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

8. The Impact of Firearms Legislation

8. The Impact of Firearms Legislation

8.1 Evolution of the Canadian Legislative Approach to Regulating Firearms

In Canada, private ownership of firearms has been the object of some form of regulation throughout this century. The provisions in the 1892 Criminal Code were amended and enhanced several times during the first part of the twentieth century. The rationale for firearm control evolved during these years. By 1968, legislators had introduced the basis of the firearm control scheme that we have now. Since then, there have been three rounds of legislative amendments: in 1977, 1991 and 1995. The rationale for these initiatives was based on the premise that deaths and injuries from firearm misuse can be prevented (Department of Justice Canada, 1996: 1). These initiatives addressed public health and safety issues by banning the use or possession of certain types of firearms and by preventing access to firearms by high-risk users. The most recent provisions, for example, have introduced a requirement for the universal licensing of owners and registration of firearms. They also touched on criminal justice issues aimed at deterring offenders from committing crimes or from using firearms in criminal activities (Ibidem; see also: Stenning, 1996a).

8.2 Research Issues

Evaluative research to date has focused almost exclusively on the impact of the 1977 amendments, despite it being conceptually and empirically difficult to isolate the impact of these amendments from those of the previously existing regime of firearm regulation. Both regimes pursued the same objectives and were complementary.

Researchers have not yet scrutinized the 1991 and 1995 amendments to the same degree. These amendments were implemented too recently, or were not fully implemented. Several researchers have interpreted existing research findings, and have offered their views on the potential impact of these amendments and whether the most recent initiatives will succeed (Boyd, 1995; 1996; Buckner, 1995; Chapdeleine and Maurice, 1996; Gabor, 1995; Hastings, 1995; Stenning; 1995; 1996a).

Before discussing the research on the impact of Canadian legislative initiatives in the area of firearms control, it is important to make two general observations:

  1. the various firearms control initiatives were "never oriented towards reducing the availability of firearms in Canada, except for guns designed for military use and other high-power firearms that have limited sporting purposes" (Department of Justice Canada, 1996: 2); and
  2. firearm control legislation, regulation and programs were not implemented at a specific point in time, but were the result of a gradual process over several decades.

8.3 Research on the Impact of Canadian Firearms Legislation

The previous review noted differing opinions on the impact of firearm control in Canada. At that time, only a few exploratory studies were available and these had yielded contradictory findings (Gabor, 1994: 66). It was not clear that the Canadian legislation passed in 1977 had a measurable impact. If it did, the impact appeared to be "modest"(Idem, p. 67). The rates of firearm homicides and robberies did not decline after the law, and there was disagreement about the impact of the legislation on suicides. There were some indications that the number of suicides involving firearms had declined slightly, but there was no conclusive evidence that it could be attributed to the changes in the law. The author of the previous review suggests that the changes may have resulted from an increase in the total volume of firearms in Canada during the period under review or that some of the dispositions of the new law had perhaps not been implemented consistently or with enough vigour (Idem, 79). In 1993, the Auditor General of Canada recommended that the Department of Justice Canada evaluate the firearms program to ensure that the legislative objectives were being met (Department of Justice Canada, 1996).

Since the last literature review, a few more attempts were made to analyse the relationship between firearm availability and suicide rates (Carrington and Moyer, 1994; 1994a; Leenaars and Lester, 1994; 1996; 1997; 1997a; Lester and Leenaars, 1993; Rich and Young, 1995). Also, the federal government made a significant attempt to evaluate the impact of the 1977 legislation (Department of Justice Canada, 1996). While the original intention was to analyze the impact of both the 1977 and 1991 firearm control legislation, there was not enough relevant data to examine the latter legislation. Finally, the study posed two questions:

The study focused on homicides, suicides and fatal accidents involving firearms. The statistical analysis was comprehensive and sophisticated, proceeding from exploratory analysis through time-series modelling and then structural modelling.

The findings of the study were largely inconclusive, and offered only some tentative answers to the questions it had set out to explore. Empirically, the study supported the proposition that the legislation was correlated with a reduction in homicides caused by firearm injuries. With respect to firearm suicides, the results were less conclusive. The study did not attempt to ascertain whether reductions in such deaths were accompanied by similar reductions in non-fatal incidents. It could neither completely address the issue of a possible method displacement effect, nor provide a conclusive answer to the question of whether any observed change could be attributed to the legislation or to some other concurrent factors. None of these shortcomings was attributable to the study itself. As Murbach (1996) noted, the study "demonstrated the limitations of a research model that is purely quantitative and is dependent on data collected for other purposes" (1996: 13). It also showed that the "theoretical foundation" on which a statistical model can be built is not at present "overly solid" (Ibidem). Nevertheless, the study represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the methodological and theoretical difficulties associated with this type of evaluation. It showed that the data needed to fully assess the impact of the law are currently not available; this should assist researchers in defining criteria to guide similar future research (for detailed reviews of the study, see: Boyd, 1996; Murbach, 1996; Sacco, 1996).

In the majority of Canadian jurisdictions, the upward trend in suicide rates after the legislative changes in 1977 has begun to reverse itself (Carrington and Moyer, 1994; 1994a). However, we do not know whether this is because of the law, or simply the natural end of a 20-year trend (Carrington and Moyer, 1994). More clearly, there was a significant downward trend in the firearm suicide rate and in the proportion of suicides in which the victim used a firearm (Carrington and Moyer, 1994; 1994a; Lester and Leenaars, 1993, Leenaars and Lester, 1997). However, as Carrington and Moyer (1994a) noted, there was no accompanying decrease in the number of people owning firearms during this period. Again, it is not clear to what we can attribute this reduction.

It has been argued that research on firearm control has lacked some theoretical sophistication (Taylor, 1995) and that it has tended to remain grounded in unspecified and largely untested assumptions about the links between firearms and violence, firearms and suicide, and about the expected impact of various control measures (Stenning, 1996).

Some social scientists would argue that it is not possible to isolate the effect of one out of scores of other relevant factors involved in social phenomena as complex as violence or suicide. Furthermore, even if it were somehow possible to control for the contribution of other factors to such phenomenon, how could one distinguish between the respective impact of one single legislative initiative and that of hundreds of other measures taken simultaneously through the criminal law, the criminal justice system, social programs, education and various other sectors that are also concerned with the problem? A final authoritative statement is not, perhaps, something that science can currently deliver. However, this does not mean that we should cease to pursue future evaluations.

8.4 Unresolved Difficulties in Determining the Effects of Firearm Control Legislation

One must keep in mind the multiple evaluation issues already identified in the research literature. The following compilation of issues may help us to better understand just how preliminary some conclusions are about the effectiveness of firearm control measures.

In Canada, the process of implementing a comprehensive firearm control regime has been ongoing. As a result, it is difficult to isolate the impact of one particular initiative from that of all the others.

The actual implementation of firearm control measures are frequently phased in over a period of time, and it is difficult to identify the exact moment at which the measures can be expected to have an effect on the problem.

Every new firearm control initiative to date has included a package of various measures and it is not usually possible to distinguish between the impacts of the various components. One cannot always assume that each element of the package has an effect, or even that the effect is necessarily a desirable one.

Some measures included in a firearm control strategy are designed to address specific types of firearm abuses such as suicide or domestic violence and may therefore have a very specific impact on a particular problem. Evaluation studies have so far concentrated on measuring the overall impact of a firearm control package as a whole and have paid insufficient attention to the possibility of partial and differential effectiveness of individual measures (Stenning, 1996b: 12).

Researchers who attempt to evaluate firearm control initiatives should assess the extent of program implementation, to avoid assumptions about whether the programs and legislation have been implemented consistently across the country. The success of the firearm control regime depends on effective enforcement of firearm control laws, including the investigation and the prosecution of firearm crimes (Gabor, 1994: 70). We have little systematic information on the level, coherence, consistency and effectiveness of law enforcement efforts in this area. Nor is there much information on the relative effectiveness of any of the existing law enforcement strategies.

Any observed change over time in the rates of fatal injuries resulting from suicide and homicide attempts, assaults or unintentional injuries involving firearms may be compensated by changes in non-fatal injuries. The ratio of fatal to non-fatal injuries cannot be assumed to be constant. Advances in emergency medicine and the greater availability of emergency medical services may also be partly responsible (Gabor, 1994: 67) for the decline in firearm deaths. It must be recognized that these same factors can also be responsible for some of the modest variations that can be observed in the rates of fatal suicide attempts and violent crimes.

Evaluation studies have all had to rely on data collected for other purposes. Evaluation attempts have been limited by the lack of available data on firearm incidents, their nature, the circumstances under which they occurred, the characteristics of the offenders and the victims, the type of firearms used, and how they were acquired.

The absence of data makes it particularly difficult to measure any displacement effect that might occur. A systematic displacement effect could prevent public health and public safety objectives of firearm control initiatives from being reached. Researchers most often try to determine whether a displacement effect is taking place by examining trends in the proportion of firearm-related incidents versus incidents involving other methods. However, the assumption that only a few other factors besides firearm control measures can affect that proportion may not be realistic (see: Britt et al., 1996: 337).

All evaluation studies have relied on correlations between the rate of firearm abuses and more restrictive firearm laws. These correlations do not allow researchers to make firm conclusions about causality (Gabor, 1994; 1995) and other factors unrelated to firearm control.

8.5 Legislation Evaluations in the United States

The previous review encountered contradictions and inconclusive findings about the impact of firearm control in other countries, mostly in the United States (Gabor, 1994: 79). A number of studies have been conducted since the last review, but there are still many contradictions.

Some U.S. studies have attempted to measure how firearm control laws have affected the number of firearm-related deaths. One researcher, for example, used multiple linear regression models to evaluate the relationship between homicides and unintentional deaths from firearms in 1990 and a number of other factors, such as whether they occurred in a state with or without restrictions on firearm possession and use. The study indicated that firearm control laws had a very mild effect on the number of firearm deaths while socioeconomic variables such as a state’s poverty level, unemployment and rate of alcohol consumption had an apparently significant impact (Kwon et al., 1997).

U.S. researchers have noted for some time the importance of recognizing that "there is a wide variety of different strategies of control and no reason to suppose that all should be equally effective or ineffective" (Zimring, 1995: 9; see also: Teret and Wintemute, 1993 and Roth, 1994). The U.S. context offers unique opportunities to compare the effectiveness of various approaches to controlling firearms because of the range of approaches to firearm control at federal, state and city levels. The fact that there are an estimated 20,000 laws and regulations in the United States trying to contain the use of firearms (Kwon et al., 1997) presents the possibility of comparing a highly-regulated state to one with relatively low levels of regulations. On the other hand, it would also seem evident that uneven regulation would allow firearms to be easily transported across state lines, thus potentially mitigating the effect of regulations.

The previous review concluded that the strongest evidence uncovered by U.S. studies is on restrictions on carrying firearms and enhanced sentences for the criminal use of firearms (Gabor, 1994: 79). This continues to be the case, although the evidence concerning the effectiveness of enhanced sentences is still far from being conclusive. Kleck and Patterson (1993) examined the impact of U.S. firearm control legislation in reducing violent crime. The study looked at how 19 types of legislation affected rates of homicide, robbery, aggravated assault and rape in 170 major U.S. cities. They concluded that most restrictions did not appear to produce a significant negative effect on total rates of violence, although some firearm control approaches did appear to have such an effect. The latter included approaches focusing on: screening firearm buyers; licensing local firearm dealers; banning possession of firearms by criminals and mentally ill individuals; stronger control on the illegal carrying of firearms; and, increased penalties for committing felonies with a firearm.

Early research on the effectiveness of the District of Columbia’s 1976 handgun ban, using a univariate interrupted time series design, concluded that the ban did reduce the homicide rate (Loftin et al., 1991; see also: Gabor 1994). However, subsequent research, using monthly statistics and a refined statistical analysis, suggested that the observed effectiveness of the handgun ban was more likely an artifact of the method of analysis (Britt et al., 1996; 1996a; reply by McDowall et al., 1996). Neither study could measure whether the ban was effectively enforced and had, in fact, resulted in a change in the prevalence and availability of handguns within the District.

Several U.S. authors have argued that carrying a firearm is an essential proximate cause of firearm violence outside the home (Sherman and Rogan, 1995: 675; Sherman et al., 1995). They also argue that firearm density and the carrying of firearms may be correlated over time, but that "the carrying frequency per gun may be the behavioural mechanism by which gun density is translated into gun crime" (Ibidem). Enforcing firearm carrying laws may, therefore, be essential to reduce violence. Several authors have suggested that the police can reduce violence involving firearms by emphasizing enforcement in high-risk places, by high-risk people, at high-risk times. The Kansas City experiment was set up to evaluate that proposition and showed that firearm crimes could, indeed, be decreased through an enhanced and strategic enforcement of the law with no significant displacement effect (Sherman and Rogan, 1995). However, the short-term nature of the experiment did not allow the researchers to determine whether the effect was a lasting one.

Policies to prevent violence involving firearms by enhancing mandatory sentences for firearm crimes are very popular, and are often said to reduce the number of people who are killed intentionally by a firearm (Roth, 1994). However, the deterrent value of such measures is difficult to evaluate. Furthermore, when such measures are implemented, various unintended consequences may defeat their purpose. An initial review of studies of mandatory sentencing for firearm offences conducted in several U.S. cities suggests that the mandatory sentencing laws had substantially reduced the number of homicides, but had no demonstrable effect on the rates of assault and robbery (McDowall et al., 1991; see also Loftin et al., 1993). The impact of the laws on murder rates varied considerably from city to city, so it was difficult to reach a conclusion about the impact of mandatory sentences (Meredith et al., 1994: 13). Canadian researchers, Meredith and his colleagues (1994), reviewed the empirical research literature on mandatory minimum sentencing provisions and concluded among other things that: such charges are frequently the subject of plea negotiations; the public is largely unaware of which offences have mandatory minimum penalties; and police, lawyers and judges may alter their behaviour to mitigate the impact of a mandatory minimum penalty where it is perceived to be unduly harsh.

8.6 Summary