Why Gun Control Is Not The Right Answer

Claire Joly:contributor to webzine Le Quebecois Libre
Marie Latourelle: economics student
Maryse Martin: business student
Karen Selick: lawyer and columnist for Canadian Lawyer magazine

Besides the enormous pain that this tragedy left in the lives of those who lived through it, the main legacy of the Polytechnique massacre has been the strengthening of firearm controls.

Ten years ago, on Dec. 6 in Montreal, horror stalked those inside Ecole Polytechnique. For at least 15 long minutes, they could count only on luck to save them from a madman armed with a semi-automatic rifle. When the police finally entered the building, Marc Lepine had committed suicide nine minutes earlier. He had killed 14 young women and wounded 13 other people.

Paradoxically, just a few years years later, gun control legislation of 1991 and 1995 dramatically restricted ordinary Canadians’ right of self-defence by effectively prohibiting the use of a firearm for protection of life. (Pepper spray for use against human aggressors has already been a “prohibited weapon” in Canada for more than 20 years.)

One wonders whether calling on the state to tighten gun control was a wise response to the Polytechnique tragedy. Indeed, after a 10-year crusade, even Heidi Rathjen of the Coalition for Gun Control recently told a journalist that “no studies have been done to link gun legislation to declining firearms-related deaths, but you can draw your own conclusions.” (Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 18, 1999, p. A16)

The irrationality of gun control is admirably illustrated by former British police supervisor Colin Greenwood in his 1972 book, Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales (Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Increasingly strict laws were adopted in Britain, without any serious research into their effectiveness. Often, this was simply a politically expedient response to some headline-grabbing incident, and failed to address the actual problem.

Meanwhile, gun control was leading inexorably to the prohibition of firearm ownership by civilians, whether closet prohibitionists would admit it or not. Twenty-five years after his book was published, the retired Mr. Greenwood saw a new generation of British policemen seize his previously legal handgun collection from his own house, under the gun control law of 1997.

Gun controllers aren’t bothered by this confiscation of property. They claim firearm “accessibility” is the root of all evil. Yet, a number of studies, such as the comparative work of David Kopel and World Health Organization statistics, show that gun-control measures and the level of gun ownership are not determining factors in national homicide or suicide rates (see Daniel D. Polsby, Firearms and Crime, Independent Institute, 1997).

Switzerland, Norway and Vermont are examples of peaceful societies in which low firearm homicide rates coexist with very unrestrictive firearm policies and high levels of gun ownership. Or just think of Canada 30 years ago.

The vast majority of criminological and epidemiological studies suggest that gun control is not an effective means of preventing violent crime: Wright/Rossi/Daly (1983), Kleck (1991), Centerwall (1991), Lott (1998), etc. On the contrary, gun control prevents self-defence by honest citizens more than it deters criminals or mass murderers.

Indeed, the laws supported by gun prohibitionists hurt those citizens most likely to be victims of violent crime — women and the elderly, for example — by leaving them still more defenceless against a possible attacker.

Gun prohibitionists never admit that armed self-defence can really work. Yet, according to American data, victims of violent crime run less risk of being killed or wounded if they defend themselves with a gun than if they remain passive, resist with their bare hands, with a knife or a makeshift weapon. In fewer than one per cent of the cases was the attacker able to seize the victim’s gun and use it against him or her (Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, Aldine, 1991).

Police officers are armed precisely because guns are an effective means of protecting life and preventing violence. However, police can’t always be there when a violent crime is in progress — in fact, criminals plan it that way. Nor would it be desirable to grant police a monopoly over armed self-defence.

Ordinary men and women are quite competent to exercise their right of self-defence in an emergency, provided they are not forbidden by law from doing so. And, fortunately, in 98 per cent of the cases in which a firearm was used against an attacker, the mere sight of the weapon had the desired deterrent effect and put an end to the confrontation (John R. Lott Jr., “Gun Control Advocates Purvey Deadly Myths,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11, 1998, p. A22).

We do not claim that guns are a universal remedy. We don’t argue for a society in which everyone would carry a revolver on his hip. The right to keep and bear arms doesn’t mean that you have to buy a gun, or keep one in your house, or use it if you are attacked. We do believe, however, that using a firearm in self-defence is a morally justified measure of last recourse when the police cannot intervene quickly enough.

Unlike the prohibitionists, who masquerade behind mythical statistics for which they seldom provide precise references, we do not seek to impose our values on everyone else. Let every person be free to make his or her own choices and assume the consequences.

We, the authors, having considered the issue at length, would prefer to take the responsibility of protecting ourselves with the means we consider most suitable, if only the laws permitted us to do so. This idea is not bizarre, and is highly consistent with the western, and the Canadian, tradition (see Pierre Lemieux, Le droit de porter des armes, Paris, Belles Lettres, 1993).

It is doubtful that the recent gun control laws will disarm real criminals. Nor will they prevent rape, stabbings, or even mass killings like the OC Transpo shooting rampage last April. What is certain is that gun controls will result in victims being less able to defend themselves against their aggressors.

Last June 10, a man entered a women’s “shelter” in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and coldly killed his estranged spouse.

The social worker “on duty” remained a helpless witness to the drama: she did not have a weapon ready to protect her charges in such emergency situations. Current law prohibits it. As for the killer — well, frankly, he didn’t give a damn about the law.