Does Ontario Have A Gun Problem?

Adolescents have been the focus of my practice in Psychiatry for more than twenty years.  Adolescent boys have a complicated relationship with violence and anger and it is not unusual to see that erupt, especially when they are struggling with symptoms of mental illness. It almost seems as though, at some point in adolescence, men must work through what their relationship with violence will be. As they do this work, the entire course of their lives can be affected by the lethality of the weapons they have at hand. A gun is never a helpful accessory for a young man struggling to understand and cope with violent urges toward himself or others.

Why am I thinking about guns? I have just returned from Boston and early in March I spent a week in New York City for the Commission on the Status of Women. As a Canadian, I am always more cautious when walking by myself, especially at night, in American cities. This is because, as a Canadian, I believe that there are many more guns in these American cities than in Canada. Public health research has shown that guns are a health risk.

Having said this, both Boston and New York are managing gun violence while Toronto, a city where I spend much more time, has seen spikes in gun violence in 2016 and increasing gun violence in 2017. Even in Ottawa, the capital city known for its general safety, had a higher than normal number of shootings in 2016 and 2017 is showing the same worrying trend.

Canadians often smugly think that gun control manages gun violence and, while all evidence supports this, these recent trends need to be considered. These increasing numbers mostly reflect violence involving the young men under 25 I mentioned at the outset. We know that young men’s brains continue to develop into their twenties and most parents of young men certainly notice this. This is true even though, by age 21, most young men have undertaken significant responsibilities related to education and work, and often families or relationships.

During the period of late adolescence and early adulthood, young men are at higher risk of being perpetrators and victims of violence. Over many years, there has been much speculation on why this is the case. Research cites adaptive advantages from our past to the economic disparity and racial tension that is believed to fuel violence around the world.

The one factor that has kept this violence from becoming lethal has been access to a weapon, usually firearms, that immediately make an attacker much more dangerous. In fact, countries that implemented gun control saw the number of multiple murders significantly decrease. This fact alone is the number one reason to implement gun control. Gun control is the perfect example of a public health measure based on the number of deaths and injuries it prevents. With this in mind, we need to ask, is there now increased access to firearms in Ontario to account for these spikes in gun violence?

There has not yet been an analysis that allows us to answer this question. In a country with gun control, a policy that has helped maintain public safety for so long, we need to be certain that we take this increase in gun violence seriously. Experience has taught us that gun control measures can make a difference in preventing injury and death.

Those of us who are the parents of young men, or who have been young men, or have been the caregivers of young men in distress know what can happen when frustration takes over from a youth’s better nature. A young man with a gun can do much more harm with a firearm than with his fists, or a knife. We know from the crime statistics that more and more guns are aimed at others, but many of these young men also aim at themselves.

The point is that there are more victims. We often decry that police are not attuned to the mental health problems of those they arrest. However, those of us who are concerned with health need to provide some support to the police and other agents of the law with respect to the increasing number of guns in Canada. The health impact is increasing along with the crime rate. Those of us who specialize in adolescent health must begin to understand the law as it relates to our patients.

2 thoughts on “Does Ontario Have A Gun Problem?

  1. Nice writing Gail

    You don’t differentiate between long guns and hand guns.

    You also don’t define “gun control”. Canada is already heavily regulated and I consider that a good thing. Do you equate gun control with prohibition?

    Many “guns” are prohibited or restricted in Canada. Even for unrestricted guns there is a rigorous safety education program and an RCMP background check before anyone can purchase an unrestricted long gun. It takes several months before one receives and acquisition and possession listener-a PAL.

    I am getting too deep into the weeds but I’m just trying to highlight some of the issues with “gun control”

    • Thanks, Scott, for reading this.

      I agree that Canada is already heavily regulated and it’s fairly complicated. I do not equate gun control with prohibition since anyone I know who lives in the country on a farm typically has a rifle to deal with pests.

      I could not find data/statistics that outlined how many gun crimes are perpetrated by handguns, but I am hoping to find this out at some point. While I suspect most of the crimes involve a handgun, I may just get that impression from watching too much television.

      One of the the articles I cited mentioned how easy it is to get “illegal” guns across the US/Canada border, which may just prove that, as effective as it is for the most part, gun control is not the answer.

      I think Canadians can be complacent about gun violence, thinking that it’s not a problem here. For example, I have noticed that I often have to remind students and residents in psychiatry to ask about access to firearms in a mental health assessment. In the US, no one ever forgets to do this. Recent spikes in gun violence in Canada are a reminder not to be complacent about our “great ” system.

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