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

2. Firearms Ownership in Canada

2. Firearms Ownership in Canada

2.1 The Problem of Measurement

The author of the previous review noted that "the precise number of usable firearms is hard to determine from either official sources or through surveys" (Gabor, 1994: 9) and that any measure of the volume of firearms in Canada was a "crude estimate" (Idem:10). He indicated that this ambiguity applied both to the overall volume of firearms in the country, including the stock of any given type of firearm, as well as the per capita number of firearms or "gun density." This conclusion remains valid.

Survey research, usually measuring the number of firearms in a household, is still the best way to estimate the prevalence of firearms in a country or region. However, some suggest that this may not be adequate (Stenning, 1994: 16; 1996: 4-5), arguing that such data neglect to account for such things as the presence of a "non-household gun stock" (Stenning 1996:4) and stolen and otherwise illegally owned firearms that are not likely to be reported in a survey (Ibidem). The fact that survey respondents may systematically understate the number of firearms they own may also be an issue.

The estimates produced by survey research are usually insufficient to monitor fluctuations in the levels of ownership, in regional variations or in other patterns of firearm ownership and use. The absence of more precise measurements may limit research on the social impact of civilian-owned firearms. It may also limit evaluations of the impact that various regulatory measures have had in reducing harms from firearm misuse. Over time, the universal firearm registration regime to be implemented in Canada may provide a better basis for measuring the stock of legally owned firearms.

2.2 The Prevalence of Firearm Ownership in Canada

In the previous literature review, the author indicated that about 25 percent of Canadian households own some sort of firearm (Gabor, 1994: 9). A recent Department of Justice Canada report indicated that, based on the combined findings of several studies, 26 percent may be the most reliable figure (See Block, 1998:3). In total, it is estimated that about 3 million civilians in Canada own firearms.

The percentage of households owning at least one firearm varies considerably across Canada (Angus Reid, 1991; Block, 1998). The results of a 1991 Angus Reid survey indicate that 67 percent of households in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories owned firearms, compared with 15 percent of Ontario households (Angus Reid, 1991: 7). More recently, the 1996 International Crime (Victim) Survey (ICVS), which did not include the two territories, found that 35.8 percent of households in the Atlantic provinces owned firearms, compared to the 32 percent reported by Angus Reid. Households in Ontario still had the lowest percentage of firearms at 14.2 percent (Block, 1998:7).

Overall, surveys suggest that more people in rural areas own firearms than in urban locations. For example, 37.3 percent of respondents from small towns own a firearm compared to 2.8 percent in communities with populations over one million. Residents of small towns are also more likely to own long guns than people living in large cities: 33.6 percent compared to 1.2 percent respectively (Block, 1998: 24).

The 1991 Angus Reid survey asked respondents to indicate how many firearms household members owned. The data suggested that 60 percent of Canadian households with firearms have one or two; 13 percent own three; 14 percent own five; and 10 percent own seven or more firearms. On average, firearm owners possess approximately 2.7 firearms (Angus Reid, 1991:6). Few other surveys have included such a question.

Available estimates for Canada indicate that private individuals collectively own approximately 7 million firearms (Gabor, 1997:3) and, of these, about 1.2 million are restricted firearms (RCMP, 1997). Surveys consistently indicate that Canadians typically own more long guns than other types of firearms. The 1996 ICVS found that 95 percent of households that owned firearms possessed at least one long gun, while fewer than 12 percent claimed to own a handgun (Block, 1998: 3-4). Again, the author noted some regional variations with respect to the type of firearm respondents claimed to own. In all regions except Quebec, more households were likely to possess a rifle than a shotgun (Block: 1998: 7). At 16 percent, more respondents in British Columbia reported owning handguns than elsewhere in Canada; persons in Quebec reported the least at six percent (Block, 1998: 9).

Estimates of the number of firearms circulating in Canada refer to those that are owned legally; they do not account for stolen firearms, or those that are imported and purchased illegally.

2.3 International Comparisons of Firearm Ownership

Two international surveys, the United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation (UNISFR) (United Nations, 1998) and the ICVS (Alvazzi del Frate, 1997, Block, 1998), showed that the number of people who own firearms varies considerably among countries. According to the UNISFR data, both the estimated number of firearm owners and the percentage of households owning at least one firearm ranged considerably among the countries who reported such estimates. Canada’s estimated 7.1 million firearms in civilian hands, representing a rate of 241.5 per 1,000 population, place it in the same range as other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, where hunting is still a significant activity (United Nations, 1998, 52-53). Canada reported that approximately 22 percent of all households owned at least one firearm. That percentage was reported to be as high as 50 percent in Finland, and as low as less than one percent in such other countries as Japan, Malaysia, and Tunisia (Ibidem).

Based on the ICVS data, it seems that owning firearms is more common in certain regions of the world than in others. The highest rates of ownership were seen in the New World and Western Europe, followed by Latin America, countries in transition, Africa, and Asia (Alvazzi del Frate, 1997: 13)[1]. In countries in transition and developing countries, handguns were more widespread than long guns.

Block’s analysis of the results of the ICVS data for Canada and eight other Western countries showed that 48 percent of U.S. households owned at least one firearm, while only 2.5 percent of households in the Netherlands had one or more firearms (Block, 1998). Canada’s rate of 22 percent of households owning firearms was in the middle range of the nine countries (Ibidem).

In all nine countries, more households owned long guns than handguns. According to the survey, 95 percent of households in Canada owning firearms had a long gun and less than 12 percent owned handguns. Similarly, in England and Wales, nearly 94 percent of households owning firearms possessed a long gun, while 13 percent owned handguns. In the United States, 81 percent of firearm-owning households had long guns and 58 percent had handguns (Block, 1998:3-6).

Block (1998: 21-23) also found that the number of residents who owned firearms was related to community size. Residents in the smallest communities were most likely to own firearms whereas residents of the largest communities were least likely to own a firearm.

2.4 Sources of Firearms Owned

There is not enough reliable data to know where Canadians who legally own firearms get them. Gabor (1994: 13) reported that, in 1990, close to ten times as many firearms were imported into the country than were exported from Canada. That ratio (10:1) has fallen in recent years and, in 1996, the ratio of imported versus exported firearms was only 1.1:1. In the last decade, between 16 percent and 32 percent of firearms that were brought into Canada were handguns (Hung, 1997).

From available statistics, Gabor found that firearms sold in Canada were imported rather than manufactured in the country (Gabor, 1994: 13). Although this may be the case, the number of firearms manufactured in Canada for the domestic civilian market is unclear. The 1996 Annual Firearm Report of the Commissioner of the RCMP to the Solicitor General reported that 23 businesses were issued permits in that year to manufacture firearms or firearm components (RCMP, 1997). Gabor (1994: 11) also reported that the number of permits issued annually to businesses selling firearms or ammunition had been fairly constant since 1980 at about 10,000. More recent statistics (Hung, 1997), however, indicate that the number of firearm businesses decreased between 1988 and 1996 by a total of nearly 42 percent. In 1996, there were 6,271 businesses that were licenced to sell firearms or ammunition.

Although as indicated by Gabor (1994:13) the source of firearms used in crimes is largely unknown in Canada, there have been a few recent studies that give us some preliminary information. Chapter 9 provides an overview of this research and presents data on the number of firearms lost, stolen, and missing in Canada.

2.5 Factors Related to Firearm Ownership

The previous review touched on the reasons for owning firearms. Based on the findings of three surveys, Gabor reported that about 70 percent of firearm owners said hunting was the primary reason they owned firearms (Gabor, 1994: 12). These findings were since confirmed by ICVS data (Block, 1998) where nearly 73 percent of respondents said they owned firearms to hunt. They also owned them to target shoot (18.4 percent), and because there has always been a firearm in the respondents’ homes (10 percent). Another 7.4 percent of those surveyed collected firearms, and 4.6 percent had them for protection (Block, 1988: 12).

The extent to which Canadians own firearms to protect themselves from criminals or animals is the subject of some controversy. However, survey findings have consistently shown that the proportion of Canadians who state self-defense or self-protection as a reason or their main reason for owning a firearm is very low. Even when those who use a firearm in their job are included in that figure, it is still likely to be lower than five percent (Block, 1998: 12-13; Gabor, 1997:5; Sacco, 1995). These findings are different from international figures. Block (1998) found that protection was a common reason to own firearms for 39 percent of owners in the United States, 26 percent of owners in Austria and 22 percent of those in France. This issue is discussed further in Chapter 7.

2.6 Summary

[1] The countries included in each region are: Western Europe (Austria, England and Wales, Finland, France, The Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and Switzerland; New World (Canada and USA); Countries in Transition (Albania, Czech Republic, FR of Yugoslavia, FYR Macedonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Russia); Africa (South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe); Asia (India, Indonesia and The Philippines); and, Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Costa Rica).