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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's murder rate in 2010 fell to a 44-year low of just 1.62 per 100,000 people, official data showed on Wednesday, just a day after the government said it would ease the country's strict gun laws.
By contrast, the murder rate in the neighboring United States - where gun laws are generally more relaxed - was 4.8 per 100,000 people in 2010.
Statistics Canada said police reported 554 homicides in 2010, 56 fewer than in 2009. The decline followed a decade of relative stability in Canada, which has a population of around 34.5 million.
Statscan said the overall drop in murders was driven by fewer incidents in the Western provinces, which had seen several gang-related killings in recent years, and noted a steady decline in murders committed with rifles and shotguns.
This could pose awkward questions for the right-leaning Conservative government, which on Tuesday said it would press ahead with plans to scrap a registry of long guns on the grounds that it was expensive and did not help cut crime.
The registry was set up in 1995 in reaction to a massacre in 1989 in which a gunman with a rifle murdered 14 women at a Montreal college.
Gun licenses are already mandatory for anyone wishing to use weapons, and registration of handguns has been long been required.
The Conservatives are also pressing ahead with a program to toughen sentences for serious crimes.
A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he was pleased to see the lower number of murders.
"However, this does not change our approach ... one homicide is one too many. That is why we will continue to take action to toughen the laws, stand-up for victims and hold criminals responsible," he said.
Police reported 170 homicides with a firearm in 2010, down from 180 the year before.
They classified 94 homicides in 2010 as gang related, down from 124 in 2009 and the second annual decline. Gang-related homicides reached a record high of 138 in 2008.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway