Firearms, Accidental Deaths, Suicides and Violent Crime: An Updated Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation
- 10.4 Firearms and Violent Crime
- 10.5 Firearm Accidents
- 10.6 Preventive Effects of Firearm Ownership and Use
- 10.7 The Impact of Firearm Regulation
- 10.8 Illegal Firearm Transactions
Successfully preventing violent crime may depend on realizing that it includes a variety of situations which call for different strategies. We have identified the availability of firearms as one of the factors associated with violence. The role of various factors, including that of situational determinants such as access to firearms, is not necessarily the same from one kind of violent incident to the next. For example, even the category of homicide includes a variety of incidents in which the availability of firearms acquires a different significance. We can develop preventive strategies to target these factors.
Although it is evident that firearms play a role in many forms of violent crime, research has only recently made progress in documenting and explaining the nature of the links between firearm availability and violent crime.
Since 1975, there has been a fairly consistent decline in both the homicide and firearm homicide rates in Canada. However there is no simple explanation for the observed decrease. Whether firearms are used or not in different kinds of homicide incidents apparently depends on a number of factors not limited to whether or not firearms were accessible. In fact, one can assume that the availability of firearms plays a greater role in some types of homicide risk situations than in others. Different subtypes of homicide involve relatively distinct causal processes and it is important to ask whether firearm use varies across socially and situationally defined subtypes of homicides and, if so, how. To understand the nature of these intricate causal processes and to better isolate the role of situational determinants such as firearms, more in-depth studies of the various subtypes of homicides and attempted homicides are required.
Different strategies are required to prevent homicides in the home as opposed to homicides in the streets. Approximately one-third of all homicides involve a firearm. In recent years, increased attention has been given to research on family homicide and, in particular, spousal homicides. Domestic disputes are the type of interpersonal confrontations whose outcome is believed to be most likely influenced by the presence of firearms. 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. So far, prohibition orders and, to a lesser extent, measures to ensure the safe storage of firearms kept at home, are often advocated as effective preventive measures. However, the effectiveness of such measures in preventing family homicide has yet to be evaluated.
Robbery is another type of violent crime frequently involving firearms. In 1996, of the 31,242 robberies reported in Canada, 21.3 percent involved a firearm. The term robbery also refers to a variety of incidents where force or the threat of force is used. Obviously, little can be achieved by attempting to explain the role of firearms in such incidents without distinguishing between the types of robbery involved. In Canada, in the last 20 years, the frequency of robberies has generally increased, but the percentage of robberies involving the use of a firearm has decreased. There are considerable regional variations in robbery rates across the country, as well as in the percentage of robberies involving a firearm. Robberies are also overwhelmingly committed in large urban areas, even if firearm ownership is concentrated outside of these areas.
Some of the most promising research to date has focused on attempting to understand the many factors that structure an individual offender’s choice to perpetrate a robbery and whether to use a firearm. Whether a firearm is accessible to the offender is only one of the factors structuring such decisions. Systematic studies of offenders’ decision-making processes, in relation to various kinds of robbery and assault incidents, are still at a very early stage in Canada.
Research clearly suggests that Canada’s experience with youth violence in general and in particular, youth firearm violence, has been significantly different from and less dramatic than that of the United States. On the surface, differential access to firearms and, in particular, to handguns by youths in the two countries appears to be the main factor explaining the observed difference in the countries’ respective level of youth violence. More comprehensive comparative research on that issue may yield some important findings.
In 1995, 49 people died of unintentional firearm injuries, which represents about four percent of the 1,125 firearm deaths reported that year. Over the last few decades, the rate of fatal accidental firearm injuries in Canada and most other industrialized countries has been declining steadily. National data sources, coroners’ offices and provincial ministries contribute to our knowledge of firearm accidents. However, relatively little is known about the characteristics and circumstances of such incidents. This is an area in which further research efforts could be focused.
Easy access to a loaded firearm most likely accounts for many accidental deaths and injuries. The empirical evidence currently available seems to confirm that the relationship between the prevalence of firearms and fatal firearm accidents is mitigated by a number of other factors. These factors include the quality of emergency medical care available to the population, the types of firearms and the safety features of the firearms in circulation, the reasons for their ownership, their accessibility to children and people suffering from mental illness, and the level of safety training required of firearms owners.
According to some estimates, the frequency of non-fatal accidents may be between ten and 13 times the number of fatal accidents. There are apparently considerable variations in the frequency of accidental deaths across provinces and territories. It would be useful to explore further the extent to which these are due to reporting practices, to the relative availability of emergency medical care, or to some other factors.
Based on available Canadian data, it is known that long guns are more frequently involved than handguns in accidental injuries, and that victims tend to be children and adolescents. In cases involving children, it would seem that the majority of incidents occur while children are at play. Further research might highlight the circumstances surrounding fatal firearm accidents involving children and adolescents, and how they obtained access to a firearm.
It is often assumed that accidental injuries are the most readily preventable. Several prevention strategies have evolved over the last few decades and many of them have been integrated into the Canadian regulatory scheme. They include public education, the promotion of the safe storage of firearms, the training of owners and users in the safe use of firearms, improvements to the safety of firearms, and specific hunting regulations. Research on the merits and efficacy of these methods is generally lacking.
Most of the existing research on the preventive effects of firearm ownership and use has been conducted in the United States. Since there are several fundamental differences between Canada and the United States in relation to armed self-defence by citizens, most existing research findings cannot simply be assumed to hold true for Canada. Research findings are fairly consistent in linking firearm ownership for self-protection, in jurisdictions where it is allowed or tolerated, to real or perceived vulnerability to victimization. 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 in robberies or burglaries. Victims resisting with guns or other weapons are also less likely to be injured than victims who do not resist or resist without a weapon.
There has been very little research on the extent to which Canadians use firearms for self-protection. Survey findings consistently indicate that the proportion of Canadians who state self-defence or self-protection as their main reason for owning a firearm is very low. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the United States, where self-protection is one of the leading reasons for owning a firearm, particularly a handgun.
Internationally, most countries permit possession of a firearm for self-protection but under restrictive conditions.
To the extent that many researchers have tended to blur the boundaries between the descriptive and normative aspects of the issue, the "net-benefit" argument becomes nearly impossible to answer. Furthermore, research regarding concealed-carry laws are rare, and are complex to evaluate. The conclusion reached in the previous literature review remains valid: 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.
In the last 20 years, there have been three rounds of legislative amendments: in 1977, 1991 and 1995, which have shaped the Canadian firearm regulation scheme. So far, evaluative research has focused almost exclusively on the impact of the 1977 amendments. This is despite the fact that it was conceptually and empirically very difficult to isolate the impact of these amendments from those of the previous regime and subsequent legislative changes.
The evaluations of the 1977 firearm legislation have contributed to the research literature. However, their findings remain somewhat inconclusive and controversial. These studies have focused on attempting to isolate the overall impact of the legislation on the various forms of fatal firearm injuries and robberies. This focus may be, in part, explained by the complexity of the firearm control program, which presents theoretical and methodological challenges for evaluation research, and issues of data quality and availability.
These challenges should not preclude the pursuit of future evaluations that build on this experience. It is critical for evaluation research to examine more closely the impact of specific components of the 1977 legislation, and its successors–1991 and 1995–on different types of firearm incidents.
Furthermore, the implementation of the legislation and its components needs to be fully assessed to determine if and how the consistent administration and enforcement of the law has an impact on different fatal and non-fatal incidents across the country. Each component’s relative merit should also be compared to other forms of suicide and violent crime prevention programs in Canada.
Measures to control and regulate the legal firearm 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 are acquired. Systematic information on the nature and extent of illegal firearm transactions, including smuggling, trafficking, and illegal manufacturing, is practically nonexistent. According to some police intelligence sources, there are some indications that firearm smuggling into Canada may be increasing. Firearm smuggling can be very lucrative and new evidence seems to suggest an increasing transnational illicit transfer of firearms. Better information regarding the nature and extent of this problem is required to effectively direct efforts to curtail it. There are some obvious links between forms of trafficking, whether it be firearms, illegal immigrants or drugs. Beyond this, however, there has been little research on the exact nature of these links and how these sets of activities are interconnected.
It would seem imperative to obtain more systematic information about how criminals get firearms and use them, particularly among young people. An adequate research methodology was developed in several U.S. studies, allowing researchers to collect information on the relative ease with which criminals and young offenders can acquire firearms, the ways in which these firearms are obtained, and how they are eventually used by offenders. Such studies could be replicated in Canada. In addition, new studies could be conducted 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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