CANADIAN antigun groups have launched a national campaign to press politicians for stiffer gun laws following a string of highly publicized murders in Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa, and Vancouver.
The campaign aims to ``activate'' latent public support for tougher gun laws in order to encourage politicians ``afraid of the gun lobby,'' says Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, an umbrella organization that includes 200 groups.
It also provides political cover for Justice Minister Allan Rock, who recently angered Canada's powerful gun lobby by proposing a national ban on handguns and a ban on all guns in Canadian cities. Polls show Canadian concern about violent crime is rising fast, though they live in one of the world's safest nations.
But behind the antigun campaign and rising public concern over violent crime in Canada is another fear - that of a nation losing its identity. ``Canadians simply dread the possibility that they, their society, could become like the violent Americans,'' says Donna Dasko of Environics, a Toronto polling firm.
But a recent study she conducted showed that US and Canadian violent crime rates were not close to converging. Canadian participants were shocked. ``They were sure Canada was getting closer to the US rate,'' Ms. Dasko said.
Canadians have always worried about violent criminals crossing into Canada from the US - that's not new, says Philip Stenning, a University of Toronto criminologist. What is new, he says, is that Canadians are watching a lot of American television. One result: Even if violent criminals are not crossing the border, the spectacle of violence is in nightly programming. ``People internalize this,'' Professor Stenning says. ``We're becoming, in a sense, more American.''
So are Canadian fears justified, or are they overblown?
Violent crime in Canada has almost doubled since 1977, an average annual increase of 5 percent, according to Statistics Canada. Yet this fact is misleading if weighed in context with the issue of gun control. That's because minor assaults - not involving weapons - have increased rapidly and make up the bulk of reported violent crime.
Canada's homicide rate has remained a third of the US rate for more than a decade. Murders involving guns of all kinds have actually decreased, although handgun murders have increased. Robberies in which guns are used have increased.
Adding complexity is the fact that citizens today are more likely to report crime than in past years. This may account for some of the increases in ``reported'' violent crime, Statistics Canada says. Others say it is possible that intensive news media coverage of the multicity murders may have left many Canadians with an impression that assaults with a gun are more common than they actually are.
``I don't see the media as being in any way outside the process they are reporting on,'' says Richard Ericson, a University of British Columbia professor. ``The reporters, in the way they use sources, are active players. They don't reflect reality, they help to constitute the reality.''
Such arguments, however, are unlikely to persuade antiviolence advocates who say Canadian culture is floating toward a waterfall of American-style violence.
``I'm tired of hearing about [inconclusive] crime statistics,'' says Priscilla de Villiers, whose daughter was murdered in 1991. She now heads CAVEAT, or Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating its Termination. ``I was an immigrant to this country in 1979 and I was struck by how peaceful and trusting it was,'' she says. ``I see the change.''