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Firearms tracing data was requested from 36 police forces across the country. None were able to provide it

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A handgun sits on a display rack at Sept. 6's Tactical and Competitive Shooting Sports Show in Mississauga. A string of shootings in Toronto and other cities last year has renewed debate about possible bans on handguns and assault rifles.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

In August, 2018, amid a national debate over a handgun ban following a deadly shooting in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood, The Globe set out to answer one question central to that debate: Where do the guns used in crimes come from?

Those in favour of a ban pointed to statistics saying the number of so-called crime guns from domestic sources was on the rise, citing a detective with Toronto Police’s guns and gangs unit who said that, in 2017, half of the city’s crime guns came from within Canada. Police forces out west have come up with similar figures. In 2014, an annual report by the RCMP’s Firearms Operations and Enforcement Support Unit, a team tasked with finding trends in illegal firearms, found that 114 of the 229 of crime guns successfully traced in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon were sourced domestically.

These figures are disputed by those opposed to a ban, who argue that legally obtained guns are not the weapons used in cases like the Danforth shooting, and that gun-sourcing figures don’t take into consideration the number of guns that can’t be traced.

Investigation: Canada’s charged debate over gun control has largely focused on assault-style rifles. But data show that’s not the problem

In an effort to build a national picture of crime-gun sourcing, we filed more than 40 access-to-information requests to governments and the largest metropolitan police forces in the country. We also spoke to dozens of academics, policymakers and people with law-enforcement experience to determine what kinds of data points we should be asking for, and requested a laundry list of information, including: The type of gun, whether it was used in a crime, how many times it was used in a crime, whether the gun had been traced and, if so, the results of that trace.

We surfaced dozens of datasets covering everything from ballistics to lost and stolen firearms. The data showed how often guns were seized, what kinds of guns were used in crimes and how often police could match crime guns across different cases – but nothing about where they were coming from.

Our access-to-information requests to municipal police forces also came up short: Of the 36 forces across the country from which we requested firearms-tracing data, none were able to provide it.

In almost all cases, we found that police-level tracing information – when it existed – was kept as written reports attached to individual case files. The police forces said they would have to spend hundreds or thousands of hours to find, scan, redact and release each tracing report for the thousands of firearms they seize each year. It could be years before we received the files we’d requested.

The fee estimates were often staggering. The Peterborough Police Service quoted us $4,000 to provide any kind of tracing information. Windsor said it would cost $6,000. Our largest fee estimate came from the Greater Sudbury Police Service, which asked for $26,460 to produce the files.

We eventually changed our requests to accommodate what the police forces felt they were capable of providing in a reasonable time frame, which meant excluding tracing information and focusing on seized and surrendered statistics, which would show us the number and kinds of firearms law enforcement were seizing.

Some police forces refused to release anything at all. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, a provincial police force that is also the local police in St. John’s, denied us outright, as did the Longueuil and Quebec City police forces.

Further complicating matters, police forces across the country do not use the same digital record-keeping systems for their case files. (In Canada, most police services use one of two major record-management software systems – Versaterm or Niche.) In practice, this meant the data we received differed substantially depending on the records system used by that particular police force.

The use of two different systems has also led to problems for the RCMP, which polices communities in many parts of the country. Nationally, the RCMP employs the Niche system, but in British Columbia, it uses Versaterm (for contractual reasons). Since the systems can’t communicate with each other, any data-heavy analysis of the RCMP’s case files requires two separate data extractions, one for each system.

In Ontario, police forces do work together to keep centralized records of tracing information. Most police forces submit their seized crime guns to the Ontario Provincial Police for testing and analysis, and receive a report that logs the test results and sourcing for each gun, if it can be determined.

Results are logged in the province’s Firearms Tracing and Enforcement database (FATE). The Globe filed an access-to-information request for a copy of the FATE database in December, 2018, and was denied access in January. An appeal of that decision is ongoing.

Meanwhile, our requests suggested another possible source of tracing information: the Public Agents Firearms Regulations database (PAFR), an inventory of seized and surrendered weapons for police forces across the country. However, the version of PAFR The Globe received did not contain all the fields we requested, including sourcing information.

Often, guns are not traced at all.

Assuming an investigator decides to trace a firearm, it gets sent to a forensic lab for testing, where technicians might test-fire the weapon and log its ballistic signature or use acids and other chemicals to restore the firearm’s serial number if it’s been filed off.

But tracing is expensive – police forces must pay for the technicians’ time – and time-consuming. Besides, tracing a gun often does nothing to help solve the crime at hand, meaning many jurisdictions simply don’t bother.

Even when the firearms are traced, there can be significant backlogs. The RCMP’s forensics lab can take up to a year to trace a gun after receiving the request from a police service.

Some police services have resorted to analyzing and tracing firearms themselves. The Toronto Police Service has its own forensics lab and a policy of tracing every single firearm it receives. That means it has a very good idea of how many seized firearms were sourced domestically.

According to a 2018 report from Toronto Police’s Firearm Enforcement Unit obtained through an access-to-information request, 70 per cent of Toronto’s crime guns for which sourcing could be determined came from the United States, compared to the 50-per-cent average between 2014 and 2017. (Toronto Police attribute the increase in foreign sourcing in 2018 to two large seizures by the guns-and-gangs unit.)

Jooyoung Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on gun violence, says keeping this firearm-sourcing data should become standard for police services. Without it, policymakers are left in the dark.

“Any kind of discussion about a federal ban would need to have some data to support that it would significantly reduce the stockpile of firearms that people are using in crimes,” he says.

Mr. Lee also notes that while Canada’s gun laws are more restrictive than those in the United States, Americans have far greater access to data on guns and gun violence.

Statistics Canada has begun to address these blind spots. As reported by The Globe earlier this year, the department completed a survey of police forces about the data they currently collect, a first step in centralizing tracing information and eventually closing the gap.

“To me, it’s a call for more data and a more serious eye on these trends,” Mr. Lee says.

Meanwhile, more than a year after we filed our first access-to-information requests – and with several still outstanding – we’re no closer to finding the answer.

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