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

Executive Summary

Firearm Ownership in Canada

In Canada, there are currently at least seven million firearms, including as many as 1.2 million handguns, for an overall rate of about 241 per 1,000 population. The national household ownership rate is assessed to be approximately 26 percent, based on survey research. The precise number of firearms in Canada is difficult to determine and regular data collection is needed to assess patterns in ownership. Over time, the Universal Firearm Registration Regime may provide a better basis for measuring the stock of legally owned firearms.

A recent comparison of western countries found that 48 percent of U.S. households owned at least one firearm. Canada’s rate was in the mid-range of countries, at 22 percent.

In Canada, hunting is the main reason for owning a firearm; self-protection is very rarely cited as the main reason. Legal firearm owners tend to be male and to reside in smaller communities. Further research could expand current knowledge on the sources of legally owned firearms and the number, types and origins of firearms available in illegal markets.

Overview of Firearm Deaths and Injuries

In 1995, there were 1,125 cases of fatal firearm injuries, representing a rate of 3.8 per 100,000 population. Eighty percent of these were classified as suicides, 12.4 percent as homicides, and 4.3 percent as accidents. The rate of fatal firearm injuries has been decreasing steadily since 1978, and, in 1995, was at its lowest in at least 25 years. Internationally, Canada is in the mid-range of countries with respect to total firearm deaths.

There is no reliable national data available on non-fatal injuries involving firearms. Future research and data collection might aim to further our understanding of the role firearms play in injuries. An adequate incident-monitoring scheme is needed to support research on firearm injuries.

Firearm Suicide

Firearm suicides account for 80 percent of all firearm deaths in Canada, but the proportion of suicides involving firearms has declined over the last two decades. Less than a quarter of the 4,000 suicides in 1995 involved a firearm, which was usually a long gun. While suicides are more frequent in urban areas, the percentage involving a firearm is higher in rural areas.

Current regulations and restrictions on firearms may have prevented some firearm suicides in Canada, but the extent to which they did so is unclear. The Canadian experience seems to prove that regulation can lower the number of firearm suicides without reducing the level of firearm ownership.

While firearm suicides seem to be preventable, additional research is needed to determine what kind of incidents can be prevented and how this can be done. Successful suicide attempts, especially among adolescents, are often preceded by unsuccessful attempts. Research might usefully focus on incidents of repeated suicide attempts to determine situational determinants in these cases. Additional studies could examine the issue of method selection and method substitution in suicides. This would include an examination of the availability of various methods and the evolution of individuals’ choice of method.

Firearms and Violent Crime

Since 1975, the homicide and firearm homicide rates have declined in Canada, with no simple explanation for the observed decrease. Different strategies are required to prevent homicides in the home as opposed to homicides in the streets. The growing literature on the subject makes it clear that spousal homicide is rarely a spontaneous single event, and is more generally the end of a cycle of violence that takes place in the home. A better understanding of how violence is seen to escalate may lead to more effective prevention strategies.

In 1996, of the 31,242 robberies reported in Canada, 21.3 percent involved a firearm. While the frequency of robberies has increased over the last 20 years, the percentage involving a firearm has decreased. Most robberies are committed in large urban areas. Research on offenders’ decision-making processes, in relation to various kinds of robbery and assault incidents, is still at a very early stage in Canada.

Canada’s experience with youth violence, especially firearm violence, is significantly different from that of the United States. Research indicates that differential access to firearms, especially handguns, by youth in the two countries appears to be the main factor explaining the difference in the levels of youth violence. More comprehensive comparative research may yield important findings.

Firearm Accidents

In 1995, 49 people died of unintentional firearm injuries, which represents about 4 percent of the 1,125 firearm deaths reported that year. Fatal injuries have been declining steadily in Canada and most other industrialized countries over the last few decades. Little is known about the characteristics and circumstances of firearm accidents, and further research is needed, particularly on the case-fatality rate for accidental firearm injuries.

Some estimates assess the frequency of non-fatal accidents at between 10 and 13 times the number of fatal accidents, with considerable variations across the country. Long guns are more often involved than handguns in accidental injuries. Victims are frequently children and adolescents, with most cases involving children at play. Further research on the circumstances surrounding fatal incidents is needed.

Preventive Effects of Firearm Ownership and Use

There are fundamental differences between Canada and the United States in relation to the ownership of a firearm for self-defence or crime prevention. Since most research on the subject takes place in the United States, the findings cannot be assumed to hold true for Canada. Research findings on the potential deterrent effect of firearm ownership on crime are controversial and inconclusive. Yet, research to date has consistently indicated that victims who resist with a gun or other weapon are less likely than other victims to lose their property or be injured. Existing research fails to support any firm conclusions about the extent to which successful defensive uses of firearms and the deterrent effects of firearm ownership for self-protection offset the adverse effects of ownership for this purpose.

The Impact of Firearm Regulation

While Canada has seen three rounds of legislative amendments, in 1977, 1991 and 1995, evaluative research has focussed almost exclusively on the 1977 amendments. The findings remain somewhat inconclusive and controversial, partly because the studies have attempted to isolate the impact of the 1977 legislation, and because of the theoretical and methodological challenges, and issues of data quality and availability, inherent in this type of evaluative research. Future evaluations may benefit from an examination of the effectiveness of the legislation’s implementation and the various components of the legislation, to assess the impact on fatal and non-fatal incidents across the country.

Illegal Firearm Transactions

Measures to control and regulate the legal firearms market must be accompanied by equally vigorous measures to control or disrupt the illicit market. In Canada, research is lacking regarding the types of firearms used in crime, their origins, and the methods and means through which they were acquired. Systematic information on the nature and extent of illegal firearm transactions, including smuggling, trafficking, and illegal manufacturing, is practically nonexistent. There are some indications that firearm smuggling into Canada may be increasing. Better information regarding the nature and extent of this problem is needed to support efforts to curtail it.

It is imperative to obtain more systematic information about how criminals, especially young criminals, acquire firearms. U.S. studies on the acquisition and use of firearms by criminals and young offenders can be replicated in Canada. New studies can focus on the prevalence of firearm thefts, the circumstances under which they occur, the types of firearms involved, how they reach the illicit market, and on the role of stolen weapons in criminal activities.

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