The U.S. gun debate was splashed across news pages yesterday, as Barack Obama unveiled plans for substantial new gun control policies. Canadians are certainly paying attention. But do we realize how the ripple effects of gun issues in the United States can impact crime and violence north of the border? For starters, there are indications that firearms smuggled from the U.S. contribute to criminality in Canada. According to a paper published in 2009, the U.S. is "a major supplier" of illegal handguns to Canada. Available data show that two-thirds of traced handguns recovered from Canadian crime scenes originated in the U.S. The other one-third are from domestic sources, such as "leakage" from police and military stockpiles through theft, corruption, or other methods.
Smuggling statistics do more than merely highlight the potential international ramifications of U.S. firearms legislation -- or lack thereof. They also highlight a fact that is often lost on some gun-rights advocates: the nuance of the gun debate defies simplistic thinking; thinking that is neither demarcated by national borders, nor by the boundaries of binary logics of good and evil. In general, little in specific is known about the impact and effects of illicitly trafficked firearms to Canada. "We know that armed violence can have a variety of deleterious effects... [but] we do not know how much of this can be associated specifically with changes in the availability of firearms." Some of those deleterious effects, for example, are that the availability of firearms at home increases the risk of impulsive suicide among youth, or that handgun purchases among women in California are associated with an increased risk of intimate partner homicide.
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In certain circumstances, more guns equal more violence. But for broader conclusions, more research is required. Yet if we are to believe the National Rifle Association (NRA): "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." The implication is that all that is required to increase security is to increase access to guns for so-called good guys -- full stop. But the debate does not stop there, or at least it should not. In reality, guns often make it into the wrong hands, despite good intentions. And it looks like a sizeable percentage of these guns can ultimately find their way across borders to Canada. In fact, the NRA's crude call for lax gun regulation actually makes it more likely that guns will end up in the hands of bad guys (and gals) on both sides of the border. Contrary to popular belief, it is not stolen guns that account for the majority of those used in crime. It is that firearms are purchased by intermediaries -- either dealers or friends -- and passed on to those that might not otherwise be able to legally obtain a one.
Clearly the effects of guns are context-specific. But that context is lost when a recent statement by the NRA declares that "society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters -- people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them." Now, the tenor of discussions around firearms in Canada is not anywhere as extreme as this -- luckily. This despite reports of NRA influences in Canada, as evidenced by its long-running involvement in gun registry debate. There is, however, a conservative current running through Canada's approach to firearm regulation.
A prime example of this is tough-on-crime legislation, such as the 2008 Tackling Violent Crime Act. Initiatives of this type make for good politics, but poor policy; especially at a time when crime in Canada is around historical lows. Mandatory minimum penalties for gun crimes passed as part of this Act, for instance, ensure that even candidates for rehabilitation remain incarcerated long after their detention acts as a deterrent. Canada's own Department of Justice published a study that shows long periods served in prison "increase the chance that the offender will offend again... In the end, public security is diminished, rather than increased." Such legislation feeds on, and perpetuates, public fears of insecurity. It is based on sensationalized notions of good and evil and a deterrence strategy that is better at populating prisons -- at great cost, no less -- than addressing problems of crime and violence.
Canadians have a vested interest in following the U.S. gun debate, both to understand how laws passed there laws can affect us practically and to learn lessons from the mistakes that can be made by painting intricate issues with broad stokes. In addition to smuggling in U.S. guns, let us not smuggle in gun rhetoric. Let us keep in mind that violence is going down. Also, let us be aware that NRA-style arguments are made in black and white -- or wrapped conveniently in the red, white, and blue. This ignores the gradations of fact that should inform our own policies.
What is needed -- for Americans and Canadians alike -- is a debate that promotes public safety and security through a nuanced understanding of the issues affecting gun violence at home and abroad. This means understanding the real and symbolic implications of our own policies for public safety, and remaining cognizant that the U.S. gun debate will shape not only American gun policies, but will also impact the lives of Canadians -- some perhaps tragically.