Firearms, Accidental Deaths, Suicides and Violent Crime: An Updated Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation

5. Firearms and Violent Crime (cont'd)

5. Firearms and Violent Crime (cont'd)

5.7 International Comparisons–Assaults

In Canada, most assaults and threats do not involve a weapon. According to the 1996 ICVS, 12.7 percent of Canadian respondents reported having been assaulted or threatened during the previous five years. In all, 0.4 percent of Canadians reported being assaulted or threatened with a firearm (Block, 1998). Block, who compared the survey findings for nine western industrialized countries, reported that less than one percent of respondents, in all countries except the United States, reported being assaulted or threatened with a firearm during the previous five years. In the United States, both armed threats and assaults with a firearm were more frequent than in other countries. The risk of being threatened or assaulted with a firearm was 5.9 times higher in the United States than in Canada (Block, 1998: 18; Mayhew and van Dijk, 1997).

5.8 Characteristics of Armed Robberies

Robbery frequently involves firearms. According to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Crime Statistics, there were 31,242 robberies reported in Canada in 1996. Of these, 21.3 percent were classified as firearm robberies and 33 percent involved other weapons. In the last 20 years, the number of robberies has increased, but the percentage of those involving a firearm has decreased by 45 percent (Department of Justice, 1996; Hung, 1997).

Sometimes the firearm used to intimidate a victim may not be a real firearm. A very small percentage of robberies result in an arrest, and since the firearm used is even less frequently recovered, it is difficult to estimate with precision the proportion of real versus fake firearms used in robberies. In Toronto, from 1991 to 1993, Axon and Moyer (1994) found that in the few cases of armed robbery where they were able to obtain information on the type of firearm, 43 percent involved handguns and 36 percent involved imitation firearms or air guns.

Researchers have noted an increase in the criminal use of restricted firearms in other countries, including England and Wales (Mayhew, 1996: 4). In the United States, offenders use handguns in nearly 80 percent of the robbery cases for which the type of weapon is known (Goetting, 1995: 158).

There is no exact estimate of the proportion of legal versus illegal firearms that are used in crime. The firearm is often not recovered and, when it is, it may have been tampered with to obscure its origin (Mayhew, 1996: 15). When an illegal firearm is used, it frequently has been stolen from the legitimate owner (Corkery, 1994; Don, 1995). In their exploratory study on the use of firearms in crime in Toronto, Axon and Moyer (1994) found that in homicide and robbery cases where the firearm was recovered, the offender had acquired it illegally in 52 percent of cases. They also noted that many firearm offenders had a criminal record and were not in legal possession of the firearm when they committed the offence. Nearly two-thirds of murderers and robbers had criminal records (Idem). In England and Wales, most firearms used in crime were held illegally (Mayhew, 1996: 3; Home Office, 1997).

5.8.1 Types of Robberies

It is important to distinguish between types of criminal incidents when looking at the role firearms may play. The term robbery refers to a wide variety of circumstances in which force or the threat of force is used. Robberies of banks and other financial institutions are different from other commercial robberies, and these vary from individuals getting mugged (Desroches, 1995). Whether these incidents involve a firearm depend on the characteristics of the offender, the victim, and the target of the robbery. For instance, muggings are more likely to be committed by young offenders, where bank robberies are more likely to be committed by men in their twenties (Desroches, 1995: 42). Weapons used in street robberies are different from those used in commercial or financial robberies (Seto, 1994: 10).

A growing body of research on robbery incidents and the thought processes of offenders shows that robberies are often opportunistic. To the offender, the priority is to manage the victim. The offender uses speed, surprise, intimidation and force to minimize the victim’s resistance and the risk of violence or apprehension, as well as to optimize the chance of success (Desroches, 1995: 31). Desroches (Ibidem) noted that, since robbery is seldom planned in detail, offenders are likely to use whatever weapons are at their disposal. Lone offenders apparently use a firearm more often than groups of offenders. The perception that the victim may also be armed influences the offender’s decision to use a firearm, and probably whether or not to commit the robbery (Ibid). Offenders who are convicted of using a firearm in a robbery may receive additional charges and tougher sentences. However, we are not certain of the extent to which this is an important element in the decisions made by most offenders.

Some robberies result in murder. Between 1961 and 1990, 31 percent of robberies turned into homicides as criminals who set out to steal or rob someone ended up shooting their victims. Victims of fatal robberies were beaten in 30 percent of cases and stabbed 27 percent of the time. When a firearm was used, it was a handgun in almost half of the cases (Silverman and Kennedy, 1993: 119). The incidents generally occurred within the same race. About 82 percent of the victims were males and 60 percent of them were older than 44 (Ibidem). The Winnipeg Police Service examined a sample of 127 robberies in 1995. Of the 145 victims, none were killed but 12 percent of them were injured during the incident (Proactive Information Services, 1997).

5.9 International Comparisons–Robbery

Block (1998) found that the frequency of robbery in the past five years varied from 2.5 to four percent in seven countries, with Canada situated at 3.4 percent. The differences, according to Block, are probably not statistically meaningful. Indeed, excluding the United States, there was no meaningful difference in the reported rates of armed confrontation during a robbery. In contrast, in the United States, respondents were about twice as likely as elsewhere to have been confronted with a weapon during a robbery in the past five years. In the United States, the weapon was twice as likely as in Canada to be a firearm (Idem: 15-17; Zawitz, 1995).

5.10 The Presence of a Firearm and the Probability of Attacks and Serious Injuries

The author of the previous literature review concluded that a person who is attacked by someone with a gun is more likely to be killed or seriously injured than if the attacker had used another type of weapon (Gabor, 1994: 31). Since then, an analysis of data in the Massachusetts surveillance system for 1994, comparing lethal and non-lethal violence revealed that shootings were 12 times more likely to result in death than assaults with a sharp instrument. The case-fatality rate was at 16.2 percent in incidents involving firearms, as opposed to 1.3 percent in those involving knives (Barber et al., 1996: 488). While firearms are surely lethal weapons, the severity of an injury sustained in an attack also depends on the intention of the attacker. The previous review (Gabor, 1994: 31-35) looked at the question of intent and noted its complexity. Among other considerations, the author outlined how the offender does not always premeditate the crime, nor is the offender always motivated to kill. The judgement of the offender may be impaired by alcohol or drugs; and the decision to shoot may be impulsive. Each of these empirical observations remain valid (see also: Mayhew, 1996).

Researchers continue to debate whether the violence is determined more by the motivation of the offender or by the nature of the instrument used, such as a firearm (Gabor, 1994: 31). Instead, intent and instrumentality should be seen as interconnected. The author found no research evidence in the previous review, nor in subsequent research, in which findings offered a clear distinction between the respective contribution of these two determinants in producing a lethal outcome. Since two-thirds of homicides committed in Canada are committed without firearms, other methods of attacking and killing are also lethal. When one looks specifically at secondary homicides; that is, those occurring as a result of another offence, firearms are involved in a surprisingly small number of offences (Silverman and Kennedy, 1993). There is no research available on failed homicide attempts or on robberies and assaults that have gone wrong. Some studies could help establish a link between the type of weapon involved and the seriousness of the outcome.

The previous review addressed another aspect of this question: is there a greater chance that an offender will launch an attack during a crime or a confrontation if there is a firearm present? The various studies considered in the previous review (Gabor 1994: 26; also, 1995: 201) indicated that robbers armed with guns were less likely to attack and injure victims than those using other weapons or no weapons. In assaultive violence, according to Kleck’s review of research to date, "the net effect of an aggressor gun possession on whether the aggressor attacks is negative" (1995: 22).

When all of these research findings are considered, it would seem that the chances of a serious firearm injury may be offset by the greater likelihood of an attack when knives or other weapons are used (Gabor, 1994: 31). If such is the case, it would seem that the victim’s risk of sustaining a serious or lethal injury depends on whether the offender is using a firearm, the victim’s reaction and whether or not the firearm is discharged. The power which weaponry confers cannot be treated as exclusively violence-enhancing. Kleck (1995: 24) summarized existing research findings as follows:

"{an} aggressor’s possession and use of a gun apparently reduces the probability of attack, reduces the probability that the attack will result in an injury, and increases the probability that the injury will be fatal. Therefore, it is not at all obvious that the threatening situations with a gun-armed aggressor are more likely to result in the victim’s death, since it is not obvious what the relative balance of these countervailing effects is."

The previous review reported that when firearms are used in a crime, this may increase the risk of injuries to bystanders (Gabor, 1994: 23). Obviously, the firing of high-velocity projectiles will increase the risk of injury to bystanders. Frequent drive-by shootings in the United States have drawn attention to injuries caused to innocent bystanders, but that risk is a direct result of the nature of the offense. To date, no studies have looked at the risks for witnesses and bystanders during various types of violent crimes, nor at the relative impact of firearms when present in such incidents.

Finally, the previous literature review examined a number of studies on the weapons effect, or the notion that a weapon stimulates impulsive reactions including aggression (Gabor, 1994: 25-26). To date, research does not confirm that a "triggering effect" (Kleck, 1995: 21) is the only possible result or even the most frequent reaction. The effect exists, but it appears to be contingent on settings and conditions that are not yet very well specified (Ibidem).

5.11 Summary

  • One of the factors associated with violence is the availability of firearms. The extent to which violent crimes can be prevented by reducing or controlling the availability of firearms is still widely debated.
  • In 1996, offenders used a firearm to commit 211 homicides, constituting about one-third of all homicides committed during that year. The proportion of firearm homicides has remained relatively consistent, at about 33 percent of all homicides over the past 20 years.
  • Since 1975, the total number of homicides and the number committed with firearms have declined. There is no simple explanation for the observed decrease.
  • The role of firearms in homicides depends on the circumstances behind the incident; the type of incident; the age and sex of the victim and the offender, and the nature of their relationship.
  • Homicide data from 1974 to 1996 indicate that 55 percent of all firearm homicides were committed with rifles and shotguns. However, since 1991, offenders have increasingly tended to murder their victims with handguns, and decreasingly with a rifle or shotgun.
  • In recent years, increased attention has been given to family homicide, and in particular to spousal homicide. Approximately one-third of all domestic homicides involve a firearm.
  • Spousal homicide is rarely a spontaneous single event; it is more generally the end of serial violence in the home.
  • Of all types of interpersonal confrontation, the outcome of domestic disputes may be most influenced by the presence of a firearm.
  • International comparisons indicate a strong association between owning a firearm and firearm homicide. Such studies also tend to show a positive correlation between levels of firearm ownership and homicide rates, even if the relationship is not exact. This is not the case with violent crime in general.
  • Youth violence involving firearms in the United States was not paralleled in Canada. Youth access to firearms and, in particular, to handguns is likely one of the main factors explaining the observed differences in the levels of youth violence between the two countries.
  • Misconceptions based on the U.S. experience with youth violence and firearms may be affecting public perception of the seriousness of firearm-related youth violence in Canada. There is no consistent evidence that this type of violence has been increasing in Canada over the last two decades.
  • In Canada, most assaults and threats do not involve a weapon. The risk of being threatened or assaulted with a firearm is nearly six times greater in the United States than in Canada.
  • There were 31,242 robberies reported in Canada in 1996. Of these, 21.3 percent involved a firearm. In the past two decades, the number of robberies has increased, but the percentage of those involving a firearm has decreased.
  • The term robbery refers to a wide variety of incidents where force or the threat of force is used. An offender’s decision to use a weapon, and to use a firearm rather than another weapon, are structured around several factors: the characteristics of the victim, the target, and the offender. Whether a firearm is accessible to the offender is only one of the many factors that structures such decisions.
  • There is an ongoing debate among researchers on whether the motivation of the offender or the nature of the instrument itself determines a violent episode. The two should be seen as interconnected.
  • A victim’s risk of sustaining serious injury or death in a confrontation involving a firearm seems to depend on a number of factors which are not well understood.
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