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

1. Introduction

1. Introduction

1.1 Objectives of this Review

The Department of Justice Canada contracted with the author to conduct a critical review of literature on major issues related to civilian-owned firearms. The review examined the role firearms play in injuries, unintentional deaths, suicides and violent crimes; it looked at the extent to which firearm regulation may help reduce such incidents; and it addressed other means intended to promote the responsible use of firearms. This report presents the main findings of that review, particularly those that pertain to the Canadian situation, in a concise, non-technical and non-partisan manner.

In 1994, the Department of Justice Canada published a similar literature review, conducted by Thomas Gabor, under the title The Impact of the Availability of Firearms on Violent Crime, Suicide, and Accidental Death: A Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation (Gabor, 1994). That review covered literature available to 1993. Further to this earlier work, this report focuses on studies and articles published from 1990 to 1997. It summarizes research findings, identifies areas in which these may not be consistent, and draws attention to various gaps in existing information and in the scientific understanding of certain issues. It also invites readers to draw some conclusions wherever the research evidence permits.

1.2 Method

The author attempted to systematically identify and collect all documents pertinent to this review. The Department of Justice Canada conducted a literature search of bibliographic and abstract databases, providing 380 articles and reports. The author conducted a further bibliographical search to uncover about 200 more titles. To build on research material on countries other than Canada and the United States, the author included documents from members of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme Network of Institutes, the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee of Experts on Firearm Regulation, and the Research and Statistics Directorate of the Home Office, United Kingdom. Studies published in English during the last few years were nearly all conducted in one of four countries: Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

1.3 The Influence of Ideology on Firearms Research

The author of the previous literature review suggested that the literature on the social impact of firearms has tended to be driven by ideological considerations and vested interests (Gabor, 1994: 1). He also observed considerable differences in the nature and sophistication of the research methods employed.

A considerable portion of the research that has been reviewed in this report is best characterized as "advocacy research." The research was conducted and often also funded for the conscious or unconscious purpose of advancing a particular point of view or advocating a particular social response to perceived problems. However, the fact that advocacy research tends to be conducted by people who really care about a problem, or conversely by people who are deeply concerned about the impact of a proposed policy to address that problem, does not necessarily imply that the conclusions of such research are less valid.

Indeed, as observed by Gilbert (1997: 101), the development of social policy in industrialized society has benefited from a long and honourable tradition of advocacy research. But advocacy research has a tendency to "inflate problems and redefine them in line with the advocates’ ideological preferences" (Idem, p. 142; see also: Kates et al., 1995 and 1995a). The motivation of scientists who overstate or understate the gravity of a particular problem is not always conscious, and "the motives in question are far more likely to be humanitarian than venal" (Murray and Schwartz, 1997: 39; see also response by Pinner, 1997).

Clearly, one must be cautious in interpreting and using the findings of advocacy research, despite at least two difficulties: the first is that advocacy research rarely identifies itself as such, making it difficult to distinguish it from other research. The second problem is that it is often difficult to criticize advocacy research, a prerequisite to making progress in a particular field of scientific inquiry, without creating the impression of caring less about an issue than those who would accept the findings of such research without critique.

This may seem to cast a shadow on the ability of science to provide clear answers and a solid, non-controversial frame of reference for making policy on firearms. The problem is not unique to this particular field of research; it relates to the broader issue of how scientific research contributes legitimately to social policy.

There are still gaps in our knowledge of the social impact of firearms and if the usefulness of various strategies to control, prevent or mitigate the negative impact of firearms. Readers may, at times, feel disappointed by the tentativeness and the controversy surrounding current scientific conclusions concerning firearms. Nevertheless, collective choices will still have to be made and, hopefully, they will continue to be informed as much by worthwhile scientific information.

1.4 Recent Progress and Remaining Challenges

In addition to the above, there are three other difficulties that have yet to be resolved by research on firearms. First, much of the current research lacks a strong conceptual or theoretical framework (Stenning, 1994: 1996b). Unnithan and his colleagues observed that "there is scant evidence of much cumulative progress in our understanding of the sources of lethal violence or the factors that influence its direction" (1994: 79). In their view, this "theoretical stagnation" and the unifying perspectives lacking in some research reflect the notion that researchers studying firearms issues come from a range of disciplines. Secondly, most studies rely on aggregated data collected for other purposes, with substantial gaps (Kellermann, 1993: 146) and limited usefulness (Department of Justice Canada, 1996: 103; Murbach, 1996). Finally, it can be expensive to conduct research (Kellermann, 1993:142-143; Stenning, 1996: 22) and necessary studies may tend to be postponed indefinitely. These difficulties will become evident to the reader through the following chapters.

In spite of these difficulties, the present author notes significant progress with research on firearms and their social impact during the period covered by the review. Several Canadian studies were designed to assess the feasibility and advisability of using certain data or methods to conduct more comprehensive studies. These studies have paved the way for research that is still required and, possibly, for further evaluation of the Canadian legislation.

Recent research has paid more attention to specific issues, such as the role of firearms in violence and suicide involving children and youth. Researchers are looking at the role of firearms in domestic violence. They are examining how firearms can cause injuries and what the resulting costs are. More studies were conducted on firearm theft, other sources of illegal firearms, and trafficking in firearms; issues that have previously received little attention.

Researchers are also doing more comparative research on firearms and their regulation (Block, 1993; Department of Justice Canada, 1995; Killias, 1993, 1993a, 1993b; Kopel, 1993; Nay, 1994; Stenning, 1996; United Nations, 1996; 1997; 1997a; 1997b; 1998). There are limitations on this type of research, however, because there still is not enough comparable data. In the past, critics have accused researchers of failing to consider work done in other countries (Gabor, 1994: 75). However, it is difficult to make valid international comparisons, and researchers should be cautious about assuming that research findings from other countries, such as the United States, necessarily hold true in the Canadian context.

1.5 The Organization of this Report

The material in this report is organized according to main themes and issues. A summary of the findings is presented at the end of each chapter.

Chapter 2 discusses how prevalent firearms are in Canada. Statistical information describes the characteristics of the gun owner, the types of firearms that Canadians are likely to own and the reasons they own them.

Chapters 3 through 6 examine the role of firearms in death and injuries. Chapter 3 presents an overview of the topic and looks at recent research on the costs of firearm injuries; this chapter also introduces issues that are further developed in subsequent chapters. Chapter 4 focuses on firearm suicides. Chapter 5 looks at violent crime involving firearms, and Chapter 6 examines research on firearms accidents.

Chapter 7 outlines existing research on the preventive effects of civilians owning firearms and, in particular, the use of firearms for self-protection. Chapter 8 is devoted to research literature on the effectiveness of firearm legislation and other measures to ensure the responsible use of firearms.

Chapter 9 reviews evidence of illegal sources of firearms such as theft, trafficking and smuggling, illegal importation, exportation and manufacturing.

Chapter 10 summarizes the research findings and suggests some directions for future research.