The Failure of Canadian Gun Control

by Dave Kopel

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the September 1988 issue of The American Rifleman, and was reprinted in the Spring 1989 issue of Police Times, the magazine of the American Federation of Police. This article is condensed from Canadian Gun Control: Should America Look North for a Solution to its Firearms Problem?, 5 Temple Journal of International and Comparative Law 1 (1991). This article is based on Kopel's book The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? (Prometheus Books, 1992). More articles by Kopel on Canadian gun control are available here.

One of the most frequent -- and most inaccurate -- claims of gun banners is that gun control works in other countries. If only we would adopt the "civilized" gun policies of other nations, the gun banners promise, we too could enjoy the low crime rates of other countries.

A careful look at foreign gun laws, though, indicates that gun control has almost no impact on crime control. Moreover, the gun controls that other nations have chosen for themselves simply would not work in the United States. Consider Canada, a nation whose gun controls do not work at home, and certainly could not work in America.

After Canada substantially tightened its gun laws in 1977, American newspapers and commentators began to tell their audience that the new law had reduced crime. Bemoaning the "lax" gun laws in the United States, they urged America to "examine closely what Canada has done in an effort to limit the carnage." In fact, Canada's gun laws -- past and present -- have done virtually nothing to control crime.

Current Laws

Enacted in 1977, Canada's prevailing gun law divides weapons into three basic types. In the "Prohibited weapons" category, sawed-off shotguns or rifles are completely illegal. Fully automatic weapons are legal only if they were registered to their current owner before January 1, 1979. Simple possession of tear gas for self defense is also a serious felony.

Intermediate controls apply to "Restricted weapons." These include all handguns, and any long gun the Governor in Council (the federal cabinet) places on the restricted list. In 1983, the Council placed the FN-FAL rifle (a large Korean war semi-auto from Belgium) on the restricted list, even though only one crime had ever been committed with the FN-FAL (a 1962 bank robbery by "the beetle bandit").

To receive a Restricted Weapon Registration Certificate, an applicant has the burden of proving that the gun will be used for one of four purposes: "to protect life where other protection is inadequate," or "in connection with a lawful profession or occupation," or for use in target practice, or by an applicant "who is a bona fide gun collector."

The first step for a prospective handgun purchaser will typically be to join a shooting club, and shoot with club members' guns at the range. After observing the applicant for a while, the club will write a letter of recommendation to the police, attesting that the applicant may be entrusted with a handgun.

The applicant takes the letter to the police, who run a criminal records check on the applicant. Next, they visit the place (usually the home) where the applicant intends to store the handgun. After subjectively evaluating the applicant's suitability, and investigating how the applicant will store the (locked) gun safely at home, the police will issue a restricted weapon permit.

That permit allows the individual to buy as many guns as he wants. Each gun, however must be officially registered with the police. The person may purchase a restricted firearm at a dealer, obtain a police permit to transport the restricted gun to and from the police station, and then take the gun with the permit to the police for registration.

The police fill out a form, and give two copies to the purchaser, keeping other copies for themselves. The purchaser must return one copy to the gun vendor, and then return directly to the police station with the gun. The police stamp the purchaser's copy of the form. The other copy must stay with the gun anytime the gun leaves the person's home.

The police send their own copy of the form to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the Mounties) in Ottawa, who in a few months will send the purchaser an official certification that he legally owns the gun, and a permit to transport the gun to a particular shooting range. Permits to transport restricted weapons to target ranges must be renewed every three years.

In practical terms, handguns are still readily obtainable; an applicant merely has to be a gun collector or belong to a target shooting club.

As in many American cities, it is virtually impossible for an ordinary citizen to obtain a permit to carry a loaded handgun for self-defense. Handgun carry permits for self-protection are issued "only in exceptional cases" where the issuing officer is "satisfied" of the applicant's need. A 600 page National Firearms Manual, prepared by the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, provides ample reasons for an officer to accept or deny a self-protection application as he sees fit. In contrast, permits to carry unloaded, locked handguns to target ranges are readily obtainable.

How strict the police departments are in issuing handgun target licenses varies from region to region. In some jurisdictions, a person might legally buy a handgun, but the police would hold the gun for several months, while the central government in Ottawa completed its paperwork. Only then would the police allow the gun to be taken to a target range.

In other areas, a permit to carry for target shooting may be issued in an afternoon, with the only background check being a look at computer records to make sure that the applicant does not have a criminal conviction.

The lowest level of control applies to "non-restricted" weapons -- hunting shotguns and rifles. Canadians wishing to purchase a shotgun or rifle must acquire a $10 Firearms Acquisition Certificate. People who owned long guns before the 1977 bill was put into effect were not required to retroactively apply for certificates.

The law states that protection of life is a legitimate reason for gun ownership. A Firearms Acquisition Certificate does not ask the reason for owning a gun. Yet in practice, applicants who state they want a gun for self-defense are often denied.

To obtain a Firearms Acquisition Certificate, an applicant must furnish a variety of personal information, including addresses for the past five years. The police carry out a background check, which varies considerably in intensity from area to area. Some police conduct personal interviews in the applicant's home, or talk with neighbors and employers. London, Ontario used to require a 13-question psychological test.

A drafted, but still unproclaimed, provision would add the requirement that the applicant pass a test or take a course in safe firearms handling.

Although gun applicants may sometimes face significant red tape and invasions of their privacy, in the end they get their guns. Less than 1% of Firearms Acquisition Certificate applications are denied. Thus, Canada still has less a restrictive gun policy than most other nations, since citizens willing to put up with paperwork and delay can obtain both long guns and handguns. Indeed, Canada is more liberal than Washington D.C., which has banned handgun purchases.

Canadian gun control is far stricter, however, than it was before 1977, when no permit was required to keep a long gun in one's house or business, and sales of such weapons were subject to virtually no control.

The political dynamics of Canadian gun control offer a warning to American gun-owners. First, the Canadian experience supports the theory that once gun controls get started, they get progressively stricter. Canada's first gun law, in 1892, simply required a gun license for those who wished to carry a handgun but did not have "reasonable cause to fear an assault." Now, ordinary citizens are prohibited from carrying loaded handguns; and the government deems self-protection to be an insufficient reason for even owning a weapon.

Second, the 1977 gun law, Bill C-51, illustrates how anti- gun forces can get their way. Like the Gun Control Act of 1968 in the United States, Canada's Bill C-51 was part of an omnibus "crime control" package. The package pleased liberals because it tightened gun control, and it pleased conservatives because it eased restrictions on wire-tapping. The liberal/conservative "anti-crime" coalition overwhelmed its civil libertarian and sportsman opposition. (Of course neither gun control nor excessive wiretapping has much to do with real crime-fighting.)

Does the Canadian Law Work?

It is far from clear that the 1977 Canadian law has had any significant effect on crime or suicide in Canada. First of all, the law does not seem to be strictly enforced. As in America, judges usually give only suspended sentences or probation to defendants convicted of illegally possessing a gun, unless the person was carrying the gun for use in a crime.

Second, there seem to be plenty of illegal guns still available. Inspector Crampton, of the Toronto police, has released a much-publicized report that claims a person would not have to walk more than two kilometers "to pick up a hot piece." Part of the illegal gun supply comes from stolen American guns, but even without U.S. imports, the Canadian pool of illegal weapons is more than sufficient for criminal purposes.

As in the U.S., each long gun purchase is registered by the gun dealer; each handgun purchase is registered with the police. The new registration system has had little impact. The recovery rate for lost or stolen firearms has remained stable at about 4% ever since 1934. (Indeed, one of the clear lessons from the gun control experiences of Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand is that gun registration is massive waste of police resources, because it has no effect at all on preventing or solving crime.)

In 1983, a study paid for by the Canadian government did conclude that the 1977 Act had had positive effects. However, analysis by Dr. Paul Blackman, of the N.R.A., leads one to doubt the study's conclusions.

For example, the government paper noted that the per capita firearm murder rate, after increasing from 1961 to 1975, declined from 1975 to 1981. Since the gun control law only went into effect after 1978 it hardly can be given credit for a trend begun in 1975.

In four major Canadian cities -- but not the country as a whole -- the percentage of firearms used in attempted murders did drop significantly after 1978. Notably, the frequency of attempted murders did not experience a similar drop. The fact that attempted gun murders declined, but attempted murders did not, supports the theory that if gun are less available, people will choose other weapons with which to kill.

It is sometimes claimed that the presence of guns causes a huge amount of inter-family "domestic homicides" in the United States. Take away the handguns, and angry family members won't kill each other -- so the argument goes. In fact, after the Canadian gun law took effect, domestic homicides did fall. But they dropped even more sharply in America -- evidence that the Canadian decline was not due to the new gun law.

As for other crimes, the use of firearms in "rape and indecent assault, assault, and woundings," was already low, and showed no change. The robbery rate increased, and the use of guns in robberies increased at a slightly slower rate. (Robbery was up 38%, and gun use in robberies up 34%.)

The new gun law had provided for increased penalties for use of a gun during a felony (a measure the N.R.A. supports). It might be that robbers' slightly diminished interest in using guns was attributable to the enhanced sentencing law.

Whatever effect the gun law had on robbery was not significant, though. American states which border Canada -- who were not enacting any new gun laws -- saw a much slower rise in the robbery rate than Canada did.

As for the death rate from firearms accidents, Canada continued to enjoy a decline that had begun in 1971.

Suicides involving firearms fell noticeably after 1978, reversing the previous trend. The overall suicide rate, however, did not drop, which leads to the inference that the availability of particular weapons has no impact on a nation's suicide rate. America's suicide rate, already slighter lower than Canada's, declined some more. In short, the evidence indicates that Canada's handgun crackdown/long gun licensing had little effect on crime or suicide.

Although the new gun law seems ineffective, a gun controller might point out that even before the law was enacted in 1977 Canada had far fewer guns per capita than America does. Therefore, it might be that Canada's lower overall gun density has contributed to the lower Canadian homicide and robbery rates. Two comparisons with the U.S. disprove this argument, though.

If one excludes Americans born in Southern states (of all races) from American crime statistics, America's crime rate is comparable to Canada's. American Northerners have far easier access to guns than Canadians do, and commit no more crimes. American Southerners have the same access to guns that American Northerners do, and commit far more crime. The important variable in crime rates is not the number of guns available, but the characteristics of the citizenry. (The high Southern crime rate cannot be due mainly to guns, since most of the guns are in rural areas, and most of the crime is in urban areas. Southerners also have an abnormally high non-gun assault rate.)

Further, despite editorial claims that America is a land of "carnage," most Americans have no more to fear from guns than Canadians do. The overall death rate for non-Hispanic white Americans from all types of shootings (murder, suicide, accident, etc.) is the same as the rate for Canadians.

American Blacks and Hispanics have a much higher death rate from shootings, in part because they are likely to live in poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods, and to receive less protection from the authorities.

Unlike Canada, the U.S. has a large social and racial underclass. Most members of that underclass are disproportionately the victims of crime (and therefore most in need of inexpensive guns for self-defense). A fraction of the underclass population, on the other hand, is the segment of society that most frequently perpetrates armed robberies and domestic murders (with and without guns).

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine compared handgun homicide rates in Vancouver and Seattle. The article contrasted Seattle, with its high handgun homicide rate, and Vancouver, with its lower rate. The article noted that Vancouver had stricter handgun possession laws than in Seattle, and a lower handgun homicide rate.

True enough. But while Seattle and Vancouver have the same average income, they have the very different below average income groups. The low-income groups in Seattle have a high proportion of racial minorities that have been brutalized by a history of racial discrimination and destruction of fundamental family structures. If one limits the Seattle-Vancouver comparison to non-Hispanic whites, the homicide rates and gun victimization rates in the two cities are equal -- despite Canada's stricter laws.

The New England Journal of Medicine article had other flaws as well. It attributed Vancouver's lower handgun homicide rate to the 1977 Canadian law barring possession of a handgun for self-defense. Yet Vancouver's handgun homicide rate (and overall homicide rate) after the law went into effect has remained almost exactly the same as in the years before the law. Thus, to conclude that the law was the main cause of the low homicide rate is simply specious.

So intent are the article's authors on "proving" a case against guns that they even misrepresent other research. The article cites Under the Gun: Weapons and Crime and Violence in America (by Wright, Rossi, and Daly) for the proposition that stricter gun control would reduce homicide. In fact, that book (written by top-ranked sociologists who started from a very anti- gun perspective) concludes that there is no persuasive evidence that any form of gun control has reduced or would reduce homicide.

To make things worse, the inaccurate, misleading Seattle- Vancouver "study" was paid for by U.S. government funding from the Center for Disease Control. Taxpayer dollars would be better spent on research about real medical questions -- rather than half-baked polemics on criminology.

Rather than reducing crime -- as the Canadian government and some American researchers claim --Canada's restrictive gun laws may well cause crime. The crime that gun ownership best deters is burglary of occupied residences. While only one in ten American burglaries is committed against an occupied home, half of all Canadian burglaries are. Since the 1977 law took effect, the Canadian breaking and entering rate rose 25%, surpassing the American rate, which has been declining. (The situation is even worse in Britain, where gun control is stricter, and 59% of burglaries are attempted against occupied residences.)

Interestingly, Canada does recognize that "criminal nations" are deterred by armed citizens. An Eskimo militia, armed and trained by the government, guards the Northern Territories.

Would the Canadian Law Work in America?

While gun controllers often point admiringly to the restrictive gun policies of other nations, they fail to point out the way those policies are enforced. Not only would most foreign gun laws violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, they would violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, which strictly regulate government searches, seizures, and confiscations.

In America, a thorough hearing in front of a judge is necessary for the government to receive permission to confiscate someone's property. But in Canada, magistrates (court officers one step below a judge) may issue warrants for home searches and gun confiscation whenever the magistrate "believes that it is not in the interest of the person or not in the public interest that a person should have in his possession a firearm." In such situations, the authorities use the F.A.C. or Restricted Weapon lists to determine if the home has a gun to confiscate. Gun- owners have complained that informants have tricked the police into impounding neighbors' weapons by filing false reports of violent threats. Once the gun has been taken, an appeal by the gun-owner is allowed.

America forbids the police to search a home, unless they are given a warrant by a court, or unless there are exigent circumstances. Canada allows warrantless home searches when a police officer believes that possession of a firearm in someone's home "is not desirable in the safety of that person, or of any other person," and obtaining a warrant would be "impracticable."

After a home search, the Canadian prosecutors are required to report the results to the magistrate, so that the courts can monitor the intrusions into people's homes. In practice, many search results are reported only when guns are found which the authorities want to have permanently forfeited.

Even if Canadian gun control had cut crime, which it has not, there are important reasons why a Canadian-style gun policy would not be successful in the United States.

First of all, there are many more guns in America, particularly handguns. Overall, Canadians own guns at about half the American rate. Handguns comprise a third of America's gun supply, but only a twentieth of Canada's. The actual stock of American handguns is over 40 times Canada's. (Canada has about five million long guns, and, at last count, 863,000 handguns.)

During the debate on the 1977 Canadian gun law, the leading academic proponent of the bill, University of Toronto Law Professor M.L. Friedland, warned that Canada must adopt gun controls immediately, before guns became as common as they were in America. Friedland argued that gun control was no longer possible in the United States, because there were so many guns.

Canada's criminals are adequately supplied with a pool of illegal guns that may, according to government estimates, be as low as 50,000. In New York City alone, the police estimate there are one to two million illegal firearms. If Canada -- with 50,000 illegal guns -- cannot disarm criminals, it is ludicrous to expect that America -- with many, many more illegal guns -- could possibly disarm criminals by banning guns. The amount of illegal guns in New York City alone is more than sufficient to supply American criminal needs, even if all legal American guns were confiscated.

While only five percent of Canadians (mostly in the prairies) list self-defense as their main reason for owning guns; a quarter of Americans do (mostly in the cities). Common sense indicates that persons who own guns for self-defense believe they have a strong need for the gun, and will be unlikely to obey prohibitive gun control statutes.

Many pro-gun activists in Canada -- like pro-gunners in Britain -- reject the idea that a legally-owned gun is a "weapon." They see the gun's primary legitimacy as a sporting device. But in the U.S., the right to own a gun is not based on the right to hunt, or to shoot at targets. The right to bear arms is based on the most fundamental human right of all: the right to self-defense.

Neither Canada's culture nor its Constitution have inculcated in its citizens a determination to own guns. As one Canadian police official put it, "We don't have the tradition here of people believing it's an inherent right to carry a gun. I've had people come in to a police station after a relative had died, and they'll bring in a box carrying his collection. I tell that to American policemen, and they think I'm lying." Gun amnesties in major American cities almost never pull in more than two or three dozen weapons.

The obedience to gun control is merely one aspect of Canadians' greater acceptance of government power. The same attitudes that lead Canadians to accept gun controls lead them to accept other controls. The Los Angeles Times' Toronto correspondent described Canadians as "a conservative people who accept authority more readily than do most Americans."

Canada did not even have a Bill of Rights until 1960, and that Canadian Bill of Rights is merely a statute, subject to easy repeal at any time. In 1984, Canada implemented a Charter of Rights, derived from its Commonwealth British heritage. The Charter of Rights is much harder to change, and provides a solid foundation for the rights contained in America's first amendment (free speech, religion, and assembly).

But the Charter of Rights, in contrast to the earlier Bill of Rights, allows takings of property without due process. Therefore, ruled Canada's highest court, the government may take a person's property -- including her guns -- without due process of law.

Not surprisingly, civil liberties are far less secure in Canada than in America. There is no "exclusionary rule" in Canada; thus the police can make illegal searches, knowing that whatever they find will be probably be admissible in court, depending on the individual judge. Few police officers face serious discipline for any but the most clearly illegal searches.

Canadian courts still issue "Writs of assistance," which allow the R.C.M.P. to conduct blanket searches, without specifying what they are searching for. Until recently, the courts simply gave the R.C.M.P. "fill-in-the-blank" search warrants. Now, writs of assistance are harder to get. In the United States, writs of assistance were abolished over two centuries ago, after the American revolution.

In the U.S., the press constantly embarrasses politicians by printing leaks of confidential government information. Canada, however, has an Official Secrets Act, which lets the government prohibit publication of government secrets, even if the "secret" has nothing to do with national security.

Only in 1987 did the Mounties disband their "countersubversion branch," that kept files on certain popular labor and antiwar groups. (Domestic spying was recently transferred to a different branch of government.) Overall, government internal security has files on 600,000 people, one out every forty Canadians.

More so than any other people, Americans are mistrustful of government power, and careful guardians of their rights. In contrast, some Canadian nationalists complain that American television is subversive because it makes Canadian youths believe they have constitutional rights.

A comparison of the history of Canada and the United States helps explain the differences between the two nations.

America fought a seven-year war for total independence; Canada was settled in part by American Tories (United Empire Loyalists), and was peacefully granted sovereign status in the British Commonwealth many years later.

In The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813, Pierre Berton, Canada's foremost popular historian, discusses the American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812. Berton explains how the Canadians remained loyal to Britain and British values. The formative experience of that war, writes Berton, explains why Canada developed "that special form of state paternalism that makes the Canadian way of life significantly different from the more individualistic American way."

The Canadian advance on the frontier was not a violent as America's. The French fur traders who first settled Canada could co-operate with Indians; the English farmers who settled America did not want trade, but land. Their determination to take the continent put America through nearly two centuries of continuous warfare, as the frontier was pushed west one farm at a time. When not fighting indigenous peoples, American settlers still needed to protect themselves from the horsethieves and other criminals that ruled parts of the frontier.

In Canada, the Laurentian Shield -- a giant stretch of brushy, barren soil -- blocked westward expansion. Only when railroads penetrated this barrier in the 19th century did settlers reach the rich interior prairie. Those settlers came directly from the "civilized" eastern provinces, and brought their established practices with them.

In fact, the Mounties came to establish law and order before many settlers arrived. From the earliest days of the Canadian west, the Mounties discouraged the eastern settlers from carrying handguns. By effectively providing for the security of the settlers, the Mounties obviated the need for defensive weaponry. Although some Americans urged the creation of an American "Mountie" force for the frontier, western communities resisted it as an encroachment by military rule on local autonomy.

A man on a saddle with rifle and revolver symbolized the West in both nations. Canada's character was the government Mountie, and America's the independent cowboy. Indeed, The Lone Ranger would have been an outlaw in Canada, since 19th century law forbade carrying a firearm while "masked or disguised." Toronto Professor John Hagan contrasts the Mountie with another American symbol, the eagle, "a fiercely independent animal prone to outbursts of violence."

Symbols such as Mounties, cowboys, and eagles reflect and create social reality. So do constitutions. Professor Friedland contrasts the American Constitution, with its right to keep and bear arms, and the Canadian constitution, which simply provides for "peace, order and good government," and signifies obedience to authority.

In short, Canadians have faith in government power in a way that Americans do not. Their gun laws are merely one aspect of the Canadian system of relying on the government to take care of everyone's welfare -- in contrast to the American system, where many citizens distrust government power, and insist that they possess the means to protect themselves.

Whether or not gun control has affected the Canadian crime rate -- and the evidence is that it actually causes crime -- gun control has been generally accepted in Canada. Because America's culture is different, particularly in America's far lesser respect for authority, and far greater attachment to the gun, it is unlikely that Canadian-style gun controls could succeed in America.

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