The U.S.A., an assassination bubble

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down the barrelAs far as I know, there have only ever been two assassinations of politicians in Canada: the shooting of federal Father of Confederation Thomas D'Arcy McGee in April 1868, and the strangulation of Québec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte after he was kidnapped during the October Crisis in 1970.

If you're American, that might help explain why we outside your country are so mystified (as well as saddened and horrified) by the bloodshed that has for so long accompanied political discourse in the United States—once again last week. Like the U.S., we have criminals with weapons here: gangsters who shoot up restaurants and busy streets in drug wars; ruthless home-grown terrorists who blow up airliners; men willing to kill their wives or girlfriends or daughters out of anger or spite or a twisted sense of honour; unhinged gunmen who walk into schools. We're not a peace-draped utopia in the Great White North.

A border with a real difference

And yet, the homicide rate in the U.S.A. is three times what we have in Canada. (We do get our cars stolen 22% more often than Americans do, however.) While 70% of murderers in the U.S. use firearms, only 30% in Canada kill with them—roughly the same number that use knives. Guns are harder to get here—both legally and illegally—and the types of weapons and ammunition a private citizen can own are also much more restricted. A mere 2.3% of Canadian homes have handguns in them; nearly ten times as many households own rifles and other hunting-style long guns. A little over 5% of the Canadian population has a valid firearms license, though many more owners remain unregistered.

It's reasonable to guess that there might be as many as 10 to 15 million firearms in Canada, mostly long guns. By contrast, authorities estimate more than 250 million guns in the U.S.A., with roughly 14 million purchased each year. That's something like twice the number of guns per capita (the U.S. population is about ten times Canada's), and more guns bought annually than exist at all north of the border.

Politicians in Canada—especially the Prime Minister, members of the federal Cabinet, and senior ministers in the provinces—certainly have security details. Some may need them more than others, but there's little sense that seeking high political office entails risking your life. None of Canada's 22 prime ministers since Confederation in 1867 has been assassinated, and it's hard to say if the one attempt on Jean Chrétien in 1995 (an intruder with a knife in the PM's official residence) really was one.

No revolution, and Mounties

Like the U.S.A., Canada was (and is) a country of the frontier, with our own Wild West and subjugation of native people, our own hurly-burly industrial-age expansionism, our own 20th-century shift to urban living in polyglot cities. But there was no Canadian Revolution or Civil War. For centuries, the rules and infrastructure of much of our vast country (especially that Wild West) were maintained by the Mounted Police and the Hudson's Bay Company. Our national slogan is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but "peace, order, and good government." We have no gun lobby with anything like the influence of the National Rifle Association.

We have not, in general, turned even the most heated political disagreements into a brawl, or a skirmish, or an internecine war. At rallies or campaign stops, bodyguards' eyes may skim nearby grassy knolls and rooftops, but there has almost never been anything of interest to see. No one in Canada can walk into a store and buy an extended-clip Glock semi-automatic pistol, then put it under his coat, take a cab to a rally, and shoot a Member of Parliament in the head—along with however many bystanders he can hit with his extra rounds.

Nor, does it seem, is anyone inclined to. Whatever the complex stew of influences that prompted alleged assassin Jared Loughner to follow those steps in Arizona last week—delusion and derangement; pervasive rhetoric of government and its agents as the enemy, perhaps even treasonous; easy availability of high-capacity, rapid-shooting handguns; much we don't yet know—the mix north of the border is different.

All but settled

I get little sense that America wants to change its mix, despite losing several important leaders over its history, despite both accidental and intentional gun-related deaths and injuries in the tens of thousands every year, and despite the counter-examples shown by Canada and similar successful western democracies with strict gun laws and generally less violent political rhetoric.

As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow put it, with a U.S. gun-control advocate (a masked penguin) talking to a U.S. gun-rights advocate (a guy in a suit): "The gun control debate is all but settled—and your side won. The occasional horrible civilian massacre is just the price the rest of us have to pay. Over and over again, apparently."


The irony of all those guns purchased for 'home protection' (in both countries, but mostly the US) is that crime has generally been in decline since the 1970s. Never in history have you been less likely to be a victim of crime.

"And yet, the homicide rate in the U.S.A. is three times what we have in Canada."

Statistics can, of course, be manipulated or just plain made up. Your link for this statement is to a Wikipedia article that, itself, includes no citations for this "fact." If you look at violent crime as a category, Canada is more than on par with the U.S. in spite of its strict gun control:

"In Canada around 1920, before there was any form of gun control, their homicide rate was 7% of the U.S rate. By 1986, and after significant gun control legislation, Canada’s homicide rate was 35% of the U.S. rate – a significant increase. In 2003, Canada had a violent crime rate more than double that of the U.S. (963 vs. 475 per 100,000).", pages 7-8.

So despite the nominal disarming of Canada's citizens, they victimize each other far more than do Americans. (See the chart on page 7 of the same source, regarding rates of "contact crime victimization.") But perhaps more telling is this from your own source: "Furthermore, in recent years, the gap in violent crime rates between the United States and Canada has narrowed due to a precipitous drop in the violent crime rate in the U.S." In spite of loosening of gun control in the U.S. in recent years (e.g., expiration of the so-called assault weapons ban; rapid expansion of the right to concealed weapons permits), the U.S. violent crime rate is falling faster than Canada's. So it seems that guns may in fact not be the problem.

There is validity to the point that American political discourse is heated, coarse and, at times, violent. And it may be true that this is not new; the founders of our republican democracy were revolutionaries. Without suggesting that Sarah Palin is not a vapid idiot (she is), or that we should continue to use crosshairs in political ads (we shouldn't), some of us are just fine with our roots - as having been born in revolution - and some of us see the continued right to possess firearms as not only connecting us to those roots, but reminding us (all of us) that everything is temporary. I can see how the citizens of a country that didn't force the issue of its liberty wouldn't share the same values here.

In the end, though, that really doesn't matter. I'm fairly certain that Jared Loughner was motivated solely by his own demons, and not Sarah Palin, or the NRA, or anyone else. And I'm not willing to restrict the liberties of the masses based on how a minuscule minority might choose to abuse theirs (especially when the abusers' conduct is already illegal), any more than I'd be willing to censor Palin, or Glenn Beck, no matter how bad I think their rhetoric is for our country and the collective IQ. Civil liberties don't yield to the lowest common denominator.

But to be fair, the U.S. has 273 million additional people (nearly 10x the population of Canada), so one would expect the homicide rate to be higher. Most people in this country do not believe this perpetrator was motivated for political reasons, though there are entities attempting to make such a connection; frankly, I think he's just plain nuts.

I agree with Darren. And I think the violence we all have most to fear is within our own homes and relationships.

One important difference is that the right to bear arms is written into our constitution and American have a love hate relationship with guns as they are part of out inalienable rights per the constitution. This is why the NRA has such a big lobby, there is a substantial number of Americans who believe that if out right to bear arms is taken away, what else will be denied us from within out Constitutional rights? While I don't see the need to own a handgun (or any kind of gun for that matter) I do appreciate my constitutional rights mainly because not so long ago, a large portion of my family was denied even these. While the constitution may have it's flaws, it is the document all American live by, regardless.

Thanks for this thoughtful and well-researched post. Whatever the reason, I'm very grateful
(for Canada,
for your brilliant writing
and for the Arrogant Worms)

Derek, I appreciate your responses and perspectives. You provide an interesting exploration of the differences between our countries, for sure. Not everyone in the U.S. sees value in our Second Amendment, just as I am sure that not all Canadians are happy with being largely disarmed. At any rate, the parallel but often diverging paths of our two countries are fascinating.

One issue that I hope comes to the forefront in the wake of Tucson is our (U.S.) mental health system. Reagan is generally credited with dumping the mentally ill out on the streets decades ago, and our tradition of essentially ignoring them lives on today. The facts here aren't fully developed, but it seems like a lot of people knew Loughner was mentally ill (he is being described as showing classic signs of psychosis), yet he apparently received no treatment and was free to purchase a gun (which, if he was insane, he obviously should not have been able to do). In my work I have personally seen a murderer, freed by virtue of incompetency, released to the public with no meaningful attempt at treatment. I don't think most Americans have any idea how bad our mental health support system is, and I have to assume we could learn something from Canada if we'd just turn off Glenn Beck.

Just to bring some levity to this admittedly serious question (and I believe the treatment of the mentally ill in both nations is as serious, if not more so, than the 2nd Amendment): what if the the founding fathers were just too darn hot that day, and wanted everyone to be able to take off their jackets, and have the, "right to bare arms."

One thing you hear over and over again in the gun debate is "make guns illegal and only the criminals will have guns".

One thing you don't hear is that 500,000 guns a year are stolen from legal gun owner's homes.

It would seem that the legal gun owners are supplying the criminals.

Something else I've been thinking about: would you rather have your neighbour, who has a history of mental illness, have universal access to guns or access to universal health care?

Canada, obviously, made it's choice.

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