Firearms, Accidental Deaths, Suicides and Violent Crime: An Updated Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation
As the reader will note, there has been a considerable amount of research conducted over the period covered by this review. The research has made progress in clarifying issues in certain areas and in examining previously unforged areas; despite this, there remain several gaps in our existing knowledge about the relationship between firearms and accidental deaths, suicide and violent crime. With regard to our understanding of these phenomena in the Canadian context, it has been argued that, since much of the available research has been conducted in the United States, its findings cannot be assumed to directly apply to the Canadian situation. Nonetheless, some general conclusions are possible; these have been briefly summarized below. In addition, we have attempted to outline those areas where future exploration is warranted and where it might further contribute to the body of firearm research.
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. Overall estimates, based on a number of studies, assess the national ownership rate to be approximately 26 percent of Canadian households. Survey research, both domestic and international, has been the best way to estimate the prevalence of firearms and characteristics surrounding their use. Given that survey research aims to provide estimates, and that official statistics do not collect all information, the precise number of firearms in Canada is difficult to determine. Firearm ownership patterns are often assumed to be quite stable and to have remained unchanged for the last decade, although regular data collection could further inform whether the pattern has fluctuated. Over time, the universal firearm registration regime may provide a better basis for measuring the stock of legally owned firearms.
Recent international studies have contributed to our knowledge of comparative firearm ownership. The percentage of households owning firearms varied considerably between countries. A 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 at 22 percent.
In Canada, hunting continues to be the main reason for owning a firearm and self-protection continues to be cited very rarely as the main reason. We know that patterns of firearm ownership vary across the country, and that legal firearm owners tend to be male and to reside in smaller communities. Research could further inform patterns of actual firearm use by owners. As well, further research could inform current knowledge regarding the sources of the legally owned firearms and the number, types and origins of firearms available in illegal markets.
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.
Recent research on total firearm deaths in 29 countries allows for some preliminary international comparisons. The United States had among the highest rates of firearm misuse, while Canada was among a large group of countries in the mid-range. Japan reported considerably lower rates of firearm deaths.
There is currently no reliable national data on how many non-fatal injuries involving firearms occur. As a result, this may have implications on our ability to draw conclusions based on information about fatal injuries alone. Although the majority of injuries caused by firearms are non-fatal, whether an injury becomes fatal or not depends on a number of factors other than the incident itself. Future research and data collection might aim to further our understanding the role firearms play in injuries.
The research literature devotes a considerable amount of attention to fatal firearm injuries, the presumed link between their frequency and lethality, and the overall prevalence of firearms in society. The question is complex, since the link might only be understood by examining different types of incidents separately. However, available data continue to be limited and only permit tentative conclusions.
Both the present and the previous literature review have identified questions concerning firearm injuries; these remain unsatisfactorily addressed by the existing research. In most cases, the success of research efforts has been hampered by the lack of available data and by the absence of adequate incident-monitoring schemes.
There are several ways to address this basic lack of data, even if most of them are potentially onerous and may require a significant and concerted effort on the part of the health and criminal justice fields. Based on the research conducted to date and on the experience of other jurisdictions, it would seem that developing a national, comprehensive firearm-incident-monitoring system is necessary to be able to formulate authoritative and credible answers to most questions about preventing firearm injuries.
At 80 percent, firearm suicides account for the majority of firearm deaths in Canada. The percentage of suicides involving firearms appears to have been decreasing during the last two decades. In 1995, less than a quarter of the nearly 4,000 suicides committed in Canada involved a firearm. When a firearm is used in a suicide, it generally tends to be a long gun rather than a handgun. Suicides are more frequent in urban areas, but the percentage of suicides involving a firearm tends to be lower in urban than in rural areas. Males are more likely to commit suicide than females and are much more likely to do so with a firearm. The percentage of suicides involving a firearm, for both males and females, varies considerably between regions and is associated with, among other things, the availability of firearms. The relative availability of culturally acceptable suicide methods is only one of the many factors that structure the choices made by individuals considering suicide, including, very possibly, the decision to proceed with an attempt or not.
Existing regulation and restriction concerning firearms in Canada may have contributed to preventing some firearm suicides. However, the extent to which they did so remains unclear. As it stands today, the Canadian experience apparently provides some proof that firearm regulation may significantly affect the level of firearm suicides without reducing the level of firearm ownership.
Patterns of firearm suicide differ from overall patterns of suicide and require more detailed attention on the part of researchers. For instance, some evidence suggests that the role played by alcohol and drugs is different in cases of firearm suicides than in suicides involving other methods. The kind of mental health problems involved may also affect the choice of a suicide method.
Firearms constitute a particularly lethal and effective method of attempting suicide; research evidence confirms that the fatality rate of firearms as a suicide method is the highest of all methods. Since it is impossible to restrict access to several of the methods used to attempt suicide, some authors emphasize the importance of the integration of various preventive measures. Evidence strongly suggests that some firearm suicides are preventable, but additional research is required to determine what kind of incidents can effectively be prevented and exactly how this can be accomplished.
Taken together, the research evidence indicates that several factors intervene in an individual’s choice of suicide method. The accessibility of firearms and their actual use as a suicide method are related in a complex way. Furthermore, one must look at both successful and unsuccessful suicide attempts to properly understand the role of situational determinants of suicide in relation to other factors. Unfortunately, few studies have so far managed to do this. Some research findings indicate that successful suicide attempts often are preceded by unsuccessful attempts, particularly among adolescents. Given this, research efforts might also focus on incidents of repeated suicide attempts and on the role of situational determinants in such instances.
The individual and situational factors that may influence individual choices of a suicide method, are still not well understood. Controlling the availability of some means of committing suicide may affect existing behaviour patterns and perhaps even prevent some suicides. However, there clearly is a need for further research to specify how, in what circumstances, and for what kind of suicide attempts this might be the case. To date, studies have addressed the issue of method substitution only obliquely by looking almost exclusively at cases of successful suicide attempts; therefore, it reveals a limited picture. Nevertheless, the issue of suicide method selection or substitution, in the context of efforts to reduce the availability of certain instruments such as firearms, is obviously a question requiring more careful attention. It will likely necessitate a closer examination of the relationships between the availability of various methods and the choice of a method in both successful and unsuccessful attempts, including the evolution of that choice in repeated attempts.
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