After a gun goes off during a crime in Toronto, a team of experts tries to decipher its provenance.
If investigators believe the gun is from the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) gets involved. Special Agent Regina Lombardo arrived in Toronto seven years ago this week to open the ATF’s third Canadian office, which covers most of the eastern half of the country.
The ATF won’t estimate the percentage of U.S.-sourced crime guns in Canada but Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has said 70 per cent of handguns seized by his officers in crimes are from the U.S.
In a summer of high-profile shootings, some in very public spaces, The Globe and Mail sat down with Special Agent Lombardo to talk about her work with police forces on both sides of the border.
Why does the ATF get involved?
For the most part, forces here can determine if a firearm is from the U.S. before they send a trace request to the ATF.
In the U.S., the ATF regulates the gun industry. A gun dealer has to provide their records to ATF. If it’s a Smith & Wesson firearm, that company has to provide all the information on it, including the last-known purchaser of that weapon. I have to fill in all the blanks from the purchase to the date and time that it was used in a crime here in Canada. I have to look at that trace and determine if there’s potentially trafficking factors: How did that firearm end up here in Toronto? Was it trafficked? Was it smuggled?
What happens south of the border?
If that gun was, say, purchased in Alabama, then I send that lead to the Alabama office and I put the agents in touch with the Canadian police. ATF agents also call for assistance for the U.S. to make connections with Canadian agencies and forces. It’s a lot of building relationships. If it does originate from the U.S., we’re investigating in the U.S., making an impact in violent crime because rarely will you see a trafficker traffic a firearm just to Canada and not other places.
What’s changed since you got here in 2005?
It was the Summer of the Gun [in Toronto]. At that time my priority had to shift to setting up an office because we had no presence here. It was pretty much focusing on the core issue, which was the gun-related homicides.
We set up a standard operating procedure to work with police forces and developed an urgent gun trace policy for homicides. Before, everything went through the Ottawa office. We also didn’t have the technology that we do now, eTrace, which is an electronic version.
What if people try to scratch off the serial number? Don’t you need that for tracing?
It’s called being obliterated – people drill the serial number sometimes. It’s a trafficking factor: Most don’t obliterate serial numbers unless they don’t want that person to know who purchased that weapon. We have technology now that we can recover that obliterated serial number and we train police department’s technicians, which is another one of our roles.
What does trafficking look like? How are guns shipped here and what’s the markup?
You have your mix. You have your trafficking groups, people that live in the U.S. part-time, Canadians that vacation in parts of the States. Since I’ve been here, 90 per cent of the cases are the drugs-for-guns exchange. Canadian [hydroponic], ecstasy, in exchange for handguns. I’ve never seen a truckload or something of that scale. Most of … the last few cases, they’re secreted inside cars, spare tires, all sorts of methods. Four, five at a time. A $200 weapon can go for $2,500 to $3,000 on the streets here so there’s a huge markup. The types of guns that we trace are mainly handguns, semiautomatic.
What cases are you most proud of since getting here?
Project Bluegrass involved Peel Region. It was a traditional trafficking type of case but the sentencing of the main person – Ricardo Tolliver, who got 32 years – was the first time we’ve ever received a sentence that high in the U.S. At one point he was getting different “mules” to go back and forth to the border and then he was actually working on making his own firearms. One of the weapons he transported here was used in the Bandido [motorcycle gang] murders.
For Project Singer, we used undercover Toronto officers in Windsor. The weapons were coming from Detroit and we believe they were destined for the streets of Toronto but we were able to cut that off. You’re talking about two separate countries, two separate rules and regulations and it was probably the most complex and most difficult for me to work through.
How did you get into this type of work?
I was on my way to law school and took a detour. I was finishing up my last year of college and got offered an internship at the academy. It was a hard agency to wrap your head around, it was very controversial, the right to bear arms. It was a challenge and there weren’t a lot of female agents at the time. I worked in the Miami field office for 15 years before Toronto, 10 as a street agent and five as a group supervisor in charge of a very multi-agency taskforce. Most of what they did was armed narcotic trafficking cases.
And on your time off?
I moved here with my two German Shepherds, Bosco and Paris, when they were puppies. That’s where I get my joy and that’s where I spend a lot of my quality time and thinking, even about decisions with work.