Good Guys and Bad Guys with Guns: Gun Control in Canada and the U.S.

Jean Yocum.

Jean Yocum won the 1939 Women's Individual Intercollegiate Rifle Championship. Recent gun violence in both Canada and the United States has drawn attention to the very different historical approaches to guns of these North American neighbors.

Editor's Note

Two nations, one very long shared border, a common language, a similar colonial history, and a shared set of values. And yet the United States and Canada regulate gun ownership and respond to gun violence in fundamentally different ways. This month historian Nathan Kozuskanich explores why Canada and the United States have developed such different gun cultures.

Read more on guns: The International Traffic in Arms and The Second Amendment Goes to Court.

On October 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, part of the honor guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. He then burst into the center block of Parliament and opened fire with his .30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle.

In the ensuing gun fight with officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) tasked to guard the legislature, Zehaf-Bibeau was killed seven minutes after gunning down Cirillo. Eyewitnesses credit Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, the man responsible for security at the House of Commons, with taking down the gunman.

Commentators not completely caught up in Zehaf-Bibeau’s tentative connections to Islam immediately started drawing comparisons between guns in the United States and Canada—comparisons that often revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of guns in these two neighboring countries.

Brietbart News proclaimed, in a headline homage to NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre’s words after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, that a “Good Guy With a Gun Ended Terror Attack on Canadian Parliament.”

The next morning, Steve Doocy of Fox and Friends asserted that Vickers having a gun “on him” to shoot Zehaf-Bibeau before any more people were killed “makes the argument about guns.” “Yeah,” agreed co-host Brian Kilmeade, “in Canada where they have much stricter gun control laws.”

That same day, FOX News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano also cast Vickers as a gun rights hero, arguing that “gun control laws in Canada are as draconian as they have been in Washington, D.C. or Chicago. The government thinks that people should not be able to arm themselves. In my view, that’s the lesson.”

While we cannot expect much from the insta-punditry of the twenty-four hour cable and internet news cycle, these knee-jerk reactions to Canadian gun violence nevertheless ignored the very different historical paths the gun control debate has taken on either side of the 49th parallel.

When it comes to guns, Canada is simply not America. But it is not America in ways that neither FOX’s “good guy” narrative, nor the liberal narrative of Canada as some kind of progressive haven that does right everything that the United States does wrong, can account for.

Vickers isn’t the NRA poster boy the FOX team wants him to be. Don’t let the ceremonial hat and mace that most of the press footage shows him in fool you—Vickers is a twenty-nine year veteran of the RCMP who kept his government-issued 9mm handgun in a lockbox in his office as per federal law. As David Frum of The Atlantic succinctly tweeted: “The 1 thing that can stop a bad guy with a slow-loading long gun is a highly trained policeman carrying a govt-issued sidearm.”

How is it that two nations who share a lengthy border, with similar colonial histories, with political and legal systems rooted in the same Anglo tradition, and with industrialized economies, have such different modern experiences with guns and gun violence? Key divergences in the histories of Canada and the United States help us to begin to answer this complicated question.

Militia Origins

The story of guns and gun ownership in North America begins with the creation of settler militias. The colonies of Virginia and New France were founded 14 months apart (the former in May 1607 and the latter in July 1608), and the Europeans who lived there had and used firearms for similar purposes. As members of expanding empires, British and French colonists owned and used guns to facilitate their invasion of the North American continent.

Colonizers used firearms to conquer, control, and kill Native Americans, and also as leverage in trade and diplomatic negotiations with local tribes. In its quest to control the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company distributed over 10,000 muskets, largely to Native peoples, from its establishment in 1670 to the turn of the 18th century.

Male French and English colonists were expected to participate in the militia to protect and expand the European holdings, but both imperial powers had problems adequately arming those from whom they demanded service. Many men could not afford the required musket, and colonial governments were far less efficient than the Hudson’s Bay Company at supplying firearms and keeping them in good repair.

As the various Canadian colonies established their own representative governments they passed militia laws (Prince Edward Island in 1780 and Nova Scotia in 1784, for example) often requiring men to arm and accouter themselves, and muster and bear arms when required. Both Canadian and U.S. authorities tried to supply those who could or would not purchase and maintain their own muskets, but met with limited success. As R. Blake Brown has shown, by the War of 1812, Prince Edward Island had only 546 serviceable muskets for 2,643 militia members, and New Brunswick had only 184 guns for the 4,000 men in its militia.

An essential difference between Canada and the United States emerged during the American Revolution when Americans began compiling lists of rights. In particular, some of the state constitutions written in the wake of the Declaration of Independence included explicit protections of their right to bear arms.

Pennsylvania was the first state to recognize such a right in the Declaration of Rights of its 1776 constitution: “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.” Such a right also came with the responsibility to provide for the common defense. Thus, “every member of society” was “bound to contribute his proportion towards the expence of that protection, and yield his personal service when necessary,” but no person who was “conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, [could be] be justly compelled thereto.”

James Madison proposed a similar clause in early June of 1789 when Congress set itself to amending the federal Constitution: “A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.”

And the influential 1791 Second Amendment stated: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

By the mid-1800s, both the Canadian and American militia systems were no longer functioning in the way they were intended. Despite the best intentions of Congress’ 1792 Militia Act, the American militia remained undisciplined, untrained, and inadequately armed.

An 1829 cartoon mocked the Philadelphia militia for its lack of discipline, depicting the men who were supposed to be “the nation’s bulwark” slouching, slacking, or sticking their hands down their pants. Militias in Canada were no better off and were still plagued by a lack of training, discipline, and guns. Indicative of the waning interest in militia service, the United Province of Canada (modern day Ontario and Québec) let its 1855 Militia Act lapse in 1858.

The Question of Self Defense

In the early 1800s, when more Americans began wearing weapons designed for self-defense and travelling with concealed weapons became more common, concern over the individual right to self-defense came to the fore as states passed America’s first gun control laws. Such laws conflicted with an increasing acceptance of a constitutional right to bear arms for self-defense. For example, Mississippi was the first state in the new century to reformulate Pennsylvania’s collective “defense of themselves” language in its 1819 constitution to assert that every citizen had the individual right “to bear arms in defense of himself and the state.”

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruling in Bliss v. Commonwealth (1822) reflected this uncertain transition from the concern with militias that permeated the Age of Revolution to the concern with personal self-defense that emerged in the Age of Jackson. In that case, the court attacked the state’s concealed carry law, arguing that it violated the 1799 state constitution’s recognition of “the right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state.” As the court argued, “whatever restrains the full and complete exercise of that right … is forbidden by the explicit language of the constitution.”

The legislature disagreed with the ruling, retorting that the constitution’s framers only intended to prevent the government from disarming soldiers. Yet the body was unable to pass any new laws to restrict concealed guns, knives, and daggers until Kentucky revised its constitution once again in 1850 to state that “the rights of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned; but the General Assembly may pass laws to prevent persons from carrying concealed arms.”

In Canada, concern over concealed weapons emerged later in the 1800s, and some legislators fretted that the practice would bring American-style violence north of the border. “Our American cousins are rapidly becoming a people of firearms,” noted one commentator in 1866 in the Halifax Citizen, and some politicians actively tried to thwart the influence of America’s gun culture by proposing legislation to regulate pistols.

The concern was not over the sale of firearms, but when and where weapons could be carried. Such legislation met with resistance—Prime Minister John A. MacDonald opposed adding pistols to the list of offensive weapons in an 1869 concealed carry law because it would prevent Canadians from protecting themselves from American criminals who crossed the border.

The other concern was the right to keep and carry arms. The key difference from the U.S. was that those who advocated for such a right under the 1689 English Bill of Rights largely saw it as a limited right belonging to property-owning men. Thus, few legislators had any compunction about depriving minority groups (especially Native peoples) and “reckless characters” from carrying guns in the name of public peace. More comprehensive legislation would have to wait until MacDonald’s death in 1891 and the formation of Canada’s Criminal Code the following year.

The Impact of the Civil War

Canadian and American gun culture diverged even further when those fighting for the abolition of American slavery advocated for a fundamental and individual right to self-defense under the Second Amendment. Such thinking potentially opened up the right to bear arms to a much wider section of the American population, particularly with the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments in the 1860s that abolished slavery in the United States and granted citizenship to former slaves. Indeed, those fighting to emancipate slaves in the U.S. ironically embraced the same right to bear arms to resist tyranny by force that the Confederacy did.

In Canada, where the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery there as part of the British empire, concerns over gun violence largely, though not exclusively, revolved around issues of class and restricting access to guns for the lower classes in urban centers like Montréal.

The violence of 1861 to 1865 revived Canadian interest in the militia for a short time as new laws, a reenergized volunteer militia movement, and increasingly popular rifle clubs mobilized thousands of men. By the turn of the century, this concern over readiness for war overshadowed worries about concealed carry and self-defense. And it only increased with the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, which saw Canada’s first official dispatch of troops to an overseas war, and then the coming of the Great War (1914-1918).

The aftermath of the Civil War in the U.S. also saw unprecedented militia mobilization in the formation of black militia units. When these militias faced reprisal and disarmament from the Ku Klux Klan, the right to bear arms went before the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875). The case revolved around the conviction of white rioters under section 6 of the 1870 Enforcement Act which forbade any two people from conspiring to “intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution.” In the majority opinion, the Court overturned the convictions and rejected the idea that the Constitution protected the right to bear arms “for a lawful purpose,” arguing that the Second Amendment “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.”

In other words, states were largely free to pass whatever laws their legislators saw fit with regards to the militia and guns since the Second Amendment only prohibited the federal government from disarming state militias.

It was not just a matter of guns, though. According to Randolph Roth in his seminal book American Homicide, after earlier regional fits and starts, by 1900 Americans were killing one another at a higher rate than anyone else in the western world. Roth concludes that while the availability of guns, particularly cheap handguns, helped facilitate homicides in the past, guns themselves cannot explain why Americans killed and continue to kill at such high rates.

Canada did not begin compiling national crime statistics until the 1920s when the homicide rate started to decline from 1.8 murders per 100,000 in 1921 to 1.3 in 1926, before jumping up to 2.1 by 1930. The U.S. also experienced variations in its homicide rate in the 1920s which ranged between 8 and 9 murders per 100,000 people over the decade.

Twentieth-Century Regulation

The twentieth century in Canada saw more concerted efforts to regulate firearms, particularly those in the hands of the poor, the immigrant, the riotous, and the Catholic.

In the wake of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 came concern over security in general and immigrant radicals in particular. That year Parliament passed a law requiring all aliens to have a permit to possess any kind of gun. Still afraid of civil unrest and the number of guns that had returned home with veterans of the Great War, Parliament in 1920 put a similar requirement on all Canadians. When it seemed that the radicalism of 1919 had passed by 1921, Parliament relaxed the permit requirements on the long guns of British subjects, but kept the policies regarding aliens.

Change came again in the early 1930s with more stringent guidelines for issuing gun permits, as well as mandatory minimum sentences for using a firearm in the commission of a crime. Fearful of the unrest the Depression could unleash, Parliament created the nation’s first gun registry in 1935.

The registry was eventually centralized under the RCMP in 1951 and modified in 1969 to require separate registration certificates for each restricted weapon. The late 1960s also saw the creation of the legal categories of “firearm,” “restricted weapon,” and “prohibited weapon” to accompany the changes in registration requirements.

Prohibitions on fully automatic weapons came into effect under Bill C-51 in 1977, as well as screening for Firearms Acquisition Certificates, and requirements for Firearms and Ammunition Business Permits. Bill C-51 was a compromise bill after gun owners (almost exclusively men) pushed back against the attempt to pass Bill C-83 in 1976—a response to rising rates of violent crime and gun-related murders, and two school shootings in Brampton and Ottawa, Ontario. Although the prohibition on fully automatic weapons remained from the bill’s original incarnation, restrictions like requiring two personal letters of reference when applying for a firearms license were dropped.

Under current Canadian law, most handguns are classified as “restricted firearms” and handgun owners must obtain a federal firearms license, a registration certificate, and Authorization to Transport if the gun is to be moved to a new location. Concealed carry permits are rare and hard to obtain, though in recent years applications have been on the rise.

But, as Global News reports, citing the increase in concealed carry permit applications from British Columbia, Alberta, and the Arctic, the recent spike is “likely driven by demand among people who work in the bush and want portable protection against wildlife.”

The federal legislation that governs guns in the U.S. today is also a twentieth-century phenomenon and is largely the product of increased criminal activity in the 1930s, and civil unrest in the 1960s.

Currently, eight pieces of federal legislation passed between 1934 and 2005 regulate firearms. The earlier legislation (National Firearms Act of 1934, Gun Control Act of 1968) aimed to control the manufacture, sale, and transport of firearms through taxation and registration.

Legislation generated since the 1980s has continued this tradition (most notably, perhaps, through the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993—named after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot in the head during John Hinkley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on the President—as well as the now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994), but there has also been an equal focus on protecting gun rights.

1986 saw the passage of the Firearm Owner’s Protection Act which scaled back regulations established in 1968. Wayne LaPierre celebrated October 26, 2005, the day president George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which absolves gun dealers and manufacturers of any liability if crimes are committed with their products, as “an historic day for freedom .”

Unlike Canada with its federal firearms registration and licensing programs (to which provinces can add additional requirements), gun regulation in the U.S. still remains largely the purview of the separate states whose requirements to own and carry a gun differ. Generally, though, one does not need a permit, safety training, or a license to own a gun or buy ammunition in the United States.

The Modern Issue of Rights in Canada

Neither the Constitution of Canada nor its Charter of Rights and Freedoms make mention of a right to bear arms, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that “Canadians, unlike Americans do not have a constitutional right to bear arms.”

That has not stopped some Canadian gun rights groups from taking a page from the American playbook to argue that the right to bear arms is implicit in the rights inherited from the British constitution. Thus, they say, the 1689 Bill of Rights’ provision that “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law,” is inherent in Canadians’ rights and freedoms.

Neither American nor Canadian gun rights activists seem deterred by the “as allowed by law” clause, or that Great Britain itself has remarkably strict gun laws. To own a handgun in Great Britain, unless you are a member of the armed forces or the police, means obtaining written permission from the Home Secretary. What is allowed by law is rather narrow indeed.

Without an explicit right to bear arms or a Second Amendment corollary, no organization has emerged outside of the United States with the same influence and power as the National Rifle Association. But the NRA is eager to export that influence as much as it can.

The Canadian Shooting Sports Association and its lobbying wing, the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action, get logistical support from the NRA and have adopted American-style rhetoric of a pre-existing individual right to self defense based in the English constitutional tradition.

But whatever help they get from south of the border is complicated by a much different political landscape. Canada’s National Firearms Association gives none of the five major political parties an “A” grade because none of them will support the repeal of the 1995 Firearms Act. All but the Conservative Party get “F” grades because they support further gun control. The Conservatives get a “B” grade, mostly for passing bill C-19, which ended the Long Gun Registry Act in 2012.

The Numbers

The long and acrimonious gun debate does not hide the fact that the U.S. has become an historic anomaly with its record rates of gun ownership and gun death.

There are about as many guns in the United States as there are people (estimates place the number of guns to be between 270 to 310 million), and the rate of gun ownership is estimated to be 88.8 to 101.05 guns per 100 people. Canadians own 10 million guns, or 23.8 per 100 people.

Nobody in the world owns more guns than Americans. In fact, American civilians own one hundred times more guns than the American military. And they possess more guns than are owned by the combined civilian populations of India, China, Germany, France, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil, Russian, Yemen, Thailand, Canada, Iraq, Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Philippines, and Iran.

Americans also kill one another with guns more than any in other western nation. For every 50 Americans intentionally killed with a gun, only one Canadian is shot.

If recent trends continue, somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 people will be murdered with a gun in the United States this year. Compare that to about 195 people in Canada where guns are involved in 35% of all murders. Firearms will be involved in some way in the deaths, intended or accidental, of some 31,500 Americans, but only 780 Canadians. All of this means that the United States’ rate of gun death is approximately 10 per 100,000 people, more than four times higher than Canada.

More Americans see the failure of the mental health system as the best explanation for the nation’s gun massacres than easy access to guns. This perhaps explains in part why during recent years state legislatures have passed a series of laws protecting gun rights and making it easier to purchase, own, and carry guns than ever before.

The other factor is the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 that outright bans of handguns were unconstitutional because they violated the Second Amendment’s protection of an individual right to keep and bear arms for self defense. In McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 the Court incorporated that right against the states. Although you can’t tell from LaPierre’s continued histrionic rhetoric of a corrupted nation teetering on the brink of armed rebellion, the NRA has won and politicians know it.

The Role of Gun Massacres

If Canadian and American access to firearms diverged across the 20th century, and if rates of gun violence also diverged markedly, then the response the two nations have had to gun massacres has differed dramatically as well. Using the FBI’s definition of a mass murder as the murder of four or more people in a single location, in the United States there have been at least 70 mass murders with guns in the past thirty years. Thirty three of them happened between 2006 and 2014. Canada has had eight gun massacres since 1984, two of them between 2006 and 2014.

Canada’s Long Gun Registry Act was in part a response to the 1989 massacre of fourteen women at Montréal’s École Polytechnique. Conservative Justice Minister Kim Campbell introduced its original incarnation, Bill C-80, to Parliament in 1990, as well as its successor, Bill C-17, in May 1991. The Coalition for Gun Control, founded in the wake of the Montréal Massacre, threw its weight behind the Firearms Act that passed Parliament and the Senate later that year and received royal assent in 1995.

In the United States, it was the Columbine Massacre in 1999 that galvanized an intense debate over gun control and a deluge of over 800 state and federal gun control and gun rights bills. Only about 10% of these bills actually became laws. Among the casualties were Congress’ measures for background checks and trigger locks that barely passed the Senate with Al Gore’s tie breaking vote, but which died in the House after repeated amendments.

In keeping with Americans’ view of the crucial role of mental health in gun massacres, President George W. Bush signed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the NICS Improvement Amendments Act in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre of 32 people—the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The NRA supported this beefing up of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which it viewed as a “ reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans.”

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012—the U.S.’s second deadliest mass shooting with 26 killed—sparked a flurry of state legislation similar to the aftermath of Columbine.

When the dust settled, 109 of the bills became law. 70 loosened gun restrictions, and 39 tightened them.

With Congress unable to pass any legislation, President Obama issued a 23 step plan in 2013 to curb gun violence. His proposals will require a mix of Congressional and executive action, so it seems likely that very little will actually get done. Obama’s hope that Congress will reinstate the assault weapons ban ignores at least the past 30 years of the great American gun debate.

A Look Forward

Predicting the future is tricky business, especially since history can often be an unreliable guide. That said, it seems likely that the United States and Canada will continue on their divergent paths. Part of this divergence is due to the fact that the regulatory state that emerged in Canada after World War II continues to assert a level of control that remains unpalatable to many Americans.

The complicated and contentious legacy of American slavery provides a second point of divergence, to which can be added a homicide rate that was always at least double that of Canada’s throughout the twentieth century and at times was up to five times higher.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Canada and the U.S. is the success of the NRA to control the meaning of the Second Amendment and thereby thwart gun control laws even in the face of horrific gun massacres.

If Sandy Hook could not bring about even tepid gun control measures, let alone anything even barely resembling the laws in Canada, then it is hard to imagine that any atrocity could galvanize action.

At the same time, in Canada, even with the Conservative Party in power, it seems unlikely that the legislature or the courts will embrace an individual right to bear arms anytime soon. After all, it appears that those who want concealed carry (which is the latest frontier for gun rights in the U.S.) are more interested in killing bears than in a right to bear arms.

Suggested Reading

Brown, R. Blake. Arming and Disarming A History of Gun Control in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012

Cornell, Saul. A well-regulated militia: the founding fathers and the origins of gun control in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Cornell, Saul, and Nathan Kozuskanich. The Second Amendment on Trial: Critical Essays on District of Columbia V. Heller. 2013.

Lott, John R. More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Roth, Randolph. American Homicide. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

Webster, Daniel W., and Jon S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Winkler, Adam. Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co, 2011.