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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39 Responses to “Why can’t our gun policy look more like Canada’s?”

  1. Eric says:

    You missed the bit where all his firearms were confiscated while awaiting trial, the continuing death threats, the police not doing anything about them and the tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills incurred, but that what happens when you have a policy of charging people whenever a firearm is involved regardless of the situation.

  2. Hue-Man says:

    “A former firearms instructor, he quickly unlocked his gun safe, loaded a .36 calibre revolver and stepped outside.”

    “Crown prosecutors argued Thomson had fallen afoul of safe storage regulations because, on the night of the incident, Thomson had a box of .38 Special ammunition
    in his bedside table. The judge ruled this was irrelevant, Burlew said, since Thomson’s guns were all securely locked away in a gun safe.”


    He was acquitted of all charges. Police arrest innocent people every day – that’s why we an independent prosecution service. Over-zealous prosecutors pursue criminal charges against innocent people every day – that’s why we have trials. Isn’t society safer because dangerous weapons are locked away from children and from thieves looking for guns?

  3. Disqusposter60 says:

    You can say “15,000 rounds? Are you kidding me? That will last you a day!” Buy it cheap, stack it deep we say around here.

  4. Disqusposter60 says:

    So far the best measure that has empirically shown to reduce gun violence, is allowing people to arm up. Do you really mean it when you say “Anything!”?

  5. therling says:

    “…a cooling off period of 30 day waiting time and mandatory safety course.”

    I’d like to see the reaction to such a proposal on an American gun rights forum. Good luck with that.

  6. therling says:

    So why don’t you just use your gun to protect yourself against that “government tyranny?”

  7. Eric says:

    This is the same law that was used to prosecute Ian Thomson, whose house was being fire bombed at the time. The prosecution brought the case of unsafe storage because he was able to retrieve his guns to quickly and scare of the attackers.
    Also unsafe storage is used as the catch all charge over here, if you can get to your firearm to defend yourself then by default it’s unsafe storage.
    If you have ammunition even if it’s the wrong type near your rifle eg old shotgun shell next to a centerfire rifle that’s unsafe storage and yes people have been prosecuted for this.
    Even when the police know they will lose in court, you tend to be charged and the process becomes the punishment.

  8. Disqusposter60 says:

    Insurance is a great point. It’s actually quite common here in Canada. I have $5m coverage, it cost less than thirty dollars per year. In contrast I pay well over $1k per year for a meager $1m liability coverage on my car. Who knows risk assessment better than insurance companys.

  9. TomDod says:

    No, I do not. But as crappy as it sounds, people die everyday.we as a species have designed more ways to kill our selves and each other more than any other animal on this planet. And we got real creative with it.

    I respect Americas right to bear arms, but at the very least I think you need a cooling off period of 30 day waiting time and mandatory safety course. A one time thing, that’s about as far as I would go, here in Canada we get daily background checks. Pretty intrusive, that didn’t stop Justin bourke who shot 5 RCMP officers in broad daylight killing 3. He was a licences gun owner, as lawful as they come, than one day just snapped. Again, mental illness is the issue

  10. therling says:

    I’m a gun owner myself. I have no problem with laws that might prevent even one child from being murdered. Or do you think that the mass murder of children is an acceptable loss?

  11. TomDod says:

    Look bud, I’m not trying to convince you guns are good or bad, nor do I have all the answers to life’s problems, I’m just trying to show you that the author thinks our system works, it doesn’t. It has its flaws.

  12. therling says:

    And why are minors prohibited from buying alcohol? They’re going to get hold of it anyways.

  13. TomDod says:

    How the hell should I know? I’m not an addict.

  14. therling says:

    Then why have any laws? Shouldn’t I just be able to walk into a store and buy heroin anytime I want? Why do they spend so much time and money tracking down and prosecuting drug dealers?

  15. TomDod says:

    Exactly, and people still use it. Same logic applies to guns. Where there’s a will there’s a way

  16. TomDod says:

    We never had these laws till 1995 and things were just fine. It was introduced by the liberal party of Canada and one Allan Rock who and I quote “I came to Ottawa with the firm belief that only the police and military should have guns.” The firearms act was designed to discourage and disarm the citizens of Canada completely. Over time, one freedom after another.

    Read my above post as well, America has societal problems, we do not share the same issues

  17. therling says:

    Oh, and heroin is also an “inanimate object.” But we prohibit that.

  18. therling says:

    But if Canadian society is just so much more peace-loving than that of the US, why then do they feel the need to have such laws?

    Might it be that most Canadians are against the idea that the mass murder of children is an acceptable price to pay for not being inconvenienced when acquiring a firearm?

  19. 2karmanot says:

    “blaming inanimate objects.” So right on target! Guns don’t kill people, Republicans do.

  20. TomDod says:

    With pleasure, first of all, that’s just the application form. Once you’ve completed the mandatory safety test for non restricted and/or restricted firearms. And there is no guarantee you will get it. The licence must be renewed every 5 years for a $60 fee the course its self costs $175 each.

    Now on to the laws its self. Unlike the USA, we have no constitution al right to bear arms. Simple possession of a firearm weather peaceful or not can land you 3 years mandatory jail time. So 70 yr old farmer Joe who’s had that .22 since he was a kid, if he doesn’t have a licence. Off to the slammer with him.

    There’s 3 classes of firearms. Non resteicted, restricted and prohibited. Restricted is typically handguns and a few certain rifles. Short barrled and such. Non restricted is typical hunting stuff and other various rifles that have a barrel length of at least 18.5″ prohibited is anything automatic or converted automatic. So if its a semi auto only but was once a full auto received, automatic prohibited. You must register restricted firearms but not non restricted.

    You can only use restricted firearms at an approved range, so no hunting with handguns or your AR 15. Or in your backyard.

    Also, as a gun owner, you forfeit your right to unlawful search and seizure. Your basically guilty till proven innocent.
    Its gonna take me a week to explain everything to you, heres a link to the firearms act. Read it, and tell me if you think it’s draconian.

  21. therling says:

    Well, if you know the laws, then tell us what is wrong in the article above. If you’re going to make a claim, “Google it” is not an acceptable form of support for one’s position.

    The article links to a copy of the RCMP information sheet for applying for a gun possession and acquisition, which also includes the actual application. Tell us what compelling details are wrong.

  22. TomDod says:

    You’ve missed some compelling details, I am a Canadian gun owner, and I think you need to take the time to learn our laws. Please Google bill C-68 the firearms act.

    And you can forget about going “all Jason Bourne” on a burglar. In Canada we have a hug a thug program and the home owners, or “victim” would be charged worse than the suspect. So be careful what you wish for. Google ian Thompson if you don’t believe me.

  23. lynchie says:

    How about license which proves you have taken a gun safety course. the magnetic strip on the back lists the guns you own and you can only buy shells for those guns and no others. Illegal guns can not be registered. A complete background check is required after the application to buy a gun.

  24. lynchie says:

    Have a neighbour who has 15,000 rounds of ammunition and tell everyone listening he is ready for the coming takeover by the U.N. Nothing you can say to him

  25. lynchie says:

    Being Canadian I can tell you that Canada is made up of many cultures from around the world. It was initially made up of European stock but that changed in the 50’s to present. I think the difference is that we accept a law and order attitude. We don’t throw shit out the window of our cars, trash the sidewalks etc. We also have police who do not treat the citizens as animals and you don’t have the police on citizen shootings you see here in the U. S. The other major thing is that the Congress in the U.S. is owned by the lobbyists so no legislation will be passed that interferes with profits and the flow of money to Congress

  26. lynchie says:

    Make it mandatory for all guns to be in a gun safe or with a trigger lock. Insurance is a great idea to provide compensation for victims. Our congress is bought and paid for by the NRA and will never pass gun control legislation. Too much money changes hands.

  27. kladinvt says:

    I’ve always thought that requiring insurance for guns, as we do for cars, makes a lot of sense. Attaching “monetary penalties” to gun ownership will at least make for more responsible ownership that may prevent children from needlessly harming themselves or others when they find “Daddy’s gun”. Maybe Daddy will be a bit more responsible when storing his weapons.

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  29. Outspoken1 says:

    I also run into this problem. I ask – why would you want anarchy (definition of no government)? You would willingly shoot fellow Americans who do not support the ‘revolt’? Tell me about the success of the recent revolts in Egypt, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Thailand, Syria…

  30. Outspoken1 says:

    Not only would we need to emulate they guns laws, but the culture. While Canadians are also human and you can find happy, angry, racist, tolerant, etc., there is a different culture in Canada since they have deeper roots to old European culture (GB and France) which has different foundations and government (Parliament rather than basic two-[party) than does freewheelin’ USA. And, sad to say, the USA ‘which is the BEST in the WORLD!! [sarcasm]’, does not like to take ‘ideas’ (proven or not) from other countries.

    Second problem – who would regulate? Here in Colorado, when the gun magazine limit was passed by our our state legislature, many Sheriffs from the counties said they would not enforce the law. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/us/sheriffs-refuse-to-enforce-laws-on-gun-control.html?_r=0 (easy to search for more articles). A manufacturer of the large capacity magazines (Magpul http://www.npr.org/2013/04/29/177806894/gunmaker-says-colorados-new-laws-will-send-it-packing ) moved to Wyoming – so actually, other than losing jobs and revenue, nothing was accomplished. In addition, it is easy to ‘beat’ the magazine ban (drive to Wyoming!) http://denver.cbslocal.com/2014/10/30/many-circumventing-colorado-high-capacity-magazine-ban/ .

    It is not that the US has a ‘gun culture.’ We have an ‘acceptable violence culture’ which bears its roots from the American Revolution (the colonists fought a guerrilla-style warfare that violated many of the ‘rules’ of warfare from the time period), violence and brutality from slavery and indentured servants, legally-allowed discrimination against women, people of color, children, genocide of the American Indian natives, public execution of the innocent, etc. Not saying that all of these events were unique to America – am saying that our response has always been slow, reluctant and deny that they are even problems before we would even search for solutions.

    Now the snarky response – I am a woman, I own guns (target shooting). It is not the proliferation of guns that is the problem – it is that men can’t deal with the responsibility. Men should not have guns [humor – irony – sarcasm]!

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  32. Indigo says:

    Not much of anything about the United States looks like the Canadian version. Gun laws. Health care. Education. Civility. We don’t quite even speak the same form of English and certainly don’t spell it the same way. And our migration and settlement patterns are nothing like theirs. Comparisons to Australians don’t quite work either. As English-speaking countries go, there’s not much ground for comparison with any of the members of the Commonwealth. We’re the rambunctious revolutionaries, they’re well-behaved subjects of the Crown. That’s the big difference.

  33. MerryMarjie says:

    Anything, absolutely ANYTHING that would cut down on gun violence should be acceptable. Don’t leave it up to me (I’d melt down every gun in the country) but please, please, DO SOMETHING about the terrible, ongoing tragedies that plague our nation. We complain about the deadly force used by police across the country, yet we allow everyone to have their OWN armored defense! I would like to see authorities using more incapacitating weapons rather than killing machines, but as long as everyone else is armed, they must use implements of death. It’s a vicious circle, and it HAS TO STOP!

  34. Zorba says:

    I have never understood the people who think that they and their guns can carry out a revolt against the government. We have an acquaintance who constantly talks about this. I finally got sick of it, and asked him, point-blank, “Yeh? How much good are your guns going to do you against a Hellfire missile?” He had no answer.
    And I am speaking as someone who has two shotguns, a rifle, and a legal, registered handgun.
    I have no problem with universal background checks, proof of fitness, licensing, etc.

  35. Jon Green says:

    Thanks for the catch!

  36. Hue-Man says:

    An important life-saving consideration is Canada’s gun storage, transportation, and display laws and regulations. Here’s the RCMP’s explanation. It starts out: “Unload and lock your firearms!

    Store the ammunition separately or lock it up. It can be stored in the same locked container as the firearms.”

    Now the penalties:
    Careless storage or use or handling of firearm (Criminal Code s. 86) – up to 6 months and $5,000 fine on summary judgment and 2 years for first offense if indicted. https://www.defencelaw.com/penalty-weapons.html

  37. Kenster999 says:

    Typo in the 2nd-to-last paragraph: “(US figured:” should be “(US figures:”.

    Thanks for the post.

  38. BeccaM says:

    The federal government has all the Constitutional authority it needs to regulate gun ownership, right there in the 2nd Amendment and through decades of court rulings. Personally, I think universal background checks and liability insurance would themselves go a long way towards reducing gun violence. Mandatory licensing and requiring proof of fitness to own firearms would be better.

    And I’ll further add that in my opinion those who claim they’re stockpiling firearms for a potential or planned revolt against our government probably ought to be disqualified from owning them — yeah, the 2nd Amendment is there in the Constitution, but so is a very clear definition of treason.

    Like I said in the other post’s comments, I’m a gun owner myself. I like to think I’m responsible and well-trained — but who am I to assess my own fitness? Would it not be better if, at least every few years or so, I had to demonstrate to an objective 3rd party that I am still ‘responsible and well-trained?’

    Moreover, having been exposed to other gun owners for decades now, going back to my earliest Junior Hunting License at the age of 12, I have personally witnessed any number of them I wouldn’t trust anywhere near me or my loved ones. From hunting while drunk to seeing a loaded (and dusty) semi-auto handgun on a table in one guy’s living room — a father who had two rambunctious kids under the age of six running around — it’s long past time to stop calling the seemingly inevitable results of this irresponsible behavior ‘gun accidents’ and start prosecuting them for what they really are: Reckless endangerment and/or negligent homicides. It is NOT an accident when Johnny finds a loaded Ruger or S&W in Daddy’s nightstand and kills his sister Suzy with it.

  39. Indigo says:

    That process is more complicated than getting a passport. Something more along the lines of an American driver’s license might be easier to enforce and more acceptable to the unwashed public.

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