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It is an oft-repeated truism that Canada is safer from crime than the United States, but a recent study shows there is an alarming degree of truth behind the cliché.

Three times as many murders and twice as many aggravated assaults are committed in the United States as in Canada, according to a study released yesterday by Statistics Canada.

The gap between the two violent-crime rates, experts say, results from vastly different public policies and popular attitudes toward guns, personal freedom, social programs and economic inequality.

The Statistics Canada study examined the past 20 years of crime on both sides of the border. Overall crime rates have been falling since 1991, and the per-capita difference between the number of property crimes -- breaking and entering, vehicle theft, arson -- has narrowed, though Canada still reports more of these non-violent offences.

The United States remains vastly more violent, however, with about 200 per cent more homicides, 127 per cent more aggravated assaults and 65 per cent more robberies.

Those statistics are directly related to the number of guns owned by Americans, says Wendy Cukier, a professor of justice studies at Ryerson University and president of the Coalition for Gun Control. About 18 per cent of Canadian households contain at least one gun, she said, compared with about 40 per cent of American households.

"It's very hard to make the argument that the U.S. is inherently more violent," she said. "There's just a huge difference in lethal violence because of handguns."

If homicides involving handguns were omitted from the statistics, Ms. Cukier said, the difference between the murder rates in the two countries would be marginal.

Still, many observers say the statistics point to a cross-border divide that runs deeper than gun-control policy.

"There are so many things that we do better than the Americans," said Dr. Kulwant Riar, a crime expert and psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia. "We don't have as many gangs, we have better social programs, and our mental-health system is great, comparatively."

Kim Rossmo, research director at the Police Foundation in Washington, said violence in America is fuelled by economic disparities. Criminologists call it "relative deprivation," he said, when the rich and poor live side by side.

"If you're poor, and your neighbour is poor, then you might not have anything to steal from your neighbour and you might not feel that bad anyway," Mr. Rossmo said. "But when you're driving an old Honda Civic and your neighbour's driving a new Mercedes, that has a different influence." -*** Safer in Canada Comparing the crime rates (per 100,000 population) in Canada and the U.S. in 2002

Homicide                   1.8       5.5
Aggravated assault*        143       324
Robbery                     88       145
Break and enter            954       728
Motor vehicle theft        521       414
Other theft              2,224     2,475
Arson                       45        32

-*For comparison purposes, the Canadian category of aggravated assault includes assault with a weapon, attempted murder and aggravated asault. Source: Statistics Canada

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