“I could never live in the States again,” a Canadian friend who once lived in San Francisco told me this week. “Your cities are just too violent.”
I’m in northern Ontario, bear country, where most hunters, farmers and loggers own guns. When they look at the United States, they think there’s something wrong with us.
President Trump says we have so many mass shootings because of mental illness, video games and the internet. But Canada has mental illness, the internet and violent video games, too — the same video games, in the same language — and its rate of gun violence is far lower.
What’s the difference? Like every other developed country, Canada has stricter gun regulation and fewer guns per person than we do. The United States is the world’s undisputed champion in firearm ownership, with more guns than people: 121 civilian firearms per 100 inhabitants. Canada has about 35 per 100.
That might be one reason the United States has about seven times as many gun homicides (on a per capita basis) as Canada.
The search for causes of mass shootings isn’t so hard — unless you’re determined to obscure the fact that the United States, alone among advanced countries, allows unhinged people to obtain guns with ease.
White supremacists are part of the problem, but they’re not the whole problem. As the Canadian-born writer David Frum noted in the Atlantic this week, America’s mass shooters include “immigrants and natives; whites and nonwhites; Muslims and Christians; right-wingers, left-wingers and the nonpolitical.... Despite their diversity, all these killers had one thing in common: their uniquely American access to firearms.”
So it might be useful to look at how another country, similar in culture, diversity and terrain, handles this dilemma.
Canada’s gun regulations aren’t draconian. Canadian federal law requires anyone who wants to own a gun to get a license, which means passing a background check and taking safety training — a process about as onerous as getting a driver’s license.
The application form is four pages long, and asks whether you have ever been convicted of a crime of violence, been the object of a protective order, or suffered from mental illness, depression or “emotional problems.”
It also asks whether you have recently experienced a divorce, separation, romantic breakup, job loss or bankruptcy. There’s a 28-day waiting period; the fee is $60 Canadian (about $45 U.S.).
The basic license covers rifles and shotguns, which are hunting weapons. Canadians can own handguns and semiautomatic weapons, too, but those require an additional license and training, and the guns must be registered.
Any sane, law-abiding Canadian can own guns if he or she is willing to answer those arguably intrusive questions.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which administers the process — yes, the Mounties — report that only about two of every thousand applications is rejected. My brother-in-law, a hunter who lives in a Toronto suburb, has owned long guns all his adult life. So did my father-in-law before him.
Most Canadians don’t see these regulations as undue infringements on their personal freedom. Instead, they’re debating whether they need more. They worry that their gun-crime rate is growing, partly because Canadian criminals can smuggle firearms in from the United States.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, campaigning for reelection this year, has proposed a ban on assault weapons, and a recent poll found 72% of Canadians in favor. (Trudeau also considered a handgun ban; that was less popular, so he backed off.) The opposition Conservative Party, with many gun owners in its ranks, opposes the proposal, but it hasn’t called for a rollback of existing laws.
Of course, there’s one big difference between the United States and Canada: We have a 2nd Amendment, and they don’t.
“Canadians, unlike Americans, do not have a constitutional right to bear arms,” Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in 1993. “Indeed, most Canadians prefer the peace of mind and sense of security derived from the knowledge that the possession of automatic weapons is prohibited.”
Despite the constitutional distinction, Canada’s gun control debates sound much like ours. Canadian conservatives say gun ownership is a right even if it’s not in the constitution. The arguments are over which weapons to restrict, and how. But the tone is more civil; that’s still Canada’s biggest cultural difference from our fraying civilization.
Like us, they’ve had mass shootings, but far fewer, even on a per capita basis — roughly one a year. There have been none in Canada this year so far. We’ve had at least 255, or more than one a day, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. It defines a mass shooting as any incident in which at least four people were wounded or killed, excluding the shooter.
And that’s the point: With laws that make it harder to buy semiautomatic weapons but still allow widespread gun ownership, Canada has made itself much safer than the United States.
What’s unique about the United States isn’t mental illness, video games or the internet; those exist worldwide. Our problem is too many guns and too little regulation — plus the fact that President Trump and his party refuse to acknowledge that factor, much less fix it.
From here in rural Ontario, 500 miles north of Washington, Canada shows that the choice doesn’t need to be between mass shootings and gun confiscation. There is a sensible path between those extremes that protects both gun ownership and public safety. It’s our fault that we have chosen not to take it.