Article published Friday, October 28, 2005, at The National Post.

Don't blame American guns

By John R. Lott Jr.

With Canada's murder rate rising 12% last year and this year's high-profile rash of gang murders (six shootings just this week in Toronto), politicians are looking for someone to blame. The bogeyman, as usual, is America: On Monday night, during his dinner with Condoleezza Rice, Prime Minister Paul Martin claimed Canada's gun crime problem was being caused by weapons smuggled in from the United States.

But Paul Martin doesn't have the facts to back up the claim. Despite the $2-billion committed to the Liberals' gun registry, the government does not even know the number of guns seized from criminals, let alone where those guns came from. Nor does Martin's government have any evidence that gun smuggling has recently gotten worse. (In Toronto, which keeps some data on guns, Paul Culver, a senior Crown Attorney, claims U.S. guns are a "small part" of his city's problem.)

Mr. Martin's larger mistake is that -- like most politicians in Canada -- he puts his faith in gun control as a means to fight crime, and clearly believes the United States should too. But as Canada's experience with its registry -- which hasn't solved any crimes -- shows, gun control isn't the answer. Getting law-abiding citizens to disarm or register their weapons is easy. The hard part is taking guns away from criminals. Toronto's gangs have no trouble getting the illegal drugs they sell. Since they are already involved in a criminal trade, why should we expect that the law would keep them from acquiring guns to defend their turf?

The experiences of the U.K. and Australia, two island nations whose borders are much easier to control and monitor, should also give Canadian gun controllers pause. The British government banned handguns in 1997 but recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the four years from 1998-99 to 2002-03.

Since 1996, serious violent crime has soared by 69%: Robbery is up by 45% and murders up by 54%. Before the law, armed robberies had fallen by 50% from 1993 to 1997, but as soon as handguns were banned, the robbery rate shot back up, almost back to 1993 levels. The crooks still had guns, but not their victims.

The immediate effect of Australia's 1996 gun-control regulations was similar. Crime rates averaged 32% higher in the six years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2002) than in 1995. The same comparisons for armed robbery rates showed an increase of 74%.

Outside of Canada and Europe, skepticism of gun-control laws' effectiveness is widespread. It was the major reason why Sunday's referendum to ban guns in Brazil was defeated by an almost two-to-one vote. Despite progressively stricter gun-control laws in that country, murder rates rose every year from 1992 to 2002. As in the U.K., the regulations simply tilted the balance of power in favour of criminals.

During the 1990s, just as Britain, Australia and Brazil were regulating guns, the United States was going in the opposite direction. Thirty-seven of the 50 states now have so-called "right-to-carry laws," which let law-abiding adults carry concealed handguns once they pass a criminal background check and pay a fee. Only half the states require any training, usually around three to five hours' worth. Yet murder has fallen faster in these states than the national average. Overall, the states in the United States with the fastest growth rates in gun ownership during the 1990s have experienced the biggest drops in violent crime.

It isn't guns that primarily drive violence crime, but drugs (and the war fought against drugs). Few Canadians appreciate that over 70% of American murders take place in just 3.5% of counties -- these being the inner-city areas where drug dealers are concentrated. Drug gangs can't simply call up the police when another gang encroaches on their turf, so they end up essentially setting up their own armies. It's foolish to blame the United States for the predictable actions of profit-seeking gangsters: Just as U.S. gangs will always find some way to smuggle drugs in from Latin America, Canadian gangs will find a way to smuggle in weapons to defend their turf.

In other words, if you want to get rid of the murders, stop focusing on the guns and get rid of the gangs.

John Lott Jr, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003).

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