Posts comparing school gun violence in Canada and US mislead

A claim that Canada has had just three school shootings compared to 200 in the US since the Columbine massacre is recirculating in posts critiquing American gun policies. This figure is missing context; it fails to specify what kind of incidents were included in the count -- appearing to exclude those at universities and daycares -- and with no uniform method to record events, comparisons are inaccurate.

"Our friendly neighbors from the north GET IT," says the caption of a Facebook post from the US political activist page Occupy Democrats on September 3, 2023, which received tens of thousands of interactions.

The photo in the post includes text which claims that despite listening "to the same music" and playing "the same video games," the US has seen more than 200 school shootings since the deadly attack at Columbine High School in the US state of Colorado in 1999, while Canada has had only three.

"It's the guns," the text concludes, attributing the claim to Aaron Hoyland, who describes himself as an IT professional in Edmonton.

Different posts including screenshots of what appears to be Hoyland's original post on X -- formerly known as Twitter -- also spread on Facebook and Instagram, including one post liked more than 6,200 times.

<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken September 12, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken September 12, 2023

Hoyland made the claim on May 27, 2022, three days after a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas where 19 students and two teachers were killed.

Recent recirculations of the claim appeared to begin around August 30, 2023, two days after a professor was fatally shot at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill in the US.

Noah Schwartz, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Fraser Valley, said statistics comparing different jurisdictions -- such as two different countries -- need to be clear about what variables they are using to ensure the comparison is accurate.

"With anything where we are counting, like school shootings or mass shootings, it's always really contentious and it always really depends on the definition that you're using," he said.

School shootings since Columbine

Schwartz, who studies firearms policy in North America, said stronger gun control legislation in Canada means that there are significantly fewer mass shootings at schools. But posts comparing the number of school shootings in the countries have previously generated misinformation.

"Obviously Canada has way, way less school shootings than the United States," he said. "But I think to count three -- you'd be using an incredibly restrictive definition of school shootings to get that number," he said.

In a reply to the original post, Hoyland clarified the claim was in reference to shootings at WR Myers High School in Alberta in 1999, Dawson College in Montreal in 2006 and La Loche Community School in Saskatchewan in 2016.

<span>Screenshot of an X post taken September 13, 2023</span>
Screenshot of an X post taken September 13, 2023

There are no central government agencies in either the US or Canada that track school shootings in their respective countries. News outlets in Canada have attempted to put together lists tallying the number of these incidents in the country (archived here and here).

These include the three violent events mentioned on X, but also deadly shooting incidents at Bramalea Secondary School in Ontario in 2004, CW Jeffreys Collegiate Institute in Toronto in 2007, the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 2012 and Les Racines de vie Montessori daycare in Quebec in 2013.

Local media also reported a shooting in Toronto at Woburn Collegiate Institute in October 2022.

Schwartz said some of these incidents only involved one death and could therefore not align with some definitions of a "mass school shooting," but this distinction is not included in the posts.

"I think this case is implicitly referring to mass school shootings by talking about Columbine, but they should be clear about saying 'mass school shootings.'"

Independent projects in the US tracking school shooting data use different constraints for what they include in their statistics. Some include incidents just at K-12 schools, while others include shootings on university campuses.

The post from May 2022 claims there have been 200 shootings in the US since Columbine, but a regularly updated database from The Washington Post recorded in September 2023 that there had been 386 shootings at schools since that event, including some that did not result in a death.

Firearms in Canada

Canada is the largest importer of US-manufactured guns, according to a Bloomberg report using data from the US Census Bureau and Statistics Canada. But the Small Arms Survey estimated in 2021 that there were nearly four times as many guns south of the border -- 120.5 firearms per 100,000 people in the US, while in Canada that number was 34.7 (archived here).

Schwartz said having comparable data that uses the same variables is key to making informed policy decisions.

"It gives a tool for movements and for policymakers to be able to make claims and change policy, which is important," he said, "And obviously, it gives us a better idea of the consequences of a policy decision by governments."

There are also major differences in gun ownership laws. Following the misogynistically motivated shooting at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, Canadian lawmakers voted to require more safety courses, centralized licensing and safe-storage requirements.

Bill C-21 would update firearms legislation to add ways to flag situations where an owner poses a risk and put a freeze on handgun sales. It passed a third reading in the House of Commons but is still under consideration in the Senate.

More of AFP's reporting on misinformation in Canada can be found here.