If you have a problem, it’s often easier to blame someone else rather than deal with it. And with Canada’s murder rate rising 12 percent last year and a recent rash of murders by gangs in Toronto and other cities, it’s understandable that Canadian politicians want a scapegoat. That at least was the strategy Canada’s premiers took when they met last Thursday with the new U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, and spent much of their time blaming their crime problems on guns smuggled in from the United States.
Of course, there is a minor problem with the attacks on the U.S. Canadians really don’t know what the facts are, and the reason is simple: Despite billions of dollars spent on the Canada’s gun-registration program and the program’s inability to solve crime, the government does not how many crime-guns were seized in Canada, let alone where those guns came from. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported in late July that they “cannot know if [the guns] were traceable or where they might have been traced.” Thus, even if smuggled guns were an important problem, the Canadian government doesn’t know if it is worse now than in the past.
Even in Toronto, which keeps loose track of these numbers, Paul Culver, a senior Toronto Crown Attorney, claims that guns from the U.S. are a “small part” of the problem.
There is another more serious difficulty: You don’t have to live next to the United States to see how hard it is to stop criminals from getting guns. The easy part is getting law-abiding citizens to disarm; the hard part is getting the guns from criminals. Drug gangs that are firing guns in places like Toronto seem to have little trouble getting the drugs that they sell and it should not be surprising that they can get the weapons they need as well.
The experiences in the U.K. and Australia, two island nations whose borders are much easier to monitor, should also give Canadian gun controllers some pause. The British government banned handguns in 1997 but recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the four years from 1998-99 to 2002-03.
Crime was not supposed to rise after handguns were banned. Yet, since 1996 the serious-violent-crime rate has soared by 69 percent; robbery is up 45 percent, and murders up 54 percent. Before the law, armed robberies had fallen 50 percent from 1993 to 1997, but as soon as handguns were banned the robbery rate shot back up, almost to its 1993 level.
The 2000 International Crime Victimization Survey, the last survey completed, shows the violent-crime rate in England and Wales was twice the rate of that in the U.S. When the new survey for 2004 comes out later this year, that gap will undoubtedly have widened even further as crimes reported to British police have since soared by 35 percent, while those in the U.S. have declined 6 percent.
Australia has also seen its violent-crime rates soar immediately after its 1996 Port Arthur gun-control measures. Violent crime rates averaged 32-percent higher in the six years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2002) than they did in 1995. The same comparisons for armed-robbery rates showed increases of 74 percent.
During the 1990s, just as Britain and Australia were more severely regulating guns, the U.S. was greatly liberalizing individuals’ abilities to carry firearms. Thirty seven of the fifty states now have so-called right-to-carry laws that let law-abiding adults carry concealed handguns after passing a criminal background check and paying a fee. Only half the states require some training, usually around three to five hours. Yet crime has fallen even faster in these states than the national average. Overall, the states in the U.S. that have experienced the fastest growth rates in gun ownership during the 1990s have experienced the biggest drops in murders and other violent crimes.
Many things affect crime: The rise of drug-gang violence in Canada and Britain is an important part of the story, just as it has long been important in explaining the U.S.’s rates. (Few Canadians appreciate that 70 percent of American murders take place in just 3.5 percent of our counties, and that a large percentage of those are drug-gang related.) Just as these gangs can smuggle drugs into the country, they can smuggle in weapons to defend their turf.
While it is always easier to blame another for your problems, the solution to crime is often homegrown.
–John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and The Bias Against Guns” (Regnery 2003).