SOCIETY

LAWLESS, BUT GUNLESS

We’re just as likely to commit crimes as Americans. Luckily we have fewer guns.

KEN MACQUEEN July 7 2008
SOCIETY

LAWLESS, BUT GUNLESS

We’re just as likely to commit crimes as Americans. Luckily we have fewer guns.

KEN MACQUEEN July 7 2008

LAWLESS, BUT GUNLESS

SOCIETY

We’re just as likely to commit crimes as Americans. Luckily we have fewer guns.

KEN MACQUEEN

When it comes to crime, Canadians smugly draw the line between civility and chaos along the 49th parallel. Sure, Canada has its share of crime, but it’s nothing like those crazy American cities, right? Well, it isn’t that simple. Perhaps it comes from an unhealthy diet of American crime shows, but it’s borderline delusional to think that Canadians are more law-abiding than their southern neighbours.

Canadians are just as larcenous, and sometimes more so. A comparison of crime stats from both countries (see “Who has higher crime rates?” at right) reveals that your car is actually more likely to be stolen in Canada. You are more likely to be a victim of arson. You are more likely to be burglarized. Most any crime, in fact, that doesn’t involve guns is just as likely to befall Canadians as Americans. This is especially true in the Canadian West, which has chronically higher crime rates than the rest of the country.

British Columbia has been Canada’s crime leader for most of the past decade, with rates that would rank it among the worst cities in America, says the B.C. Progress Board, a provincial agency that tracks economic and social indicators. The board, in a little-noticed report last year, charted crime rates in 6l Canadian and American jurisdictions, combining both non-violent property crimes—a particular problem in B.C.—and violent personal crimes, from homicide to robbery. Its conclusion: “B.C.’s property crime rate is the highest in North America at 6,534 crimes per 100,000 citizens. The province’s violent crime rate is fourth among the jurisdictions in question.” B.C.’s combined personal and property crime rate is the second worst of all 6l jurisdictions, the board concluded, “surpassed only by the District of Columbia.”

That said, danger levels in the worst of America’s “anarchic” inner cities, where many crimes go unreported, are higher than anything in Canada, says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University. “In the United States there are places in many cities where you cannot walk safely at night, and that’s not true in Canada,” he says. “In terms of the danger that crime presents to citizens, in the United States, especially in deprived urban areas—urban ghettos, essentially—the environment is still much more out of control than it is in Canada.”

The worst of American violent crime is concentrated in these inner cities, and much of it is black-on-black violence. Blacks, who represent 12 per cent of the American population, are more likely to be convicted of murder, and six times more likely to be murdered, than the general population. But Canada has its own pockets of deprivation. Levels of victimization and incarceration among Aboriginal Canadians, who represent about three per cent of the population, are grossly disproportionate. The Aboriginal homicide rate is almost seven times higher than the non-Aboriginal population; the rate of incarceration is nine times higher.

Still, murder is one crime where Canadians lag behind our neighbours—mercifully. Oh, some of us try, and succeed far too often, but we aren’t as efficient as Americans—mainly because there aren’t as many guns. There are 30 guns per every 100 people in Canada, and a host of restrictions on licensing, carrying and transporting firearms. The U.S.—the world’s most heavily armed society—has 90 guns per every 100 people. As a result, in Canada firearms only account for one-third of homicides, while more than two-thirds of American murders involve guns. Partly because of that, Americans have had a murder rate about three times higher than Canada for the last decade (an improvement from four times higher in 1980). The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, using data from 2000, neatly sums up the difference: “the U.S. has much higher rates of violent crime, while Canada generally has much higher rates of property crime.”

One thing both countries share is a fear of crime ruled more by perception than reality—especially if violent inner-city crime rates are stripped from the equation. Both countries have had a profound drop in their crime rates over the past three decades. American rates have levelled off this decade at the lowest levels since the Bureau of Justice Statistics

began collecting data in 1972. Canadian rates have fallen in tandem. Headlines notwithstanding, the rate of gun homicides in Canada in 2006 was about half of what it was 30 years ago. That reality isn’t reflected in political debates in either country, in opinion polls, or in the news media, where “the pornography of grief,” as Boyd puts it, is often the story of the day.

WHO HAS HIGHER CRIME RATES? IN MANY CASES, IT’S CANADA

Canadians are just as larcenous as Americans. In fact, when you look at crimes that don’t involve guns, the Canadian rates tend to be higher. But when it comes to violent crimes, such as homicide, Americans have us beat. Why? Mainly because they have a lot more guns.

Sources

Gun ownership numbers (2007): Small Arms Survey 2007, Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva; crime rate numbers (all 2006): Statistics Canada, FBI’s Crime in the United States 2006 and Crime in Metropolitan America: City Crime Rankings, QC Press. * Break and enters are referred to as burglaries in the U.S.

It’s just one more thing we have in common with our neighbours. An airport limo driver in Los Angeles neatly summed it up while bestowing a tip-worthy compliment on a Canadian customer. “We’re really not much different,” he said. “You folks are just disarmed Americans.” M