Konrad Bongard, freelance journalist for Pardon Applications of Canada, explores both sides of the gun control debate, and notes that previous legislation on the issue has been deeply political in nature.
In the past few decades, gun control has become a controversial political issue in both Canada and the United States.
In the U.S., for example, the general consensus which prevailed in favour of the state regulation of firearms found its clearest expressions in the 1934 National Firearms Act. This legislation spearheaded the regulation and taxation of firearms commonly used by Prohibition-era gangsters. The 1968 Gun Control Act also prohibited interstate firearms transfers in response to the high-profile political assassinations of that decade. Since that time, however, conservative gun rights activists have gained in influence.
In Canada, a similar shift has occurred, as recent years have seen a reduction in the regulations surrounding firearms. In 2012, the requirement to register non-restricted firearms was dropped altogether.
If one follows the short chronologies provided above, they’ll notice that in many cases the decisions to restrict (or allow) the possession of firearms are often deeply political in nature. In fact, reading about the legislative history of gun control in the U.S. and Canada is akin to looking at a checklist of controversial media episodes.
Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit? Check. The Kennedy assassination? Check. The École Polytechnique massacre? Check. Columbine? Check.
Given this, it is worth posing the question of whether the current laws in North America surrounding firearms possession truly rest on a foundation of evidence-based policy.
The essay by criminologists Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser entitled “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” is, in this respect, a valuable resource. Published in 2007 in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, the paper demolishes many of the conventional left-liberal assumptions about the efficacy of firearms regulation. While it would be impossible to summarize the findings of Kates and Mauser in a single paragraph, the authors convincingly show that rates of firearm ownership do not correlate with higher per capita murder or suicide rates internationally, that gun crime has paradoxically risen in the United States and the United Kingdom as firearms regulation has become more robust, and that the regions and social demographics in which firearm ownership is most common in many cases have lower per capita violent crime.
“…in many cases the decisions to restrict (or allow) the possession of firearms are often deeply political in nature.”
Kates and Mauser’s thesis is that, contrary to the notion that access to firearms is likely to lead to heightened levels of violence, “the determinants of murder and suicide are basic social, economic, and cultural factors, not the prevalence of some form of deadly mechanism.”
Particularly interesting here is Kates and Mauser’s criticism of the “ordinary citizen” thesis — the notion that, endowed with a firearm, even the most law-abiding and benign member of the public can be transformed into a killer. They argue that this idea is patently false: “almost all murderers are extremely aberrant individuals with life histories of violence, psychopathology, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviours.”
What this means, in practice, is that people who kill other people (with guns or otherwise) are generally not well-adjusted members of society: they disproportionately hail from disenfranchised segments of the population, suffer from mental illness, etc. All crime is social, not merely psychological — the choice to kill someone or oneself isn’t simply a passing impulse anyone could have, actuated because of the availability of a firearm, but rather tends to reflect a history of social alienation.
How, then, should our legislators go about lowering murders and suicides?
“…it is worth posing the question of whether the current laws in North America surrounding firearms possession truly rest on a foundation of evidence-based policy.”
On the political left, a clamor of voices support gun control as the necessary social response to murders and suicides, but in the absence of any convincing causal argument. On the right, the maxim that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” prevails…but without any social frame of reference for how and why ‘people’ behave they do, this position is similarly listless.
What both sides share in common is a willingness to ignore the real underlying causes of gun violence, which are predominantly social and relate to the stark disparity of wealth in our society.
If one wants to develop a solution to gun crime, they should start there.
Konrad Bongard is a freelance journalist for Pardon Applications of Canada, the nationwide processing firm for Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) & U.S. Entry Waiver applications. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pardon Applications of Canada.