TheGunBlog.ca — William Rees, a professor emeritus of planning and human ecology at the University of British Columbia, wrote the following response to a November fundraising letter by the Canadian Coalition for Gun Control.
He analyzes the letter’s message and political significance as the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares new gun laws and the country prepares for an October election.
Rees, who originated and co-developed “ecological footprint analysis,” grew up in southern Ontario and enjoyed plinking in the brush north of Toronto, including on the lands occupied today by York University. He remains an active target shooter.
TheGunBlog.ca published the coalition’s letter last week.
Post-Truth Politics and the
Coalition for Gun Control’s Fundraising Letter
“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
—Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, 1896
The recent fundraising letter by the Coalition for Gun Control (CGC) provides a prime example of shared illusion. Alarmed by what they say is a “surge of gun violence rising in our country,” it notes that “there are now nearly one million handguns legally owned in Canada” and could be “almost two million in another 10 years.” Their response is an appeal for financial support for “decisive action” — rapid passage of Bill C-71 and a “complete ban on handguns.”
I don’t know any gun owner who would not support a bona fide effort to reduce the criminal use of firearms in Canada, but there is little in the CGC’s fundraiser to suggest that the organization’s efforts will actually — or are even intended to — contribute to that goal.
Tellingly, the letter is devoid of words like “law-breakers,” “criminals,” “criminal gangs,” “gang violence,” etc., any terms that would indicate a legitimate effort to tackle actual crime. Indeed, if the CGC’s intent were to reduce real criminal activity, why would they not have named their organization the Coalition to End Violent Crime?
The answer becomes clear on closer reading. The CGC’s focus is not on actual law-breakers. They are appealing, not for better policing of criminals and criminal activity, but rather for laws and regulations that would further restrict more than 2 million law-abiding Canadians in their recreational, sporting, hobby or self-defence use of firearms.
Lies, Fears, Ignorance
In pursuit of this goal, the CGC relies on half-truths, untruths and misleading assertions. The letter repeats false news and plays on the irrational fears of an ill-informed public.
Consider the alleged “surge in gun violence,” the “gun homicides, domestic violence and even suicide [that] have increased year by year” involving increasing numbers of “crime guns … owned by Canadians” (as opposed to smuggled imports). Apparently, Canada is “reaching a tipping point from which there is no return” “unless we take action” — against licensed gun-owners (PAL-holders).
This is flagrant fear-mongering. The CGC grossly misuses statistics by basing an alleged trend on two cherry-picked points: 2013, the all-time low for violent crime, and 2017, the CGC’s supposed “surge” year.
Moreover, the CGC fails to acknowledge that much of the recent uptick is attributable to an increase in criminal gang activity, not necessarily a general phenomenon. Gang shootings rose to 25 percent of the 266 firearm-related homicides in Canada in 2017. Statistics Canada data show that the violent crime rate in Canada has been falling for decades, with 27 percent fewer homicides and attempted homicides in 2017 compared to the early 1990s.
Stabbings Exceed Shootings
We can also ask why CGC focuses on gun homicides. Historically, including 11 of the past 20 years, more Canadians have died from knife wounds than bullets. (As recently as 2015, stabbings exceeded shootings by 216 to 179). And do we just forget about the nearly equal number of people murdered by beatings and strangulation over this period?
Bottom line: The CGC letter is a strident attempt to convince a fearful public that law-abiding PAL-holders pose a perilous threat to public safety when, in fact, the latter are almost never involved in violent crime.
How many ordinary citizens are aware that prospective gun-owners are already subject to police background checks, character referrals, must receive spousal approval, and cannot acquire a firearms licence without passing a prescribed safety course, after which they are obliged by law to store any firearms they might acquire safely under lock and key?
Far from any need to plug what the CGC sees as “gaping holes in our gun laws,” there is scant evidence that further firearms regulation or legislation would serve any useful purpose in Canada.
Logic Gap, Gangs
If there is a “gaping hole” it is in the coalition’s logic. Actual criminals, the people they should be targeting, are law-breakers by definition — they ignore existing legal restrictions and would be unaffected by tighter gun laws. Neither the provisions of Bill C-71 nor a handgun ban would have prevented any of the recent street or gang shootings in Canadian cities.
If members of the CGC are truly concerned for the safety and well-being of Canadians, why do they not direct their resources to fighting criminals? There were 3,005 apparent opioid-related deaths in 2016 and 3,996 in 2017 (15 times more than the 266 gun-related homicides). Much of this slaughter is attributable to drug trafficking by criminal gangs whose activities the CGC ignores. Even impaired driving is a criminal offence, so the approximately 1,680 traffic deaths/year in Canada involving drugs and alcohol (6 times more than the 266 gun-related homicides) can be considered criminal acts. Clearly, addressing such problems as these would save more lives and make a greater contribution to public safety than would further restrictions on PAL holders.
Symptom vs. Cause
There is an even bigger elephant in the room that seems totally invisible to the CGC — and apparently to the federal government. Violence is only a symptom of a more complex socio-cultural disease. We know that youth gangs and criminal violence often spring from decaying environments, overcrowded housing, family discord, racial tension, youth alienation, joblessness, chronic poverty, mental illness, a growing income gap, etc. Violent crime and homicide in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere is concentrated in alienated populations and communities suffering from increasing social angst combined with inadequate public services.
Attack the Roots
If the CGC — and the Trudeau Liberals — were serious about reducing violent crime they would be urging/implementing policies that attack its social roots. Instead we get knee-jerk policies that merely impede innocent citizens in pursuit of their recreational activities.
How can this be?
The tone of the CGC letter suggests that its leaders simply hate guns and gun owners, and are willing to ignore evidence and distort reality to impose their beliefs and values on a minority group with whom they disagree. (This constitutes unwarranted discriminatory harassment.) The government is willing to go with the emotional flow to avoid admitting its failure to address the more difficult issue — and, of course, it is not above picking up a few misinformed votes.
Whatever happened to the notion of reasoned analysis and the Liberal campaign promise of evidence-based policy?
Path of Demagogues
The Oxford Dictionaries’ chosen Word of the Year for 2016 was “post-truth,” defined as “relating to, or denoting circumstances in which, appeals to emotion and personal belief are more influential than objective facts in shaping public opinion.”
It is almost always the case that simple solutions to complex problems are the wrong solutions. But in the post-truth era, there is something more ominous at play. When governments respond to ignorance, prejudice and misdirected passion as a means to gain or retain power, informed democracy yields and our leaders walk the path of demagogues.
More Clarifications & Data
Here are additional clarifications and data that people coming across the CGC fundraising letter should consider before reaching for their wallets.
See also Senator Don Plett’s report: 14 Things You Should Know About Violent Crime and Firearms in Canada.
- “Over the 16-year period (1997-2012), a Special Request to Statistics Canada found that licensed gun owners had a homicide rate of 0.60 per 100,000,” according to Gary Mauser, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. Over the same period, the average national homicide rate (including gun owners) was 1.81 per 100,000 people. Between 1997 and 2012, only 7 percent of the accused in homicide using a firearm — 2 percent of all accused murderers — held a valid firearm license. In short, an average Canadian without a firearm licence is more likely to commit homicide than an average Canadian with a firearm licence. These data underscore that the CGC is targeting a relatively harmless group of citizens.
- Whether there are 384,000 or 900,000 or 2 million legally registered handguns in Canada is irrelevant if they are not being used for criminal purposes.
- The CGC, along with some police officers and even the federal government, exaggerate the number of “domestically sourced” crime guns. Toronto police data show that the percentage of so-called “crime guns” traced to Canada fell for a second straight year in 2017 to the lowest level in at least four years, contrasting with claims that outlaws are getting more of their firearms from domestic sources. About a third of “crime guns” seized by police are not even real firearms.
- Matt Gurney of Global News said in a September column, “In short, there is no surge in crime guns that can be traced back to licensed Canadian gun owners. None. It’s just not there. The Toronto Police Service’s own statistics show no such surge.”
- Note for future reference: CBC News has quoted RCMP Sergeant Marie Damian as saying, “… the Canadian Firearms Program does not collect or track national statistics with regard to the origin of crime guns.” Lynn Barr-Telford, director-general in charge of justice surveys at Statistics Canada, told a government summit in March 2018: “We don’t know the origin of firearms involved in gun crime in Canada.”
- The CGC letter is also wrong in implying that fully automatic AR-15s and like weapons with large-capacity magazines available in the U.S. can be purchased legally in Canada. AR-15 rifles in Canada are legally classified as “Restricted.” They are modified to semi-automatic firing only and limited to five-cartridge magazines, similar to many “Non-restricted” hunting rifles.
- Reported relationships between firearm ownership rates and violent crime can be confusing and contradictory. However, at least one statistically-based analysis is unequivocal: “There is no clear correlation whatsoever between gun ownership rate and gun homicide rate. Not within the U.S.A. Not regionally. Not internationally. Not among peaceful societies. Not among violent ones. Gun ownership doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t make us less safe.”
- Examples: gun-ownership rates in Hawaii, North Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming are two to three times that in Canada, yet rates of homicide with guns are similar or lower. By contrast, gun-ownership rates in Ohio, California and Maryland are similar to Canada’s, but homicide-by-gun is four to seven times higher. Louisiana has the same gun-ownership rate as Hawaii and North Dakota, but 12 times the gun-murder rate (the highest among full U.S. states). Louisiana also suffers more from severe poverty, greater racial heterogeneity and racial tension. Non-whites are generally poorer and twice as likely to be murder victims in the U.S. as whites. These data — and similar comparisons among countries — underscore the socio-cultural roots of violence.
- It is therefore debatable whether “Countries like the U.K., Australia, and Japan have shown that strict gun-control law leads to dramatically lower gun homicide, crime and death rates,” as the CGC asserts. Homicides in both the U.K. and Australia increased in the years immediately following their respective gun restrictions before resuming declines that had begun before the regulations were implemented. One analysis that did show a positive correlation with stiffer regulation in Australia nevertheless concludes: “No study has explained why gun deaths were falling, or why they might be expected to continue to fall.” Some data suggest that countries with the strictest gun-control laws have the highest homicide rates.
- In the 24-year period 1990-2014, Australia’s homicide rate (under strict gun control after 1996) dropped by about 44 percent. However, this is significantly less than the 52 percent drop in the U.S. homicide rate under few gun controls. Clearly, factors other than firearm ownership account for the declines.
- The U.K., which has had a handgun ban since 1997, has experienced a “surge” in violent crimes during the same period as the alleged “surge” in Canada. “Reported violent crime” in the U.K. is up 50 percent since 2006 (100 percent since 2013 if we plot from the U.K.’s — and Canada’s — low-crime point). Homicides are up 26 percent from a low of 570 in 2014 to 720 in 2018. There has been a 67 percent increase in crime with guns in London since 2015 and officials are concerned about an increase in illegal imports of weapons. Clearly, the U.K.’s restrictions on ordinary citizens have not prevented that country’s “surge” in criminal activity including crimes involving guns. If we cannot attribute the U.K. crime “surge” to private gun ownership, what is the basis for doing so in Canada?
- In any case, Canadian citizens — including PAL holders — are already banned from carrying handguns on our streets. Anyone other than police or certain security guards walking around a Canadian city packing a handgun is probably a criminal.
- Many senior Canadian police officials agree that a domestic handgun ban would have little or no effect on criminals’ ability to acquire guns or on subsequent criminal activity.
- As for suicide, guns may be a preferred method when available, but there is no sound evidence of a causal relation between gun-ownership rate and overall suicide rates around the world. The U.S. has 1.2 civilian firearms per capita compared to fewer than 0.34 in Australia, Canada, Finland, Norway, yet all these countries have comparable suicide rates (12-16 per 100,000 per year); Russia has only a third of the private firearms/capita as Canada yet a suicide rate two and a half times higher (among the world’s highest at 31/100,000); South Korea has almost no private firearms, yet a very high suicide rate — 27/100,000 per year.
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