The psychology of guns


Canada and the US are of two very different minds in regards to firearm ownership

By Rebecca Peterson, Assistant Editor


On January 29 of this year, a single gunman opened fire at a mosque in Quebec City, killing six people and injuring 19 others. The shooting was carried out by a 26-year old student who was vocal in his support of alt-right, white nationalist views, as well as his approval of President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. It was the worst mass shooting in Canada since 2006, when eight people were killed in a gang-related incident in Shedden, Ontario.

The Wikipedia list of massacres in Canada (defined as the “indiscriminate and brutal slaughter” of more than one living thing) dates back to 1689, and includes killings not carried out with firearms, such as murders committed by arson, crossbows, and stabbings. It’s notably short, with the highest death count on the list reaching 72 (the Lachine massacre in Quebec on August 5, 1689). Very rarely do the casualties reach the double digits.

Compare this with the American list, and the differences are stark. For one thing, single-shooter events have their own subset articles—the list of mass shootings is truncated to only show the top 20 deadliest shootings (the top five of which have occurred in the past ten years). For another, on the main list of massacres, the two deadliest instances are said to have had 300 victims, if not more. The kill count is higher, and the incidents more frequent.

There are explanations for this outside of differing approaches to gun laws. America has a significantly larger population than Canada, so it stands to reason that the amount of violence would increase in relation to that number. America has also suffered bloody Civil War, fueling violence between warring factions and an ongoing legacy of violence against people of colour in the country. The two biggest massacres on the list, in fact, were racially-charged killings: The first, a Democrat protest against the inclusion of Black people in the political party which resulted in the horrific slaughter of 200-300 African Americans in 1868, the second a mob killing of members of a Black community in Oklahoma by white militants that yielded as high as 300 fatalities and 800 people injured.

Even so, it is undeniable that America has a gun problem, though this is hardly the fault of the majority of American citizens. A CNN poll from June 2016 revealed that 55 per cent of Americans want tighter gun restrictions. However, the country is in a bind that can be boiled down to two critical factors: The NRA is a powerful political lobbying force with the advantage of a single platform to focus on and a frightening amount of capital at their disposal, and the infamous Second Amendment of the US Constitution has written gun ownership into the country’s DNA. The US is, perhaps surprisingly, one of only three countries in the world to protect the right to bear arms under their national constitution; the other two are Mexico and Guatemala.

Canada does not have gun ownership listed as a constitutional right. Statistics cited by the Canadian Department of Justice suggest that 22 per cent of Canadian households contain firearms, and that 95 per cent of these were long guns, with only 12 per cent stating that they owned a handgun. This isn’t drastically less than American statistics—only about a third of American households contain guns, according to the Pew Research Center. However, the number of guns per capita are significantly higher—some American gun owners have a tendency to stockpile weapons, with 3 per cent of American gun owners holding 50 per cent of the total number of firearms owned by American citizens.

The average Canadian citizen does not have the full range of firearms available to them that an American citizen might have. Civilians in Canada are forbidden from possessing automatic weapons, sound suppressors, handguns with barrels that are 105 mm and under, and most semi-automatic firearms. Devices designed to enhance a semi-automatic weapon so it acts as a fully automated weapon (such as the infamous “bump stocks” used in the Las Vegas shooting last month) are prohibited as well. Gun owners in Canada must be fully licensed, and for many years all gun owners were required to be registered with the RCMP. This regulation was weakened under the Harper government in 2012, and Parliament moved to destroy the records of the long gun registry, sparking a national debate regarding Canada’s relationship with firearms.

Personally, I am vehemently opposed to the idea of owning a gun. I don’t believe an average citizen has any need for a firearm, and I do believe that it is a matter of public safety whether or not my neighbour has a growing stockpile of weapons in their basement. I’m generally of the opinion that people should be allowed to live however they like, so long as the risk to others is minimal to none, but I’m willing to allow some paternalism on the part of the government if it means that guns are kept out of the general populace.

However, I recognize that not everyone feels this way, and that my upbringing as a child in the suburbs on the outskirts of a largely liberal-minded West Coast city has likely influenced this point of view.

Many of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to over the years have expressed a very pragmatic view in regards to gun ownership. Very few cited “protection from others” as a reason for keeping a gun in the house—many were farmers or hunters who owned long guns for hunting, both for sport and necessity. A single elk can keep a Canadian family fed for a very long time, after all.

“Think of it this way,” my dad told me recently, a man who also dislikes firearms but has many friends who hunt. “For a lot of Canadian families, telling them that owning a gun is dangerous and wrong is like telling them that they need to get rid of their fishing rod because it’s dangerous and wrong.”

I think this is an apt description. Only one or two gun license holders I’ve met have exhibited any kind of passion for firearms in and of themselves. One claimed that Switzerland is the safest country in the world because there’s a gun in every household, and another stated that everyone should have a gun in case we need to overthrow the government someday (which I doubt would be a compelling reason for our current government to loosen firearm restrictions in the country).

An article in the Guardian broke the psychology of gun owners in the US down to four main reasons for wanting firearms in the first place: Protection, recreation, personal insecurity, and social and cultural pressures. The first two reasons are fairly common and honestly, despite my personal feelings, relatively valid reasons for wanting to own a firearm in the US. If everyone around you is carrying a weapon, you might want to start carrying a weapon too—it’s almost as if the Cold War is playing out between American citizens on an individual level. Recreationally, I imagine many Americans do see their guns as very similar to their fishing rods.

However, the cultural and societal pressure is the point of significant difference between our two nations. Canadians, largely, do not experience a significant societal or cultural pressure to own a gun. We do not have an NRA equivalent; we do not celebrate gun ownership in our constitution. There must be an impact on the basic psychology of an American citizen when guns are so normalized that you can buy a rifle in a Walmart, but not a Kinder Egg.

With firearms internalized in the national consciousness the way it is in the US, it’s no wonder that the subject of gun control is so divisive. Though we might feel safe to judge from our supposed haven of gun laws and shorter lists of tragedies on Wikipedia, I think it’s important that other countries show support and empathy for American citizens. After all, there are far more Americans warily eyeing the legal stockpiling of weapons happening in their next-door neighbour’s basement than there are gun-hungry Americans stockpiling weapons in the first place.

And besides, just because our list of mass shootings is shorter, doesn’t mean that it is non-existent.

The Other Press

The Other Press, Douglas College's student newspaper since 1976. Articles, insight and updates from the New West and Coquitlam campuses.

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