Gun Violence in Canada: A Fact Check

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On the heals of the recent and tragic shooting in Toronto, the two questions that seem to immediately enter our minds are “Who?” and “Why?”

These are reasonable questions to ask as they stem from hope; hope that if we can resolve the who and the why, we might then be able to prevent future tragedies from occurring.

And to an extent, this line of thinking is correct. Knowing more about the profile and motives of the shooter can help us prevent future incidents. However, information can be misleading, as can the lack of information. So, before we begin scapegoating particular groups of people or speculating about the “fundamental cause,” let’s consider the facts:

Note: The following information is based on Canadian statistics unless stated otherwise.

Is gun violence mostly gang related?

  • In general, gang-related homicides are on the increase in Canada[1].
  • However, of all firearm-related homicides, only 54% are known to be related to gang activity.1 This, of course, means that almost half of all firearm-related homicides are unrelated to gang activity.

Do all firearm related violent offences result in shootings?

  • In 2017, of all violent offences involving the use of a firearm [2]:
    • 42% were discharging a firearm with intent;
    • 40% were pointing a firearm; and
    • 18% were use of a firearm in the commission of an indictable (serious) offence.

Are firearm-related crimes on the increase?

  • Violent firearm offences increased by 7% between 2016 and 2017. However, only 2% of this increase (+34) involved the actual discharging of a firearm with intent.2
  • The number of annual reported firearm-related homicides in Canada has fluctuated since 1996, hovering between 150 and 225; however, the number and rate have been steadily increasing since 2013.1
  • The rate of reported homicides by shooting in 2016 was 21% higher than the average for the previous 10 years.1
  • In 2016, shootings were the most common method of committing a homicide in Canada (38%).2

What about victims?

  • Despite the low numbers of violent firearm offences in Canada, these crimes resulted in approximately 7,100 victims in 2016.[3] This resulted in a rate of 25 victims of firearm-related violent crime for every 100,000 Canadians, which is 33% higher than in 2013.

What type of firearms are being used?

  • Handguns are the most frequently used type of firearm in firearm-related homicides (58% in 2016),1 followed by rifles or shotguns (18%) and other types of firearms (4%) such as fully automatics or sawed-offs.
  • Homicides involving a rifle or a shotgun also increased in number (+13) and rate (+34%) in 2016. 1

How are these weapons being obtained? Where are they coming from?

  • There’s no official national statistic that reports on how firearms involved in firearm-related crimes were obtained. Anecdotally, media reports have provided the following sources and statistics:

Where are firearm-related crimes occurring?

  • In 2016, 78% of firearm-related homicides were reported in a census metropolitan area (CMA)[4], with Toronto leading the way at 51 (or 56% of all its reported homicides), followed by Edmonton (23), Montreal (22), Vancouver (18), Calgary (14), and Ottawa (12). Halifax had nine firearm-related homicides, but these accounted for 75% of its total homicides in 2016.
    • Although having reported the greatest number of firearm-related homicides, Toronto did not have the highest rate among the CMAs. That title goes to Halifax, followed by Edmonton, and Abbotsford-Mission, British Columbia.1
  • Although most firearm-related homicides in Canada were reported in a CMA, most of the increase in the number of incidents of violent firearm offences between 2016 and 2017 occurred outside of CMAs2 (e.g., rural and northern). In fact, the rates of firearm-related violent crime are similar between urban and rural areas.3
    • This is important as it indicates that the apparent visibility of gun violence in Canadian cities is due to sheer numbers, not rate of occurrence.
  • The national increase in violent firearm offences between 2016 and 2017 (+200 incidents) can be attributed to increases in rates reported in Saskatchewan (+47%, +116 incidents) and Ontario (+10%, +92 incidents). Increases were also reported in New Brunswick (+56%), Nunavut (+29%), and Alberta (+4%), although low base rates should be kept in mind. All other provinces and territories reported declines.
  • In 2016, the largest increases in gang-related homicides committed with a firearm were reported in Ontario (+22) and British Columbia (+12), with these largely occurring in Toronto (+18) and Vancouver (+6).1

What’s the role of mental illness in gun violence?

  • In 2016, persons accused of homicide (all forms) with a suspected mental or developmental disorder[5] accounted for 17% of all accused persons. This is comparable to the average over the previous 10 years.1
  • Mental and developmental disorders seem to increase with age for persons accused of homicide.
  • A national longitudinal study from Sweden found that approximately one violent crime per 1,000 inhabitants every 5 years could be attributed to patients with sever mental illness (i.e., patients with severe mental illness contributed roughly 5.2% to recorded violent crime in Sweden between 1988 and 2000).[6]
    • However, the estimated relationship between violence and the presence of a mental disorder varies quite a bit depending on the type of disorder examined and the methods used.[7]
  • Another way of looking at this relationship is to consider that nearly 80% of all firearm deaths in Canada are suicides.[8]
  • Although public health approaches to addressing the intersection of mental health and firearm violence should not be ignored, mental illness alone is a weak predictor of violence risk, with or without a firearm.6 [9]

In Summary, though we know that the Danforth shooter was a Middle Eastern man with known mental health problems, we should not conclude from this that gun violence in Canada is either a racial or mental health issue. In the coming days and weeks politicians will likely pander to the base by declaring investments in mental health services, anti-gang programs or, if they’re foolish enough, will demand greater restrictions on immigration. If the analysis above tells us anything it’s that the rate of gun violence is on the increase in both rural and urban Canada, the guns are typically licensed Canadian handguns, the relationship between mental health and firearm-related violence is dubious, and gangs are only half the problem.

Footnotes 

[1] Statistics Canada (2017). Homicide in Canada. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/54879-eng.htm

[2] Statistics Canada (2018). Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2017. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/85-002-x/2018001/article/54974-eng.pdf?st=XnwWTRPd

[3] Statistics Canada (2018). Firearms and violent crime in Canada, 2016. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/180628/dq180628c-eng.htm

[4] A census metropolitan area (CMA) consists of one or more neighbouring municipalities situated around a major urban core. A CMA must have a total population of at least 100,000 of which 50,000 or more live in the urban core. To be included in the CMA, other adjacent municipalities must have a high degree of integration with the central urban area, as measured by commuting flows derived from census data. A CMA typically comprises more than one police service.

[5] The Homicide Survey has collected information regarding the suspected presence of mental or developmental disorders among persons accused of homicide since 1997. Includes disorders such as: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, developmental delays, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, etc. This information is based upon police officer assessment and may not reflect medical or clinical diagnoses.

[6] Fazel, S., & Grann, M., (2006). The Population Impact of Severe Mental Illness on Violent Crime. American Journal of Psychiatry.

[7] Rozel, J.S., & Mulvey, E. P., (2017). The Link Between Mental Illness and Firearm Violence: Implications for Social Policy and Clinical Practice. The Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.

[8] Royal Canadian Mounted Police, (2010). Canadian Firearms Program Evaluation – Statistical Overview. Retrieved from: http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/fire-feu-eval/t2a-eng.htm

[9] Swanson, J.W., et al., (2015). Mental Illness and Reduction of Gun Violene and Suicide: Bringing Epidemoiologic Research to Policy. Annals of Epidemiology.

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