Firearms, Accidental Deaths, Suicides and Violent Crime: An Updated Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation

7. Firearms, Self-Protection and Crime Prevention

7. Firearms, Self-Protection and Crime Prevention

7.1 Research Issues

Few questions in the firearms research literature are as controversial as those relating to individuals who own firearms to protect themselves or to prevent crime. Further, several authors do not clearly distinguish between the descriptive and the normative aspects of the issue.

The descriptive aspect is concerned with whether or not firearms are owned and used for protection or to prevent crime, by whom, under what circumstances, and with what consequences. The normative aspect of the issue centres on whether it is desirable to allow civilians to own and use firearms to protect themselves or to prevent crimes. The distinction between these two aspects becomes blurred when researchers try to show that a net-benefit effect can result from people owning firearms for these reasons. This research orientation raises questions that are nearly impossible to answer.

There are at least two main versions of what Mayhew (1996: 19) refers to as the net-benefit argument in normative research. In the first version, the risk of a suicide, homicide or unintentional death resulting from an individual owning a firearm is weighed against any potential benefit (e.g., Kellermann, 1997).

The second version of the net-benefit argument is couched in broader terms: "is society better-off?" (Cook et al., 1997: 467). According to Boyd (1995: 564), the best evidence available so far indicates that Canadians will be safer if they do not have firearms in their homes and if they are discouraged from using firearms to protect themselves. Lapierre (1994:567), on the other hand, suggested that there would be more crime if citizens in the United States were not allowed to exercise their right to self-defense, a view which the U.S. public supports more than people in Canada (Gabor, 1997). Kleck has argued that the effects of owning a firearm may inhibit crime to a roughly equal degree that it generates crime (Kleck, 1991: 143; 1995; see also Alba and Messner, 1995; 1995a). Others argue that the defensive use of firearms exceeds harmful use (Mauser, 1993).

7.2 U.S.-based Research

Research on cost-benefit questions is difficult to find in countries where people do not tend to own firearms to protect themselves, or where it is severely restricted by the law. Most of the research has been conducted in the United States (Gabor, 1994: 59), where people are not as discouraged from owning firearms for self-protection by the law or other cultural factors as they are in Canada and in many other industrialized countries. Since there seem to be many differences between Canada and the United States with respect to firearms, we must use caution in assessing the findings of relevant U.S. studies.

One author has argued that Canadians do not differ from U.S. citizens as much as we have thought in using firearms defensively (Mauser, 1996a: 395). However, the Department of Justice Canada recently released a report highlighting of some of the differences between Canada and the United States in relation to armed self-defense (Gabor, 1997). Some of these are:

  • the prevalence of firearms is approximately 30 times greater in the United States than in Canada;
  • U.S. households are five times more likely than Canadian households to possess a handgun;
  • residents of the two countries differ in terms of the fear of crime they experience in their own neighbourhoods;
  • the rates of firearm misuse and crime differ significantly between the two countries;
  • there are significant cultural and historical differences that account for distinct public attitudes towards how firearms are used and regulated; and,
  • there is a difference between the two countries’ constitutional and legislative histories and general approach to firearms control.

Even the use of force, either in self-defense or to protect of one’s property, tends to be legally circumscribed differently in the United States than in Canada (Gabor, 1996c; Mauser, 1996a).

7.3 Owning Firearms for Self-protection

As discussed in Chapter 2, survey findings have consistently shown that the proportion of Canadians who say that their main reason for owning a firearm is self-defense or self-protection is very low (see also: Gabor, 1997). It has been argued, however, that the numbers could be higher (e.g., Mauser 1996). In a country where such a rationale for owning firearms is dissuaded by law, survey respondents are less likely to volunteer self-protection as their main reason for owning a firearm even if that is the case.

In the United States, self-protection is one of the leading reasons for owning a firearm, particularly a handgun (Block, 1998: 11; Gabor, 1997: 5). A national survey on private ownership of firearms estimated that as much as 46 percent of owners had firearms primarily for protection against crime and almost three-quarters of those who owned only handguns kept them for self-protection (Cook and Ludwig, 1997: 2).

As noted in the previous literature review (Gabor, 1994: 13 and 59), firearm owners in the United States cite victimization and fear of crime as main reasons for owning a firearm. Nevertheless, the evidence supporting a strong link between owning firearms and crime variables such as recent victimization, fear of crime, or confidence in the criminal justice system, remains somewhat ambiguous (Sheley et al., 1994: 222). This is partly because none of these variables is easy to measure consistently. Fear of crime, in particular, is a complex and difficult phenomenon to measure (Haghighi and Sorensen, 1996). Research evidence is more consistent in linking people who own firearms to protect themselves, in jurisdictions where it is allowed or tolerated, to real or perceived vulnerability to victimization (Luxenburg et al., 1994; McDowall, 1995).

Owning firearms for self-protection is often conceptualized by researchers as one of many self-help strategies that may be adopted by an individual to avoid victimization (Kleck and Gertz, 1995: 151; Luxenburg et al., 1994, Mauser, 1996a). As one of a number of potentially injurious means of self-help protection, albeit a particularly lethal one, firearm ownership is distinguished from other means such as installing locks, or moving to a different area.

Individual views on self-reliance and a lack of confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system are fairly consistently linked with the choice of a particular self-help strategy. However, not much is known about how individuals choose between self-help protection strategies that are potentially injurious, and others, or between passive versus active strategies (Luxenburg et al., 1994: 162). Some researchers have argued that owning a firearm is a passive means of self-protection that, in some contexts, may be more readily available to people with low incomes who cannot afford more expensive measures (Kleck, 1991: 104). Alternatively, this choice may be influenced by other variables that may prevent one from being able to rely on the official protection of the police or the criminal justice system: participation in illegal activities, a risky life-style, or status as an illegal immigrant (Cook and Ludwig, 1997: 8; Decker et al., 1997).

There is much evidence that, among criminal elements and gang members, self-protection is one of the leading reasons for possessing a firearm illegally (Blumstein and Cork, 1996; Callahan et al., 1993; Sheley and Wright, 1993). U.S. studies examining the reasons that children and adolescents seek illegal firearms, especially on and around school grounds, have clearly shown how a youth’s decision to acquire and carry a firearm is influenced by his or her fear of being a victim (Kennedy et al., 1996: 153-154).

It has been suggested that, at least in the United States, women are increasingly arming themselves for self-protection (Zeiss Stange, 1995). Indeed, data from the U.S. national survey on private ownership of firearms (Cook and Ludwig, 1997: 3) indicated that 67 percent of female owners owned a firearm primarily for self-protection, as opposed to 41 percent of male owners (Sheley et al., 1994: 233). However, there is no clear evidence that more Canadian and U.S. women are owning firearms than ever before. In fact, the gender gap in owning a firearm in the United States appears to have remained relatively constant (Arthur, 1994: 261; Cook and Ludwig, 1997: 3; Sheley et al., 1994: 232; Smith and Smith, 1995: 143; Thompson et al., 1996:70). Neither is there evidence that women who fear crime or who have been victims of crime are more likely to own a firearm in that country (Arthur, 1994: 261; Smith and Smith, 1995: 144). Further, there is little evidence that these experiences are more related to owning a firearm for women than for men (Sheley et al., 1994: 232).

7.4 International Comparisons

A majority of the countries surveyed by the United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation allow residents to possess a firearm for self-protection (United Nations, 1998: 58). Most impose restrictions on carrying a firearm as well (Idem: 57-61). However, comparative analyses of the reasons that people own firearms in various countries are rare. The best ones available to date (Alvazzi del Frate, 1997; Block, 1998) are based on data collected through the 1996 ICVS. Every respondent whose household possessed at least one firearm was asked the purpose for owning that firearm. Out of the nine western industrialized countries compared by Block (1998: 12), protection was a common reason to own a firearm in only three: France, at 22.1 percent; Austria, at 25.9 percent; and the United States, at 38.9 percent.

In a separate analysis of data on crime prevention from the 1996 survey, owning a firearm to prevent crimes was reported in vastly different percentages among countries with varied economic status and social structures. Owning a firearm for this purpose varied: 79.4 percent in Africa to 65.7 percent in Latin America, 34.6 percent in Asia, 28.7 percent in countries in transition, 21.8 percent in the New World and 8.6 percent in Western Europe[2] (Alvazzi del Frate, 1997).

The data allowed some analysis of the possible link between owning a firearm and recently having been a victim of crime. No significant correlation was observed between respondents reporting a recent burglary or attempted burglary and owning a firearm. However, there was a strong correlation between a recent incident having occurred and owning a firearm for the specific purpose of crime prevention (Idem: 14). Furthermore, according to Alvazzi del Frate, respondents who declared owning a weapon to prevent crime also believed they were likely or very likely to be burglarized within the next 12 months (Ibidem).


[2] See chapter 2 for a list of countries included in each of the regions.

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