Why can’t our gun policy look more like Canada’s?

Say something moderately approving of gun control on the Internet, and you’re sure to attract umpteen self-described patriots reminding you that you are wrong and bad. There’s nothing we can do to regulate the guns, they say, because the black market is the freest of markets, and will undercut any regulation you throw at would-be mass shooters.

In the abstract, sure. You can’t prevent every bad person from getting their hands on guns that they shouldn’t have. But in the practice of the aggregate, we know that states and countries with stronger gun laws see fewer gun deaths, in no small part due to the fact that making it harder to acquire a gun, well, makes it harder to acquire a gun. This may come as a surprise to some, but black markets can be rather difficult to access — much more difficult than, say, your mom’s basement or the corner store. This being the case, making it harder for people who we’ve already decided shouldn’t have a gun to go out and buy that gun will, in the long term, save lives.

But once you move past that argument, you inevitably run up against the claim that guns aren’t actually so bad because cars kill more people every year. And when a drunk driver kills someone, we don’t blame the car; we blame the driver.

Which is true! Cars, like guns, are machines that can be super deadly when used improperly. That’s why we’ve found that the state has a compelling interest in making sure that, while almost every adult has the right to buy almost any kind of car they want, there’s an extensive licensing and registration process to make sure that you know what you’re doing.

To see how this sort of process would work for guns, one need only look one country north, to Canada, a country with the thirteenth-highest rate of gun ownership in the world (30.8 guns per 100 citizens) and a rather modest licensing process. Here are their requirements:

First, every person who wants to obtain a gun license has to pass a one-day gun safety course. Much like drivers ed in America, this course isn’t intended to prevent people from getting guns — practically everyone passes — it’s to ensure that when you get your gun, you know what you’re doing.

Second, every person who wants to obtain a gun license has to provide three references. If you can’t find three people who are okay with you having a gun, you shouldn’t have a gun.

Third, every person who wants to obtain a gun license has to fill out an application that asks, among other things:

  • which kinds of guns you intend to purchase
  • if you or your family members have a history of improper gun use
  • if you have a history of mental health problems, particularly relating to depression and suicidal thoughts
  • if you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • if you have a history of violence, particularly domestic abuse
  • if you have recently (within the last two years) been divorced, gone through a breakup, been laid off or gone bankrupt
Man with gun via Shutterstock

Man with gun via Shutterstock

Additionally, if you are married, your spouse has to sign off on your gun purchase.

When we talk about gun policy in America –who should and shouldn’t have which kinds of guns — these are all things that people generally agree should be part of that conversation. Do you not trust people who are close to you with guns? Maybe you shouldn’t have a gun. Are you at risk for suicide? You probably shouldn’t have a gun. Are you already violent and abusive? Let’s not exacerbate that with a gun. Are you going through particularly hard times? Let’s hold off on getting you that gun until things start looking up again.

After you’ve filled out your application, you mail it off to the government. Four to six weeks later, you get your license, and — voila! — you’re good to go.

To add on to Canada’s licensing system, Jen Gunter has some more proposals for regulating guns like we do with cars. Here are a few of them:

  • License renewal: We require citizens to renew their drivers licenses to prove they still know how to drive. And we know that gun safety training wears off if not continuously refreshed. Is it really too much to ask to require gun owners to come back every few years and prove that they still know how to shoot straight?
  • Inspections: The government requires people to take their cars in for yearly inspections because driving a broken car around is dangerous — for the public and especially for the driver. Why should this be any different for guns? If you’re such a responsible gun owner, prove it. Bring your guns in for inspection. If you can’t maintain them, you probably shouldn’t have them.
  • Gun insurance: The government requires people to insure their cars because they recognize that cars are inherently dangerous and will inevitably result in injuries and property damage that car owners will often be unable to cover out of pocket. The same is true for guns. Just as 80 percent of drivers think they’re an above-average driver, a large majority of gun owners think that they’re the responsible ones — that their guns will never cause harm. Until they do. Gun owners, not the general public, should be responsible for that risk.

None of these requirements are onerous burdens on the gun owner of America’s greatest aspiration — the proverbial law-abiding citizen who only wants to protect themselves and would never, ever, ever, ever, ever let their gun be used to harm others, accidentally or otherwise. If you want to go hunting or go all Jason Bourne on that burglar who is totally coming to your house, you can still do that in Canada! A lot! But there’s a reason why only 32 percent of Canada’s homicides are committed using a gun, and there are only 0.51 gun homicides per 100,000 people in the country (US figures: 60 percent of homicides involve a gun; 2.97 gun homicides per 100,000 people): many of the the people who American patriots would call “irresponsible” gun owners are denied access to guns in the first place, while responsible gun owners have to prove their responsibility.

Canada’s figured out how to have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world without a corresponding epidemic of mass shootings. If we want to keep our right to bear arms while drastically limiting the number of “bad guys with a gun,” their model seems like a good place to start.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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