Gun Control in Alberta: Explaining Public Attitudes concerning Legislative Change

Article excerpt

Introduction

Stricter gun control laws were a contentious public policy issue in Canada during the 1990's (Gabor 1995; Stenning 1994). Despite fairly widespread public support for stricter laws and regulation as evidenced in various polls (Toronto Sun 1999), a vocal minority has vigorously and publicly opposed such legislation and six provinces and three territories went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block implementation of the most recent federal law.

By 1977 Canada already had a fairly restrictive gun control law in place. But a number of women's groups and other organizations campaigned for even stricter legislation in response to the murder of fourteen women shot to death by Marc Lepine in 1989 in Montreal. In response, legislation proclaimed in 1991 broadened the categories of prohibited and restricted firearms and established new criteria for granting a Firearms Acquisition Certificate. Groups such as the Canadian Coalition for Gun Control (2000) and the Canadian Bar Association (2000) lobbied for even stricter gun control while the National Firearms Association (2000) opposed tougher firearms legislation as a means of crime control. This controversy intensified with the Firearms Act of 1995 which established a universal firearms registration system and required a licence to own, acquire, or borrow firearms and buy ammunition. This legislation also increased the mandatory minimum sentence to four years, plus a lifetime prohibition against possession of a restricted or prohibited firearm, upon conviction for any of ten specific violent offences involving firearms.

Poll data suggest widespread although variable support for these greater restrictions. Gallup asked the following question in both November, 1994 and July, 1995: "Would you favour or oppose a law that would require all firearms in Canada to be registered with the federal government?" While majorities in both polls favored universal registration, the percentage dropped from 83% in the first poll to 64% in the second (Gallup Poll 1994; 1995). Mauser and Buckner (1997) found a similar level of overall support, including a majority of gun owners and those with pro-hunting and pro-gun ownership values, but also widespread ignorance about existing laws. These authors claim that public support for Bill C-68's registration system is very soft and falls drastically once potential costs are mentioned. The National Firearms Association (2000) and other groups have continued to oppose this act, with up to 10,000 opponents rallying on September 22, 1998 against the new national gun registry (Globe and Mail, 1998). Surveys have suggested that many gun owners will refuse to register their firearms (Mauser and Buckner 1997; Breitkreuz 1999) and that most serving police officers do not support this legislation (Breitkreuz 1999).

While there are several published studies in the U.S. (Carter 1997; Kleck 1996; 1997), as yet there have been few attempts to explain the variation in Canadian attitudes toward gun control. But given the different constitutional and cultural contexts with respect to gun control in the two countries (Kates and Kleck 1997; Lipset 1964; 1990; Spitzer 1995), research results from the U.S. may have somewhat limited applicability to Canada. The present research represents an attempt t9 test hypotheses concerning some possible explanations of support for gun control using data from a telephone survey of adult residents of the Province of Alberta. Alberta is a good locale for investigating attitudes toward gun control in view of its government's active role in challenging the recent legislation and since it has a heterogeneous population with an above average level of firearms ownership (Canadian Coalition for Gun Control 2000; Stenning and Moyer 1981), urbanization and level of education (Statistics Canada 1996). More specifically, this paper will examine whether the perceived effectiveness of stricter gun control in reducing crime, fear and/or concern about crime, socio-political beliefs, and attributions concerning the causes of crime can explain variation in support for more restrictive gun control. …