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Presentation to the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs of the House of Commons concerning Bill C-68 - Firearms Act.

by Brian L. Mishara, Ph.D. Past President, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and Professor of Psychology at the Université du Québec a Montréal.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention / L'association canadienne pour la prévention du suicide is a non-profit national association comprised of organizations, professionals and individuals from all walks of life with a common goal: the promotion of treatment, education and research on the prevention and reduction of suicidal behaviour in Canada. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention does not support any moral beliefs as to whether suicide is right or wrong, however, on the basis of research studies and clinical experience, we recognize that suicides are often preventable tragedies. One means of prevention which is well documented in research studies is the reduction of the availability and lethality of means of suicide.

During the period of 1990-1992 36% of the suicides in males were by means of firearms and 9% of suicides in females [1]. Although the number of deaths by firearms has decreased from ten years earlier since 1981-1982, when it was 41% in males and 11% in females, firearms still comprise the largest category of suicide methods for Canadian men and a significant, though smaller category for women. Only a minority of the guns employed (3%) were handguns. Most suicide deaths involved long guns (shotguns and rifles) or "other" types of guns (for example combat weapons such as semi-automatic or automatic long guns). Firearms are the most common method of suicide in Canada. Thus, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention is concerned about gun control and the possibility that legislation will have the positive effect of decreasing tragic suicidal deaths by firearms.

Research studies and clinical experiences by professionals and suicide prevention centres across Canada indicate that in many cases suicides by firearms appear to be committed impulsively and without careful premeditation. Although a large proportion of Canadians think of killing themselves at some time in their lives, these thoughts are infrequently transformed into actions, sometimes impulsively after a particularly distressing life event, such as an academic or relational setback or conflict. Young Canadian males are particularly vulnerable to impulsive suicide after stressful life events. In these circumstances, access to an instantly lethal method such as a firearm means that there is no enforced period of waiting or planning during which a distressed person might have a chance to get over what might be a temporary crisis situation. If the lethal method is not immediately accessible, the additional time required to find an alternative method often results in a decreased risk of suicide. Furthermore, research suggests that individuals who intend upon ending their life by a particular means, such as using firearms, do not necessarily find another means of suicide when their chosen method is not available.

Several research studies have found that males are more likely to die by suicide if there is a loaded gun in the home. Brent and colleagues [2] found in a study in the United States that adolescent suicide victims without apparent psychiatric disorders were more likely to have a loaded gun in the home than suicide victims with psychiatric disorders. In another study by the same team of investigators they found that those who died by their suicide attempts were more likely to have a gun in their home and used this method when compared with suicide attempters who survived their attempt. Guns were twice as likely to be found in the homes of suicide victims who died by their attempts than those who survived. Handguns were not more prevalent in the homes of those who died than long guns. Even guns stored locked or separate from ammunition were associated with a higher risk of suicide [3]. In a large American study involving interviews with relatives of 328 suicides committed by handguns in Tennessee and the State of Washington, Kellerman and colleagues [4] conducted a detailed investigation in which they matched an equal number of similar control subjects who did not commit suicide. They determined that, within a 95% confidence interval having access to a firearm in the home increased the risk of suicide; the risk of suicide was five times higher in homes with guns than in homes without guns. These carefully conducted studies strongly support the conclusion that the availability of firearms in the home increases the risk of suicide, particularly among males.

Although it is proven that when people feel desperate and think of killing themselves, having a firearm available in the home decreases the risk by suicide, a determined suicidal person may seek alternative means when the method of choice is unavailable. However, research results indicate that a significant number may be deterred from proceeding further. There are several examples in which reduction in access to a particular lethal method resulted in a reduction in suicide rates, a reduction which did not appear to be compensated for by an increase in suicide using other methods. For example, in Britain suicide rates fell in the 1960's when more lethal domestic gas made from coal was replaced with natural gas with a much lower carbon monoxide content. This was a common suicide method in Britain for the elderly. Suicide rates for the age group who used this method sharply fell and the decrease persisted even though rates by other age groups which other methods continued to rise [5]. Similarly, suicides committed by jumping in front of moving trains in metropolitan transit systems were significantly reduced in the Singapore metro when barriers introduced to save energy in air conditioning were installed. In London, England, the transit system is experimenting with "suicide pits" dug under the tracks to discourage people from jumping in front of trains and to prevent injuries in those who jump [6]. Sieden [7] studied people who tried to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and found that those that were denied access to this means of death generally did not kill themselves by another method.

Many Canadians, particularly young males, have the fantasy of shooting themselves in order to die quickly by suicide. One may ask if limiting the immediate availability of guns through gun-control legislation may really decrease tragic deaths without having a parallel increase in alternative methods. Research has shown that during the 8 years after the introduction in Canada of Bill C-51 the total suicide rate and the firearm suicide rate shoed a decreasing trend when compared with the 8 years before the introduction of Bill C-51 [8]. Similarly, Carrington & Moyer [9] showed that before the introduction of Bill C-51, during 1965-1977, firearm and total suicide rates increased in 9 of the Canadian Provinces; but after the Bill, between 1979 and 1989, all 10 provinces had either stable or decreasing total and firearm suicide rates. In no province did non-firearm suicide rates increase after passing Bill C-51.

One study by Rich and colleagues [10] of suicides in Toronto in 1973 and 1979 to 1983 suggested that the decrease in firearm suicide resulted in a proportional increase in suicide by jumping. However, their study had methodological problems since they did not standardize suicide rates for age. A re-analysis of the same data by Carrington & Moyer [11] found that suicide deaths by both firearms and non-firearms decreased in Toronto after the passage of Bill C-51. Sloan and colleagues [12] concluded that the suicide rate among 15-24 year olds was ten times higher in West Coast U.S. Metropolitan areas compared to Canada, which has more restrictive handgun control. Several studies in the U.S. have found a correlation between stricter gun controls and lower suicide rates in different American States [13, 14, 15].

The research to date strongly supports the view that suicide impulses are not generally transferred or "displaced" to a different method of suicide when there is less availability of firearms. Moreover, previous Canadian legislation (Bill C-51) appears to have decreased the number of deaths by suicide in Canada. We therefore conclude that any further legislation which decreases the availability of firearms in homes will most probably save many lives. Furthermore, any legislation which results in a delay in obtaining a firearm, for example by requiring a permit application and waiting period, is likely to result in a decrease in the number of tragic deaths by suicide in Canada each year. Although a suicidal person can always find another method if firearms are not immediately available, a significant number of suicidal deaths by firearms occur during a transient crisis situation where impulsive actions at that moment result in a death by suicide. In these common situations, if a firearm is not on hand or immediately available, there is a strong likelihood that another method will not be immediately chosen and by the time the individual may be able to obtain a firearm, the crisis will have diminished, thus averting a tragic, premature death.

Over 1000 Canadians kill themselves with firearms each year. Legislation which will result in a decrease in the number of Canadian homes in which firearms are available, and which limits or delays (even for a short period of time) access to firearms will most likely result in a saving of hundreds of lives each year. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention respectfully asks that this be taken into account when considering legislation to further control firearms in Canada.


1. Statistics Canada, Causes of Death. Cat. 84-203 [for 1980-1982]; Health Reports Supplement No 11, 1992, vol. 4, No 1: Causes of Death 1990, Cat 82-003511; Causes of Death, 1991 and Causes of Death 1992, Cat. 84-208.

2. Brent, D.A., Perper, J.A., Moritz, G., Baugher, M. & Allman, C. (1993). Suicide in adolescents with no apparent psychopathology, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 32, 494-500.

3. Brent, D.A., Perper, J.A., Allman, C.J. Moritz, G.M., Wartella, M.E. & Zelanak, J.P. (1991). The presence and accessibility of firearms in the homes of adolescent suicides. A case-control study,. Journal of the American Medical Association, 266, 2989-2995.

4. Kellerman, A.K., Rivara, F.P. Somes, G., Reay, D.T. Francisco, J., Banton, J.G., Prodzinski, J., Fligner, C. & Hackman, B.B. (1992). Suicide in the home in relation to gun ownership. New England Journal of Medicine, 327, 467-472.

5. Kreitman, N. (1976) The coal gas story. United Kingdom suicide rates, 1960-1971. British Journal of Preventive & Social Medicine, 30, 86-93.

6. Farmer, R., O'Donnell, I. & Tranah, T. (1991). Suicide on the London Underground System. International Journal of Epidemiology, 20, 707-711.

7. Seiden, R.H. (1978). Where are they now? A follow-up study of suicide attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour, 8 (4), 203-216.

8. Lester, D. & Leenaars, A. (1993). Suicide rates in Canada before and after tightening firearm control laws. Psychological Reports, 72, 787-790.

9. Carrington, P.J. & Moyer, S. (1994. Gun availability and suicide in Canada: Testing the displacement hypothesis. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention, 3, 168-178.

10. Rich, C.L., Young, J.G., Fowler, R.C., Wagner, J. & Black, N.A. (1990). Guns and suicide, possible effects of some specific legislations. American Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 342-346.

11. Carrington, P.J. & Moyer, S. (1994). Gun control and suicide in Ontario. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 606-608.

12. Sloan, J.H., Rivara, F., Reay, D., Ferris, J & Kellerman, A. (1990). Firearm regulations and rates of suicide: A comparison of two metropolitan areas. New England Journal of Medicine, 322(6), 369-373.

13. Lester, D. & Murrell, M.E. (1980). The influence of gun control laws on suicidal behaviour. American Journal of Psychiatry, 137(1), 121-122.

14. Lester, D. (1983). Preventive effect of strict handgun control laws on suicide rates. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140 (9), 1259.

15. Loftin, C., McDowal, D., Wiersema, B. & Cottey, T.J. (1991). Effects of restrictive licensing of handguns on homicide and suicide in the District of Columbia. New England Journal of Medicine, 325, 1615-1620.