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Are Rifles and Shotguns the Weapon of Choice in Canadian violent crime?

Executive Summary

Much of the impetus behind Canada’s 1995 firearm law was not ‘crime control’ per se, but strategic political concerns contained within a value driven, urban-oriented social reform agenda (MacLellan 1995: 171; Mauser Nov.1997).
Despite government and media claims that the Canadian public overwhelmingly supports Canada’s 1995 firearm law (Bill C-68 An Act respecting firearms and other weapons), academic analysis shows that this support is shallow (Mauser, Buckner 1997: 62-66). Most Canadians are so misinformed about existing firearm laws, violent crime and levels of gun violence that their opinion on ‘gun con- trol’ can be difficult to interpret accurately (Wright, et al. 1983: 232; Kleck 1997: 328; Mauser, Buck- ner 1997: 14-19).

Academic analysis of public opinion surveys shows that ‘gun control’ is not a salient issue with most people (Kleck 1997: 329-330). While many claim to support restrictive gun laws, they do not believe that a lack of ‘tough’ gun legislation is an important cause of personal and interpersonal violence, or that new laws will be effective at reducing violence or keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals (Kleck 1997: 338-339; Mauser, Buckner 1997: 21, 62-66).
Rifle and shotgun registration and gun owner licensing were promoted by the Canadian government on the basis of three reports sponsored by the Department of Justice. These reports claimed that the majority of the firearms recovered by police in criminal and non-criminal incidents were ‘ordinary’ non-restricted rifles and shotguns, and that ‘long guns’ are responsible for most of the firearm-related violent crime in Canada (DJC 1995: 15; CFC March 1999: 1).
Non-representative samples of police-recovered firearms, not actual incidents where guns were used to commit a violent crime, were used as the unit of analysis in the three government reports. Most of these recovered firearms had no involvement in the crimes investigated by police. They were merely collected from a location where a crime was alleged to have occurred (CFC March 1999: 1).

Approximately two-thirds of the police-recovered ‘crime guns’ described in the government reports were not associated with crimes of violence, but with non-substantive possessory offences, property crimes and other non-violent gun law violations (DJC 1995: 10; DAC 1997: 8). Of the recovered ‘non- criminal’ guns, most had simply been given to the police for safekeeping or destruction (DJC 1995: 11, A2).

The studies erroneously classified non-firearms, such as air guns and replicas, as firearms (DJC 1995: 8-10), grossly exaggerating the involvement of rifles and shotguns in crime. Even after excluding non-firearms from the samples of firearms recovered by police, rifles and shotguns were under repre- sented, while handguns were considerably over represented, relative to their proportion of the existing civilian gun stock.

The government reports made little mention of the fact that the majority of the firearms used in crime are not recovered (Kleck 1997: 112; Dandurand 1998: 38), or that samples of recovered firearms are not considered an accurate or particularly reliable method of identifying a ‘typical crime gun’ (Wright, et al 1983: 175; Kopel 1995: 183).
Contrary to the government studies, Revised Uniform Crime Reports (UCRII) compiled by urban Ca- nadian police services and the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics show that firearm robbery is the most common gun crime in Canada, and the one least likely to involve recovery of the “crime gun” (Axon, Moyer 1994: 22). Robbery by firearm represents three-quarters of all reported incidents of gun-related violent crime occurring in urban Canada (CCJS 1998: 52).

Despite the fact that civilian handgun ownership has been prohibited in Canada since 1913, uniform crime reporting shows that handguns are used in three-quarters of all recorded crimes of violence. Ri- fles and shotguns are used in barely 10 per cent (CCJS 1997, 1998). In urban Canada, firearms of all types are used in just five per cent of all violent crimes (CCJS 1997, 1998; Tremblay 1999: 8).

Robbers use firearms, not because they have lethal intentions, but because using a gun ensures victim compliance and allows them to rob more financially lucrative establishments like banks (Descroches 1995: 146).

Research shows that the majority of violent offenders, especially persons convicted of armed robbery, indulge in ‘high risk’ lifestyles, have lengthy criminal histories (Ciale, Leroux 1984; Beck, et al. 1993; Desroches 1995:59), and are already legally prohibited from owning firearms.

There is little compelling evidence that Canada’s restrictive gun laws have been effective at reducing robbery (Mundt 1990: 140, 144; Mundt 1993: 42-45; PES 1996: 47, 49, 64; Mauser Nov.1998). The decline in Canada’s firearm robbery rate has been counterbalanced by the increasing use of physical force and other weapons such as knives, which have a much greater probability of inflicting serious injury because victims are more likely to resist (Kleck 1997: 238).
Police recorded crime statistics show that the US robbery rate is far higher than countries such as Canada, Australia and England and Wales; however, research strongly suggests that this results from a much higher percentage of robberies that are reported to American police (Langan, Farrington 1998: 12). Government surveys of crime victims show that robbery rates are actually lower in the United States; e.g., the 1995 US robbery rate was 30 per cent lower than in England and Wales (Langan, Far- rington 1998: 67).

It is estimated that one-third to one-half of all firearm robberies may not involve real handguns (Des- roches 1995: 123); however, when Canadian robbery statistics are adjusted to reflect the use of ‘other guns’ such as air guns and replicas, ‘real’ handguns continue to outnumber ‘ordinary’ rifles and shot- guns in gun-related violent crime by a ratio of 7 to 1.

Evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of the handguns used in robbery are illegally pos- sessed (Axon, Moyer 1994: 23; Beck, et al. 1993: 18-19), and that the majority of handguns used in violent crime, robbery in particular, are smuggled into Canada from the United States (Axon, Moyer 1994: 32, 37-42; Thompson 1995: 26, 39). Bill C-68’s misdirected emphasis on regulating legitimate gun owners, and on registering firearms (rifles and shotguns) that are not commonly used in violent crime, is unlikely to have any significant impact on the illicit gun market (Dandurand 1998: 69).

There are no Canadian studies describing how criminals obtain firearms; however, American studies show clearly that criminals can easily obtain illegal firearms within twenty-four hours of their release from jail, and that the overwhelming majority of ‘crime guns’ are obtained, not from licensed gun dealers, but from completely unregulated ‘black market’ sources (Wright, Rossi 1994; Beck, et al. 1993: 19; Decker, et al. 1997: 2-3).

It is estimated that even if every legally owned firearm in the United States and Canada was immedi- ately confiscated, the supply of illegal guns in the United States is sufficient to satisfy the criminal de- mand for at least the next several centuries (Wright, et al. 1983; Kleck 1997: 92).


Download the Full Report (PDF) originally presented to the 51st annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 17-20 November 1999.

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