Ottawa — It was something of a shock to Canadians when four storekeepers - three in Montreal and one in Calgary - opened fire recently on intruders, killing at least two armed robbers. Canadians are extremely proud of their nation's relatively modest rate of violent crime: about one-fifth that of the United States.
``Our cities are not as troubled as US cities,'' says Richard Mosley, general counsel for criminal-law policy in the Department of Justice here. ``We don't have the level of street crimes, social problems, the US does. Our society is more stable.''
Most Canadians also believe that American gun control laws are so loose that they consider them stupid.
The recent shootings, during November and December, opened a debate on the merits of self-defense versus summary justice - a discussion similar to the public response when Bernhard Goetz, a white New York City resident, shot four black youths when they accosted him on a subway train in 1984.
``Victims of crime are fighting back - and the average person sympathizes,'' said Elliott Hardey, a Conservative member of Parliament in the House of Commons.
``Police are against this kind of vigilante-style justice,'' says Donald Cassidy, executive director of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He worries about the possibility of shopkeepers shooting innocent people or unarmed shoplifters.
In a pattern similar to that in the US, total crime in Canada rose substantially between 1976 and 1981. Violent crime rose steadily throughout the period, until by 1985 it was up 25.7 percent from the figure for 1976.
Yet violent crime remains far below US levels (see chart). All of Canada, with a population of 25 million, had 651 murders in 1985. That compares with 18,976 in the US. There were 635 homicides in Detroit alone, an economically depressed city of 1.1 million people often described as the nation's ``murder capital.''
Statistics show, however, that property crime rates are not much different than in the US. Why, then, is violence so much more prevalent in the US? Can anything be learned from the Canadian experience?
Asked these questions, Canadians offer a variety of explanations. They include:
History and culture: Canada has had a less violent past. It obtained independence from the United Kingdom in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary manner, and had no civil war. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their predecessors maintained more law and order in Canada's West than prevailed in much of the American West.
``We are more disapproving of violence in Canada,'' said Frank Porporina, from the attorney general's research division. Nor, he added, is the state violent. Police kill only about 10 people a year.
Demographics: Canada has more ethnic homogeneity than the US. Most Canadians are Caucasian. Some 44 percent are of British stock, and some 29 percent of French origin. The remaining are mostly from other European nations. Toronto's 400,000 people of Italian stock have a generally low crime rate. But there is also an offshoot of the Mafia in that largest Canadian metropolitan area, as well as in Montreal and Hamilton.
Asians have arrived in larger numbers among post-World War II immigrants. Like most immigrant groups, they have an extremely low crime rate. However, there are stories in the Canadian press these days of Asian organized-crime gangs - ``triads'' - engaged in extortion and other illegal activities.
Only some 1 percent of Canadians are black, compared with 14 percent of Americans. That disadvantaged minority commits a disproportionately high percentage of violent crime in the US.
Gun laws: Canada's gun laws, always tough, were tightened in 1976. The use of guns in crimes has declined even further since then.
Canada's police, like many of their American counterparts, would like even stiffer gun laws. The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs passed a resolution at its annual convention in August that lamented first-time registration of restricted weapons (mostly handguns) at an annual rate of more than 30,000, and the increase in the number of gun clubs, firing ranges, and advertisements promoting the use of firearms.
Local police in Canada issue handgun permits only after an investigation to determine the crime-free status and sanity of the applicant. They also check to see if there is a justifiable need for protection with a gun or for use in a gun collection or registered gun club. Some private guards get them and, particularly in Quebec, where hold-ups are more frequent, some store owners can keep them at their businesses. A central registry in Ottawa tracks the permits.
``It is almost impossible to get a permit to carry a handgun,'' says Mr. Mosley of the Justice Department.
If a gun is used in a crime, the law requires a minimum one-year sentence. For even the possession of an unregistered handgun, a court can sentence an individual to jail for up to five years (but there is no minimum sentence).
Nonetheless, the Justice Department is currently looking at the possibility of even stronger gun-ontrol legislation, says Mr. Cassidy of the chiefs of police association.
Long guns are also controlled. An individual can acquire a rifle only after a check into his criminal status. Further, the police are free to remove firearms from a home if there is a disturbance and get court permission later. This, it is believed, has saved many lives when there is family quarreling or threatened suicide.
The police and justice systems: Canada has a uniform national criminal code, unlike the US, where there are both state and federal criminal laws. There is also a more unified police system in Canada. Some 20,000 Royal Canadian Mounted Police work for the federal government and, under contract, for 8 of the 10 provinces. Ontario and Quebec have provincial police departments. This uniformity, Canadians believe, makes their police more effective in catching criminals.
Though criticism of the police has increased in Canada, they are more respected than in the US, Canadians say.
Canada's courts generally dispense justice more quickly than do US courts, though not fast enough to satisfy Canadians. Criminals have a greater chance of ending up in court if caught. There is less plea-bargaining. There are fewer jury trials. The prosecution can appeal an acquittal, though this is extemely rare.
On a per capita basis, Canada has fewer criminals in jail than the US but more than most other industrial nations. Canada's 63 federal prisons (for those with sentences of two years or more) are full, but not generally overcrowded. Guards are well-trained, needing at least a high school education and many having college degrees. Prisons are generally ``more progressive'' in terms of the freedom given inmates, smaller institutions, and higher guard-prisoner ratios than in the US. Despite this, there is a high rate of violence (homicides, suicides, etc.) in Canadian prisons that puzzles the authorities.
Drugs: Though drug-use is widespread in Canada, the problem is not so serious as in the US, and the number of drug offenses is declining. One reason may be geography. It may be harder to bring in drugs from Latin America. The Justice Department expects to introduce a new national anti-drug strategy this month.
The social-welfare system: Canada has a more extensive social-welfare system than does the US. This, some officials say, may ease the stress of life and reduce violence.