A shooting at a sawmill in Nanaimo, British Columbia on April 30, 2014, has left two men dead and two in the hospital recovering from gunshot wounds. The gunman, a 47-year-old former employee, is in custody. The murder weapon is a shotgun. I will not be surprised if prohibitionists use this tragedy to step up their complaints that it is the “availability of guns,” that it is too easy to get a gun, as to what is to blame for such incidents. “Availability” or “access to guns” is commonly held as a problem in the ranks of prohibitionists who tirelessly assert this claim. Researchers have tried to test this theory that there is a causal link between the availability of guns and deaths and injuries by gun. The difficulty for researchers studying this theory is in generating data that can be tested using scientific research methods. However, their inability to find a causal link between the availability of guns and deaths and injuries by gun has not stopped prohibitionists from advancing their belief that such a relationship exists.
There is a body of research published in medical journals that are frequently cited by prohibitionists in advancing their claim that it is the availability of guns that is the problem and that passing laws against gun ownership and use is the solution. They frame the argument that prohibition is a matter of public health and safety, that this trumps the individual right to own and use guns. The Harvard Injury Research Center published an annotated bibliography listing studies published in medical journals that indicate gun availability as a risk factor in homicide by gun. The compilers note:
our review of the academic literature found that a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries. Case-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies indicate that in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. (Homicide)
While the Harvard Injury Research Center stops short of claiming there is a causal link between gun availability and homicide, this does not stop them from promoting the view held by prohibitionists that passing laws against gun ownership and use is an appropriate solution.
In the disciplines of sociology and criminology, researchers investigated the theory that the availability of guns contributes to death and injury by gun. The earliest of these efforts I know of is the publication Firearms Ownership and Use in Canada: A Report of Survey Findings, 1976, by Philip C. Stenning and Sharon Moyers at the Centre of Criminology at the University of Toronto in 1981. The study gives an accurate and objective view of the state of gun ownership and uses in Canadian society in the mid-1970s. Philip Stenning is a criminologist and has an impressive list of academic credentials to his name. In carrying out his research on gun ownership and use in Canada he was neither serving the agenda of gun rights advocates, nor those of gun prohibitionists. Stenning is upfront in his conclusion concerning the theory of gun availability and death and injury by gun stating:
we have noted that the data available from the Gun Ownership Survey, when compared with the limited data available on firearms incidents, disclose no credible evidence of any direct relationship between firearms incidents and firearms availability. This is not to say, however, that such a relationship does not exist. It does mean that if such a relationship does exist, the available data are currently too crude to be able to detect and measure it.
A more recent publication, Reassessing the Association between Gun Availability and Homicide at the Cross-National Level, by Irshad Altheimer (Department of Criminal Justice, Wayne State University,) and Matthew Boswell (University of Iowa), published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, in 2011, sets out to test the theory in generating data that can be tested mathematically using tests of probability. The authors note:
macro-level research on this issue has yet to establish a consensus. For example, some studies have found a significant association between gun availability and homicide (Cook & Ludwig, 2004; Hoskin, 2001; Kleck, 1979; McDowall, 1991) while others have not (Kleck, 1984; Kleck & Patterson, 1993; Magaddino & Medoff, 1984). As a result, the debate about the relationship between guns and violent crime at the macro-level continues. (Am J Crim Just (2012) 37:682)
The authors examined data generated in Western nations, Latin American nations, and Eastern European nations to test the theory.
The authors conclude the evidence suggests that the extent that guns are considered the weapon of choice for the commission of violence is largely shaped by cultural and socio-historical factors, noting:
In Western nations citizens appear to be more likely to view guns as the weapon of choice when committing violence, but apparently this preference for guns does not increase overall levels of lethality. Rather, this preference for use of guns seems to decrease overall rates of homicide. (Am J Crim Just (2012) 37:696)
Interestingly, the authors note:
in Latin American nations it appears that gun availability increases both the preference for guns and the lethality of violence. This suggests that citizens of Latin American nations have a preference for gun use, and the sheer availability of guns in these nations increases the likelihood that violent altercations result in death. It may also suggest that a greater use of guns in Latin American violence represents that greater likelihood that Latin American aggressors intend to greatly harm or kill their victims. (Am J Crim Just (2012) 37:696)
Finally, the authors note “an entirely different dynamic seems to be occurring in Eastern European nations. It seems that guns are primarily being used in these nations as a deterrent against potential aggression in an era characterized by weakened collective security. (Am J Crim Just (2012) 37:696-697)
The difficulty noted by Stenning, remains in that if a causal link between availability of guns and death and injury by gun exists, the available data are currently too crude to be able to detect and measure it. The study published by Altheimer and Boswell comes closer to detecting and measuring this link than any other study I have viewed and the findings seem consistent with the reality of gun ownership and use in Canadian society.
Gun ownership, and presumably gun availability, is quite common in Canadian society with long guns, rifles and shotguns being most common. In 1999 it was estimated there were 3,500,000 rifles and 2,600,000 shotguns in private hands in Canada. It was determined there were 1,100,000 handguns in private hands. (United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation) In 2012, according to Statistics Canada, there were 1.56 victims of homicide per 100,000 population, down 10% from 2011 and the lowest homicide rate recorded since 1966. (Statistics Canada) There were 543 homicides reported across Canada in total in 2012. Of these homicides, 172 (33%) were by firearm, 65% were with a handgun and 95 were gang-related. Stab wounds claimed 164 (31%) lives in 2012, leaving bludgeoning, strangulation and other means responsible for the remaining 207 (36%) homicides reported in 2012.
A shotgun was the weapon of choice in the shootings at the sawmill in Nanaimo on April 30, 2014, where the four men were shot, leaving two dead and two in hospital expected to recover from their wounds. On April 15, 2014, in Calgary, five young people, University of Calgary students, were stabbed to death by a classmate wielding a kitchen knife. These tragedies support the contention put forward by Altheimer and Boswell that the preference for guns does not increase overall levels of lethality. The five young people who were stabbed to death by an attacker wielding a kitchen knife are just as dead as the two men in Nanaimo who succumbed to gunshot wounds.
While there is a declining rate of homicide in Canadian society in spite of the supposed availability of guns, Canadians do use guns to commit murders. This is particularly so in the gang subculture of larger cities such as Toronto, where handguns are commonly used in homicides. However, those who take part in gang culture have willfully taken up a life of crime and thuggery, so it comes as no surprise that they use guns, generally acquired in illegal markets, to carry out assaults and homicides. This too is in keeping with the findings in the study published by Altheimer and Boswell that cultural and socio-historical factors mostly shape the commission of violence. In the gang subculture, violence, homicide, in particular, is an indication, as the authors found with Latin American aggressors, there is an intent to harm significantly or kill their victims.
In the broader society, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Canadians who choose to own and use guns are not committing assaults and homicides. They use firearms for legitimate purposes, hunting and sport shooting being the most common past-times. Despite their availability, guns in the hands of private citizens in Canadian society are not being misused to any degree that supports the assertion put forward by prohibitionists that there is a causal link between the availability of guns and deaths and injuries by gun. Gun ownership remains a legitimate and perfectly safe past-time in Canadian society and as such the individual right to own and use guns trumps the claim that the availability of guns that is a threat to public health and safety and that passing laws against gun ownership and use is the solution.
Posted by Geoffrey