there is still an opportunity to avoid the path taken by our neighbors to the south.

The NRA lobby is one of the most powerful lobbies in the world with 700 full-time employees. The Canadian gun lobby is not a monolithic organization but still wields influence out of proportion to its public support. It includes a collection of groups which vary in terms of concerns and stance. Many individuals belong to more than one group. Rural gun owners and hunting organizations including Ontario Hunters and Anglers, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, and its provincial affiliates oppose increased red tape and costs, and resent any inference that "law-abiding gun owners" may be part of the problem. While few can justify the availability of large-capacity magazines and assault weapons, which are not used for hunting, they are concerned with "the slippery slope"-that one step leads to another. The practical impacts of the specific gun control measures are seldom at the root of the opposition mounted by the gun control lobby and it is ironic that they are the ones often charged with being "irrational," "emotional," and "strident." Handgun owners typically belong to organizations such as the Ontario Shooting Federation, Ontario Handgun Association and a plethora of individual gun clubs. Because handguns are already registered and restricted, handgun owners are less concerned about increased restrictions on screening and more concerned about restrictions on types of weapons and magazine capacity. Target shooting ranges from Olympic class sports to paramilitary games such as those conducted by the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC). IPSC's "sport" involves shooting at targets shaped like people in a variety of simulations. Because it is "practical" they use a variety of handguns and military-style weapons. Often IPSC members are also gun collectors. Gun collecting is a big business and many collectors have thousands invested in guns. Typically these people oppose any restriction on types of guns, such as the ban on assault weapons. Finally, the National Firearms Association (NFA), based in Alberta and modelled on the American National Rifle Association (NRA), included a variety of gun users and advocated the most radical position, essentially self-regulation. The NFA also proposed arming women to reduce rapes and makes extensive use of NRA-type propaganda. While many of the arguments made by the gun owners were similar (guns don't kill, people do; control crime not guns; there are no good guns and bad guns, etc.) the NFA made claims which were racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. It also most explicitly aligned itself with the Reform Party. During the struggle for gun control legislation, the gun lobby had over a dozen paid lobbyists in Ottawa and took out a full page ad in The Globe and Mail. At public meetings a handful of gun control supporters across the country were typically confronted by hundreds of gun owners.


The political process associated with the passage of gun control legislation was unusual in several respects. The fact that most Canadians and virtually all public health, policing, and safety organizations supported further controls was absolutely no assurance that a law would pass, given the strong organized lobby opposing it. In fact, at various points in the process, Justice Minister Kim Campbell's efforts were undermined by members of her own party, including Conservative whip Jim Hawkes, who stacked committees with gun-owning and rural MPs. Throughout the debate gun owners dominated the committees and were given an "expert" status that is hard to understand. Owning a gun no more makes one an expert on gun control than being a user or dealer makes you an expert on preventing drug abuse. Physicians presenting epidemiology on gun control were asked, "Yeah, but how many of you have actually ever fired a gun?" One Liberal MP objected to women's critic Dawn Black attending the meetings "because she knows nothing whatsoever about guns." The effect, of course, was to marginalize gun control supporters and, in particular, women.

Much of the opposition to gun control is motivated by economic interest. After all, guns are big business and some of the richest men in Canada have shares in U.S. gun companies. Some of the opposition comes from individuals who genuinely believe their interests are at risk. At the same time, the "cult of masculinity" which has underpinned U.S. American military policy also reinforces opposition to gun control. Gun control activists, like peace activists, are often portrayed as "cowards" and "sissies." The language of guns permeates business and sports as well-"targeting," "weapons," "shootouts," etc.-and is deeply ingrained in North American culture. Fundamental change at the national and international level requires a major cultural paradigm shift.

Public opinion for gun control has grown. An Angus Reid poll commissioned in September showed that despite regional and gender variations 86% of Canadians supported registration of firearms; 84% supported a ban on military weapons; and 71% supported a ban on handguns. The majority of gun owners supported these measures. Public opinion is buttressed by diverse groups-the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, etc. But while the Liberal justice minister has taken a strong stand on the issue, it is not at all clear that substantive changes will be put in place. Many of his colleagues have proposed measures that seem calculated to avoid offending the gun lobby rather than promoting public safety. The situation in the United States has deteriorated to the point where it will be difficult to get the genie back into the bottle. The question remains: Will Canada act decisively before it is too late?

Wendy Cukier is a professorof administration and information management at Ryerson University. She is also president of the Coalition for Gun Control which she co-founded with Heidi Rathjen, a graduate of l'École Polytechnique, after the murders of 14 female students in Montréal December 6, 1989.
Peace Magazine May-Jun 1994

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1994, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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