The surprising truth about gun deaths in Canada

As Canada moves to further restrict firearms, the first thing we should do is toss aside all reference to standard American framing, which is a failed experiment in firearm freedom and a demonstrably rogue outlier among industrialized democracies. We should look instead to peer nations with significantly lower gun violence rates than our own. Australia, Germany, South Korea and the UK, for example, average less than half our rate of gun deaths per capita, and all have tighter restrictions than ours.

The UK, led by Conservative governments for most of the last 40 years, has one-tenth our rate of gun fatalities and a significantly tighter firearm policy than Canada’s. Is there a widespread clamoring in the UK for more guns? Not on your life.

Source data: World Population Review

Nor is the Canadian experience stable. The rate of firearm-related homicides rose 91 per cent between 2013 and 2020, according to Statistics Canada.

Most of our controversy around gun ownership depends on a blizzard of American media tropes and myths.

For instance, the myth that if we regulate guns, only gangsters and criminals will have them. The implication being our gun fatalities are largely attributable to gangster crime sprees and shoot-outs. But this is to tragically misread the Canadian landscape.

Few recent Canadian mass shooters had criminal records of any kind, for example, and most obtained their weapons legally (although the Portapique killer did not).

Portapique shooter, 2020: No criminal record since 2002 — 22 dead, multiple wounded.

Fredericton shooter, 2018: No criminal record — 4 dead.

Danforth shooter, 2018: No criminal record — 2 dead, multiple wounded.

Opinion: Canada’s #homicide and #suicide stats say it all. Guns do kill. @garossino writes for @natobserver. #cdnpoli #guncontrol

Quebec City shooter, 2017: No criminal record — 6 dead, multiple wounded.

moncton shooter, 2014: No criminal record — 3 dead, multiple wounded.

Yet while gangs and mass shootings grab headlines, they only scratch the surface. The deadliest combination with guns in our communities isn’t gangs, but something infinitely more widespread and mundane. It’s the combination of guns and heavy drinking.

Heavy drinking (far more than other drugs) is consistently cited across almost all literature as a major risk factor associated with both suicide and family violence, which together account for the vast majority of gun deaths in Canada.

The overwhelming majority — 75 per cent — of Canadian firearm fatalities have nothing to do with gangs or crime, according to Statistics Canada, because they are suicides. This matters because a recent UC Davis study found that more recent or repeat alcohol-related offenses are associated with the greatest risk of suicide among male handgun owners. This compounds an already starting risk factor: according to Stanford research, male handgun owners are eight times more likely to die by suicide than non-owners. This replicates other studies showing a strong correlation between all gun fatalities and heavy drinking.

Just as a point of reference, a quarter of Canadian men describe themselves as heavy drinkers, including 33 per cent of those under 35.

Importantly, the data refutes the popular misconception that people bent on suicide will find a way. In fact, most people attempting suicide are driven by impulse, mostly fail and do not go on to die in a future suicide. The key determinant of the attempt’s outcome is the lethality of the method chosen.

It’s hard to beat a handgun.

The truth has been staring us in the face all along.

Of the remaining 20 to 25 per cent of firearm deaths that are not suicide, the data is unclear but appears to follow the Canadian homicide pattern of 31 per cent resulting from family violence. The presence of a gun in a household struggling with heavy drinking, domestic violence and other stresses is inherently intimidating and deadly.

The family violence crisis is not just about deaths; it’s also about the health of the home environment. Thousands of Canadian women and children are forced to seek shelter from violence and abuse every day, while many more live in fear.

A third homicide risk factor is the region and community context. The highest provincial homicide rates (undifferentiated by method) in Canada are Saskatchewan (5.09 per 100,000 people) and Manitoba (4.69), much higher than the Canadian average of 1.95, while the highest metropolitan homicide rate is in Thunder Bay (6.35).

The northern and rural regions of all provinces experience significantly higher homicide rates than southern and metropolitan regions.

These tracks with data from the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians showing significantly higher gun ownership in northern, rural and Indigenous communities.

The homicide rate of Indigenous peoples (10.05) is almost seven times higher than the national average and highest of all for Indigenous men (16.5 in 2020). Tragically, this number does not include deaths by suicide, which Indigenous communities experience at three times the Canadian average.

A more recent category that authorities are beginning to monitor is homicides and violence driven by hate, in which the victim is targeted by race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. While statistically small, these offenses are only now beginning to yield important data and disturbing trends.

While gang violence is an undeniable factor, Statistics Canada reports gang-related murders are declining as a proportion of all firearm homicides, which have risen dramatically.

So although the overall picture is complex, the dominant themes are remarkably clear. Given the driving patterns of self-harm and gun violence, a phased-in reduction of easy access to weapons is likely to yield significant results over time. This isn’t controversial, as it’s worked for many other countries for decades.

It’s working now. Let’s do it.

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