Gun violence, fear and a increasingly uncivil society


Last updated on May 18, 23

Posted on May 18, 23

4 min read

A funeral will be held today for OPP Sgt. Eric Mueller, murdered last week after responding to a call in Bourget, a town near Ottawa.

Two other officers were injured. Police subsequently arrested a 39-year-old Bourget man, Alain Bellefeuille, and charged him with first degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.

Such shootings aren’t exactly rare in this country, but we don’t typically equate Canada with the kind of gun violence that’s an everyday occurrence in the United States.

Canada has strict gun laws on the books. In the wake of last week’s shooting, the federal government is indicating more must be done. Restrictions may be appropriate, but the efficacy of such programs remains up in the air.

One thing we do know is that criminal gun violence is becoming more prevalent. Statistics Canada reports that criminal use of firearms increased by 81 per cent between 2009 and 2019. The use of firearms in violent crime rose 25 per cent between 2012 and 2021. One in three homicides involves guns.

As has consistently been the case, handguns were the type of firearm most commonly present in firearm-related violent crime in 2021. This was especially the case in urban areas, while rifles or shotguns were more commonly present in firearm-related violent crime in rural areas.

The numbers appear to back up an increasing fear of violence register by Canadians. Public Safety Canada reports that almost half of us feel gun violence is a threat to our communities.

Fear is an important factor. Unlike in the US, growing fear – fed there by daily reports of mass shootings and other gun-related crimes – has not led to even greater proliferation of guns. Canadians can’t simply go out an acquire at will any kind of firearm, let alone handguns and assault rifles.

In the US, guns are a booming business, fed by a gun culture unlike any other. There are more guns in private hands than people in the USA, with some 40 per cent living in homes where guns are present. Year after year, those with guns cite personal protection as the rationale for owning firearms. Fear.

As society grows more divided, violence more prevalent  and life deemed less safe – or at least perceived as such – guns become even more commonplace. The reality is, nobody is any safer.

“For all the talk of protection, gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States. Yet over and over, people told me they needed their guns to keep themselves safe,” Washington Post columnist Christine Emba writes in a piece this week.

“Safe from what? Most couldn’t answer; they simply had a feeling that the world had become a more dangerous place. How would they use their guns in a crisis? Their confidence in their own abilities seemed inflated.”

In 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That figure includes gun murders and gun suicides

In 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the US, according to the CDC. That figure includes gun murders and gun suicides. Some 54 per cent of all gun-related deaths were suicides (26,328), while 43 per cent were murders (20,958).

About eight-in-ten US murders in 2021 – 20,958 out of 26,031, or 81 per cent – involved a firearm. That marked the highest percentage since at least 1968. More than half of all suicides in 2021 – 26,328 out of 48,183, or 55 per cent – also involved a gun, the highest percentage since 2001.

So, even as Americans have more guns, they’re less safe.

“Perhaps the most troubling aspect of gun ownership for ‘protection’ is the sharp-edged individualism it implies: an every-man-for-himself mind-set. Institutions can’t be trusted, police will be unresponsive, and the government might one day turn on you. Your only obligations are to yourself and your family,” Emba writes.

“Individual fear becomes a greater priority than collective safety. Increasing the number of guns in the system will almost certainly spell death for others, but at least your gun will keep you safe.”

The irony is lost on the diehards, however, who, as Emba notes, adhere to the NRA mantra: “An armed society is a polite society.”

“But guns might be leading us to give up on the concept of society altogether.”

That’s a real concern, one that goes beyond guns and violence, even. Civil society is increasingly under threat.

There’s nothing wrong with looking out for personal interests, but we’re in danger of forgetting that most of the widespread gains of the postwar years stem from socially-driven ideas. In purely economic terms, the collective efforts are the rising tide that lifted all boats – some more so than others, certainly. Today, however, there’s an element that seems hell-bent on undoing precisely the conditions that allowed for the great prosperity now under attack by neoliberal government policies, for instance.

We’re increasingly isolationist as individuals, a trend that manifests itself in the likes of decreasing transit ridership due to safety concerns and home-based entertainment versus shared public forums.

Given the evolution of our societies, especially increasingly crowded urban living, we are a collective by default, even as divisive politics play on our basest individualistic instincts. If we’re part of a society – and there really is not getting around that – then we have to have some societal norms and some mutual respect.

Such a view of civil society is under attack as we see the rise of the worst kind of nationalism, a creeping fascism that has reduced discourse to a whole lot of shouting and sloganeering. The very nature of a shared language needed for civility is disparaged.

Gun violence is the worst form of antisocial behaviour, but its increase can be correlated with every step we take towards a me-first attitude that insists that in order for me to succeed, everyone else has to fail.

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