Handgun bans. Anti-gang crackdowns. Easy bail. In Toronto, as the number of people killed or injured in shootings continues to surge, such terms are often used by municipal leaders, politicians, police. But what do we really know about guns, gangs, and possible solutions to a growing violence problem? Over the next four weeks, the Star is aiming to find answers … and to find out when we don’t know the answers … to some life-and-death questions.
At the entrance to Canada’s largest firearms show, a woman stares intently out from an enlarged poster, her handgun trained on those walking through the doors. “Welcome shooters!” it greets. Inside, laid out in the expansive Mississauga conference centre opposite Pearson International, a gun smorgasbord awaits.
Last month, 18,778 people attended to the Tactical and Competitive Shooting Sports Show, a three-day event purported to be Canada’s “premier gun exhibition.” Salespeople hawked everything from gun lubricant, cleaning supplies and shooting courses, to custom firearm coatings, cammo sports bras, and gun patches — “2nd Amendment — America’s Original Homeland Security,” one read. “Guns, Ammo, Coffee,” said another.
And there was the main draw — scores of guns, displayed floor to ceiling in booths set up by some of North America’s top manufacturers: rifles, shotguns, and handguns, prices in one booth ranging from to $549 for a handgun to $2,100 for a hunting rifle.
A hub of gun commerce, the show also serves as a gathering space for a community that feels it, too, has come under fire. Speakers took to the stage to discuss the latest issues facing firearms owners in Canada, and though the federal election had not yet been called the campaigning for gun rights was in full force.
“If you’ve never knocked a door in your life,” said Michelle Rempel, a Conservative MP running for re-election in Calgary, “this is the election, boys and girls.”
An outspoken gun advocate, Rempel told those gathered that they must speak out against “the feel good, non-fact-based policies of special interest groups.” Adding further restrictions to legally owned firearms, she said, won’t reduce the gun violence that has prompted calls for stricter gun control.
As anticipated, gun control has become a platform issue in the ongoing federal election — particularly in Toronto, where a spike in shootings has raised legitimate public safety concerns. While some are calling for stricter guns laws, there is strong pushback from gun enthusiasts protective of their rights and property.
What are the odds that the next Toronto shooting will be committed with a legally acquired gun — bought then stolen? Isn’t it more likely that the weapon would be sourced from the untold numbers smuggled in from the United States?
As the debate over gun control continues, a look at these and other big questions surrounding gun availability in Toronto and beyond.
How big is the gun problem in Toronto, by the numbers?
Guns are the most common weapon used in Toronto’s homicides. So far this year, 30 of 53 homicides have involved firearms. Over the last 15 years, 2004 to 2018 inclusive, guns have been the most fatal weapon in the city, used in 52 per cent of all homicides and accounting for over 500 deaths.
The city is currently on track for a record year in shooting injuries and deaths. The combined total of those figures is the best baseline for understanding gun violence, according to international best practices.
As of Monday, 202 people had been killed or injured in shootings this year. That’s up from 82 by this time five years ago and marking the most shootings that injured or killed someone by October 6 in any year in police records back to 2004.
Gun crime is also rising nationwide. The number of people killed by guns has more than doubled between 2013 to 2017, up to 227 from 109, according to Statistics Canada.
The use of handguns, specifically, is also rising. In 2017, 68 per cent of violent gun crime in urban Canada involved handguns, Statistics Canada reports.
Where are crime guns on Toronto’s streets coming from?
There are two main sources of guns coming into Canada. They are either smuggled across the 8,891-kilometre border with the U.S. or they were acquired by a licensed gun store or owner, then either stolen or sold via a “straw purchase” — a once-legal gun sold on the black market.
Toronto police have provided some insight into the origin of guns in recent years, and changing trends show the source can switch quickly.
According to statistics recently provided to the Star, 222 — or 75 per cent — of the 296 firearms seized so far this year originated in the U.S. Seventy-four guns were domestically sourced.
Guns sourced last year tell a similar story: 70 per cent originated in the U.S., while 30 per cent were domestic. However, Toronto police were unsuccessful in sourcing 161 firearms, representing 25 per cent of the 620 guns seized last year.
The difference between U.S. versus domestic guns is even greater when looking only at handguns. Toronto police statistics show 83 per cent of handguns seized this year and 78 per cent of those seized in 2018 were from the U.S.
But Toronto police say the recent high proportion of seized U.S. guns can be “attributed mainly” to two large firearms seizures by the police integrated gun and gang task force, including Project Patton, a 2018 gang sweep that saw 75 people arrested. Police told reporters the guns were brought from Florida and were en route to being trafficked on Toronto streets; 60 firearms were found to be in the possession of one individual. (The other seizure was Project Belair, which resulted in the discovery of 30 firearms after a November 2018 probe into a cross-border smuggling ring).
Prior to those stings, the guns seized by Toronto police from 2014 through 2017 were split down the middle between domestic and U.S. guns, averaging 50 per cent over the four years.
Asked this month where he believed crime guns are coming from, Chief Mark Saunders reiterated that most are coming from the U.S.
“When it comes to street gangs and the investigations that we have done, there is little factor in folks with licensed guns,” Saunders told reporters.
Where are the crime guns coming from nationwide?
While many police leaders and experts say the majority of guns come from the U.S., there’s little national public data on the source of weapons used in Canadian crime, something researchers and policy-makers have lamented.
Christian Leuprecht, a Queen’s University and Royal Military College of Canada political science professor who studies gun smuggling and policing, says Canada could track guns more effectively — “it’s a matter of political will, resources, and appropriate legal frameworks.”
For example, guns can be “readily tracked” through ballistics analysis — “a gun’s fingerprint,” Leuprecht says, and U.S. officials keep a vast database.
In their 2014 study “Guns for Hire: North America’s Intra-continental Gun Trafficking Networks,” Leuprecht and co-author Andrew Aulthouse say the majority of crime guns come from the U.S.; as Canada “adjoins the largest weapons market in the world, it is unsurprising.”
A similar conclusion was reached in the 2009 paper, “The illicit firearms trade in North America,” finding that “gun trafficking in particular is profitable because gun markets in Canada and Mexico are strictly regulated and the U.S.A. is a relatively low-cost supplier to those who want to acquire illicit guns.”
Police leaders have more recently acknowledged that hard numbers are required for good public policy, particularly amid a growing chorus of demand for stricter gun control.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, representing Canadian police chiefs, has formed a committee on firearms which will examine the issue of data collection and information-sharing about crime guns.
“We also want to better understand where these guns are coming from,” association president Adam Palmer told the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence earlier this year. “Again, we all agree, we need better data, which we are currently working on to improve. We cannot rely on anecdotal stories to make decisions.”
Palmer said in August that his organization would not be supporting a handgun ban, saying firearm laws are already strict and the reality is “there will always be an influx of guns from the United States into Canada.”
How do guns get across the border, and how many make it across?
Over the August long weekend, a woman entering from the U.S. drove to the border crossing at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and was selected for additional inspection. Border agents looked inside her purse and found two handguns — one black, one powder blue.
Nineteen days later, another driver was stopped at the nearby Ambassador Bridge, where border security officers found three handguns, a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun inside the vehicle.
The guns are among the 231 firearms seized this year at Canada Border Services Agency crossings in southern Ontario alone. Last year in the CBSA’s Southern Ontario Region, agents seized 305 firearms; the majority of those caught with guns at the Canadian land border were American (404) though 23 were Canadian.
Canada’s firearm laws state that travellers must declare any gun to border agents. Those who fail to do so face a range of penalties; the female driver, for instance, paid $2,000 and returned to the United States, while the second was charged. Failure to declare a firearm “may lead to seizure, criminal charges, monetary penalties and may make you inadmissible to Canada,” according to a CBSA spokesperson.
But while hundreds of firearms are intercepted, an untold number of guns make it across without detection by agents or border detection dogs. Smugglers can use hiding spots in vehicles, including secret compartments in gas tanks, behind side panels, and inside stereos.
Police leaders have in turn called for changes that would increase border officials’ ability to intercept firearms at the border. In a recent statement the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said border officials need greater resources, such as increased staffing, to police vehicles coming into Canada, alongside new offences and penalties in order to stop the flow of illegal firearms.
What do we know about gun smuggling operations?
There’s a big cash incentive to smuggle weapons into Canada from the U.S.: the markup can be about 10 times the original price.
Handguns can be purchased on Toronto streets for $1,000 to $2,000, though prices are higher for “clean” guns that can’t be traced to any previous crimes. A Toronto court heard earlier this year that former Michigan National Guard member Randy Jackson bought handguns for $200 to $500 (U.S.) and sold them in the GTA for almost $4,000 (Canadian).
Because of the ease with which Americans can buy guns in many states, most smuggling networks are simple. “Mules” — those who actually carry the guns — tend to be younger, 20 to 25 years old and female, while brokers, those who sell the guns, are more likely to be in their 30s and male, according to Leuprecht and Aulthouse’s 2014 study “Guns for Hire.”
“The ease with which individuals can cross and the large supply of legal guns in the United States seems to allow for the proliferation of many small, unsophisticated gun trafficking networks,” the researchers write.
From which U.S. states the guns originate is not something that’s tracked by Canada Border Services Agency. But because of the relative ease to purchase gun in Ohio, Florida, Georgia and Michigan, these states are frequently cited as source states for guns that end up on Canadian streets.
“The problem in Ohio is the second-hand gun shows where you can procure guns without showing identification,” Leuprecht said in an interview. “Georgia is particularly problematic because laws are lax and you have an easy highway route north.”
What are the penalties for smuggling guns into Canada? A look at two recent cases
In January, Jackson — the former Michigan National Guard member who smuggled 67 handguns into Canada — was sentenced to eight years in jail. The judge then deducted two years and three-and-a-half months for pretrial time served and lockdown conditions for the 35-year-old first-time offender.
Jackson smuggled guns for gangs in London, Ont. and the GTA. He is a father of two and stepfather of two other children who volunteered as an assistant coach for the Ontario Basketball Association.
In Montreal last year, Thanh Viet Pham was handed a seven-year sentence for smuggling 25 guns into Canada from U.S. Interstate 87 through the border crossing between Champlain, New York and Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec. Some of those guns were destined for the GTA, court heard.
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Pham, who said he smuggled the handguns to even a debt with drug dealers, was given a two-year credit for pretrial custody, leaving him with a five-year term.
The guns were worth $3,000 a piece in Canada, court heard. They were described as “burners,” meaning they would be tossed away after being used in a crime because criminals knew it would be easy to find replacements.
How do Canadians legally get guns?
As of Aug. 31, 2019, there were 1,211,770 valid registered firearms in Canada. But the number of guns in the country far exceeds that tally, due to both the smuggling of illegal guns and the cancellation of the long-gun registry in 2012, which ended the requirement for non-restricted firearms to be registered.
Buying a gun is not as simple as walking into, say, the Tactical and Competitive Shooting Sports Show or one of Ontario’s 1,100 firearms businesses.
Canada regulates the possession, storage, and transportation of guns and ammunition and the RCMP’s Canadian Firearms Program oversees licencing. To own or buy a gun, Canadians must have a basic licence known as a Possession and Acquisition License (PAL). To get one, you must be a Canadian resident 18 or older and pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course and pass tests, which cover a variety of topics including firearm parts, basic safety and care, handling and carrying procedures, ammunition and safe storage.
The licence application form includes questions about criminal history and mental health, and the applicant must also provide the names and contact information for any current or former partners (within the last two years).
“Personal history questions on the firearms licence application form help to identify certain situations that are known to increase the risk of someone becoming violent or suicidal, and require applicants to disclose mental health concerns like depression; alcohol, drug or substance abuse; behavioural problems; or emotional problems,” said RCMP Cpl. Megan Apostoleris.
If any of these answers raise a public safety concern, the form is flagged to the chief firearms officer, who oversees firearms at the provincial level. If background and eligibility questions are not answered to the chief firearms officer’s satisfaction, the application is refused, Apostoleris said.
After a licence is approved, there’s what’s called “continuous eligibility screening,” which involves daily cross-checking between the list of firearms licence holders and the Canadian Police Information Centre, a national law enforcement database. If someone with a gun licence is involved in a police incident, the chief firearms officer in the relevant province will review of the individual’s licence to decide if it should be revoked.
This screening reduces the likelihood that someone who may be a risk to public safety will keep their gun, Apostoleris said.
All firearms licences must be renewed every five years.
How do Canadians get licences for restricted weapons, such as handguns?
By law, Canadians can only possess a restricted weapon, such as a handgun, for specified purposes. Personal safety is not among them.
According to the RCMP, the primary purposes are for target shooting or that the gun is part of a collection. When applying for the licence to own a restricted weapon, an RPAL, applicants have to provide the intended purpose of the weapon.
It’s also the responsibility of the provincial chief firearms officer to confirm the reason for the firearm. For example, gun owners who’ve stated their purpose is target shooting must give the chief firearms officer proof that they are a member of a shooting club or range.
Aspiring gun owners also have to pass an additional firearm class: the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course.
According to RCMP statistics, in 2018 there were 1,530,328 licences in Canada for nonrestricted firearms, such as most common long guns; 595,349 licences for restricted weapons, such as handguns, and 48,998 for prohibited firearms, such as a fully automatic AR-15.
Why do Canadians want to own legal guns — and why do others want a ban?
As the gun control debate has intensified throughout the election, many have asked why some Canadians own a firearm, particularly in a city. There’s a multitude of reasons, including for hunting, collection, and sport. Star asked four people who own guns for target shooting.
Andrew Tyler, who was born in Toronto but now lives in Victoria, owns multiple guns and has had his restricted weapons licence since the age of 18.
“There is nothing that caps off a long week like a Friday afternoon at the range,” he said. “I enjoy the design, the construction and sheer pleasure of going to the range and enjoying the relaxation and friendships there.”
Emily Brown, who is on the Ontario Provincial Trapshooting Association All-Star Team, said there’s a strong sense of community among sport shooters, who she says “reflect every walk of Canadian life, from all ages, to all cultural and religious backgrounds, all educational and socio-economic backgrounds and all physical abilities.”
For others, the sport is a means through which to test themselves.
“The process of striving toward perfection in my sport is what drives a lot of my passion for the sport,” said Allan Harding, a national pistol champion. “Making adjustments, being disciplined and focused, improving. I approach life the same way.”
For Jordana Goldlist, a Toronto criminal lawyer who owns 11 guns including six handguns, the benefits are personal and professional. While her job is intellectual and her time at the gym is about strength, shooting “is pure focus and concentration” — “all about making your body stay still when every instinct is to flinch at the recoil.”
She said understanding the mechanics of shooting has also helped in at least a dozen cases.
“I also work closely with gang members (ex and current) and I know that this attack on law-abiding gun-owners will not curb gun violence in any way,” she said.
Many others disagree — even while acknowledging that the central source of crime guns is not legal gun owners. In the view of proponents of stricter gun control, it comes down to a simple equation: fewer guns equal fewer shootings.
“We believe more guns lead to more chances for abuse — that legally obtained weapons can end up in the hands of criminals,” Ken Price told the Star earlier this year.
Price, whose daughter was shot in the thigh during last summer’s Danforth shooting, is part of a group of victims and family members from the 2018 Danforth tragedy that is pushing for a ban on handguns and assault rifles.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has said that if a handgun ban even saves one life, it would be worth it — something Chief Saunders referenced when asked if he supported a ban. Noting some Toronto police investigations have involved stolen legal guns, the chief said there could be some benefit to a handgun ban.
Others, including a coalition of medical professionals and public health experts, stress that systemic changes, including addressing the root causes of gun violence, are what’s necessary, alongside treating the problem as a preventable public health crisis.
What are the parties promising when it comes to curbing gun violence?
In recent weeks, the parties have released details about their approaches to tackling gun violence.
Late last month, the Liberal party announced plans to ban military-style assault rifles, such as the AR-15, a rapid-fire gun that has become feared in part because it’s been used in mass shootings in the U.S. The plan would involve a buyback of legally owned assault-style weapons, with a two-year amnesty for legal owners.
“You do not need a military-grade assault weapon — one designed to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time — to take down a deer,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told reporters while in Toronto.
The Liberals have not called for a national ban on handguns, as sought by some seeking stricter gun control. Instead, they would empower local governments to enact their own municipal handgun ban. The party has since pledged an additional $250 million to Canadian cities to help fight guns and gangs.
No party has provided details on how a ban might work within a municipality — for instance, how much it might cost cities. Federal sources previously told the Star that a national handgun ban could cost as much as $2 billion if the government bought back the weapons.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have promised to repeal parts of C-71 — recent gun legislation that enhanced background checks, among other changes — and have come out strongly against a handgun ban, saying it penalizes legal gun owners.
Instead, they are promising mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes, and say they will “identify known gangs as criminal entities” in the Criminal Code. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he would aim to punish criminals, not the “law-abiding” gun owners. They have pledged to bring in tougher sentences for possession of a smuggled firearm.
Scheer has said he would also create a CBSA firearms smuggling task force to intercept illegal guns.
The New Democrats have said they would “work to keep assault weapons and illegal handguns off our streets.” Leader Jagmeet Singh has said he would not institute a national handgun ban, but would remove federal barriers to allow municipalities to ban handguns.
If elected, he said his party would invest $100 million over five years to combat the root causes of crime, funding programs such as sports and drop-in centres for young people.
The Green party has said it would work to intercept illegal handguns at the border by redirecting CBSA resources to weapons smuggling. The party would also launch “a confidential buyback program for handguns and assault weapons,” after announcing in August that they would call for a Canada-wide ban on semi-automatic assault rifles and all handguns except those used for sport and by police.