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The Right to Bear Arms: U.S. and Canada

by Josephine Mazzuca, PhD
Senior Staff Writer, Toronto Bureau

How fundamental is the right to bear arms? Canadians' and Americans' opinions differ. The U.S. population is about 10 times that of Canada, but the estimated number of privately owned firearms is 25 times higher in the United States than in Canada. Obviously, many Americans treasure their Second Amendment right to bear arms, and gun control legislation tends to be highly controversial in most parts of the country. On the other hand, Canadian laws that ensure that all firearms are registered with the federal government have tightened up in recent years.

Gun Ownership: A Right for All?

In considering whether the general public should be allowed to own guns, Americans and Canadians are likely to hold opposite viewpoints. Gallup recently asked Americans, "Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?" Almost two-thirds (65%) said no while about a third (32%) said yes*. Last year, Canadians were asked, "For each of the following groups, please indicate whether or not you think they should be allowed, by law, to own a gun: the general public." A majority of Canadians (63%) said they do not believe that the general public should be allowed to own a gun, while 36% said it should**. While subtleties in question wording do not allow for a country-to-country comparison (the U.S. question asks about a "ban" which people are less likely to favor and probably understates opposition to gun ownership, while the Canadian question asks about not "allowing" people to own guns; also, the U.S. question is limited to "handguns" while the Canadian question refers more generally to "guns"), Canadian support for private gun ownership is lower than in the United States.

There are regional differences in both countries. In the United States, people in the East were more likely than the overall population to say that there should be a ban on the possession of handguns for those other than police or authorized persons, while those residing in the Midwest and the South were less likely to give this opinion. In Canada, a slight majority of residents in the "prairie provinces" (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) said that the general public should be allowed to own guns. In central Canada (Ontario and Quebec), only about 3 in 10 residents believe that gun ownership should be legal for the general public.

Stricter Gun Laws?

It may be tempting to assume that Americans, because of their higher rate of gun ownership, would overall be less likely to say they favor stronger gun restrictions than Canadians are -- but residents of the two nations are actually fairly comparable in their views regarding whether the laws in their respective countries should be made more or less strict. When Gallup asked Americans in October if they would like the gun laws in the United States to be more strict, less strict, or remain as they are, 51% responded that they would like to see the laws more strict.

In Canada, this percentage increases to 61%. About a third in each country (36% of Americans and 30% of Canadians) think the laws should remain the same. However, nearly twice as many Americans (11%) as Canadians (6%) said the laws should be made less strict. It should be noted that support for gun restrictions has lessened in the United States over the years. The current level of support for increased restrictions (51%) is the lowest Gallup has measured on this question in the United States going back to 1990. Support for tougher gun restrictions had been as high as 78% in the United States.

As with the other questions, Eastern U.S. residents are more likely than other Americans to support stricter guns laws, as are residents of Quebec and Ontario in Canada.

Key Points

In general, Americans are more likely than Canadians to support legal gun ownership by private citizens. How does the higher rate of gun ownership in the United States affect society? According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, the rate of homicides in the United States was 6.1 per 100,000 people in 2000 (the most recent year for which data are available). In Canada, the rate was less than half that -- 2.63 per 100,000 people -- in 2001 (according to Statistics Canada). In the United States, 52% of the year 2000 homicides were committed with guns. In Canada, about a third of the 554 murders in 2001 resulted from shootings. These numbers certainly underscore the correlation between guns per capita and gun-related murders, but it is difficult to disentangle the actual causal pattern at work.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,002 American adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 14-17, 2002. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,011 Canadian adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 17-23, 2001. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.


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