It was in the trunk of a vehicle in Cornwall, Ont., near the U.S. border, that a team of Toronto police officers made a remarkable discovery in May: 60 handguns that an alleged gun runner was delivering to gang members in the country’s largest city.
The cache of brand-new weapons from Florida – the largest single seizure of illegal guns by Toronto police – was touted as a milestone in law enforcement’s efforts to make the streets of the Greater Toronto Area safer.
“The guns were destined to become crime guns in Toronto and the GTA,” Deputy Chief James Ramer told a news conference last month, standing in front of tables displaying the firearms.
In the wake of a mass shooting in Toronto that left two dead and 13 injured, there is a renewed debate over gun control in Canada and questions about how guns make their way into the hands of criminals. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is considering a handgun ban, The Globe and Mail reported Friday.
But the Cornwall bust illustrates the difficulty lawmakers and law enforcement will encounter as they embark on efforts to stamp out illegal guns and tamp down Toronto’s violent year. Bringing 60 guns over the border required little more than a car and a willing mule; keeping them off the streets required a nine-month investigation by at least a dozen police agencies.
A handgun ban would put a squeeze on one of the two sources criminals rely on for firearms: handguns purchased legally in Canada that are then stolen or otherwise diverted to the illicit supply. Toronto police have yet to disclose the origin of the gun used in the Danforth rampage, but a Global Toronto report says it was a .40-calibre Smith & Wesson stolen from a Saskatchewan gun shop in 2016.
Police from coast to coast have noted a recent surge in the illegal handguns they’ve seized that are sourced domestically, once a meagre part of the supply chain.
Banning handgun purchases, however, would do little to cut off the second major supply: our southern neighbours. The United States is a global firearms colossus. The country accounts for just 5 per cent of the world’s population but 42 per cent of its civilian gun ownership, according to the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. With such a glut of guns just across the border, many spill over into Canada.
Authorities here are ill-equipped to stop the deluge.
“With the inspection rate we have, we’re clearly not going to get a handle on it through interdictions at the border,” said Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University who works extensively on security and defence research. “That’s just a fishing expedition.”
The fishing is complicated by the slew of agencies responsible for detecting and seizing guns coming across the border. The Canada Border Services Agency enforces designated ports of entry in the country, while the RCMP watch over the thousands of kilometres in between. In Ontario and Quebec, the interagency equation becomes more complex with the involvement of provincial police.
For its part, the CBSA snags roughly one gun every other day in Southern Ontario. But an agency spokesman said most of those come from U.S. travellers carrying an undeclared personal firearm, not from large-scale smuggling operations.
Occasionally, police land a big one.
The Cornwall bust targeted the Five Point Generalz, one of the largest gangs in Toronto. It culminated in co-ordinated raids last month that saw 75 people arrested and more than a thousand charges laid.
Police said the handguns retail for about $500 each but command roughly $4,000 on the streets of Toronto, meaning the 60 guns could have generated about $200,000 for the gang. All but one of the guns were 9-mm semi-automatics.
“These are brand-new guns – what is described among the gang culture as a clean gun. Clean guns demand more than dirty guns, which is obviously a gun that’s been used in a previous shooting,” said Inspector Donald Belanger, head of the integrated gun and gang task force, to reporters last month.
The Five Point Generalz weathered a similar bust in the past. Project Corral in 2010 netted 19 firearms and 73 kilograms of cocaine. Complex as that investigation may have been, it did not stop the gang from reappearing, acquiring more guns and wreaking more havoc on Toronto streets.
During court proceedings it became clear that the Five Point Generalz were a mere franchise in a much larger international enterprise, the Jamaica-based Shower Posse. Only when police in Jamaica and the United States launched a massive crackdown on the parent gang – including a bloody raid on the gang leader’s Kingston hideout that left about 70 people dead – did rampant gun violence in Toronto start to abate.
“We’re not very good at investigating transnational organized crime linkages,” said Dr. Leuprecht. “We live in a globalized world and we are still investigating these problems like a local city problem. We’re good at going after lower-level targets contributing to violence but not great at looking at the transnational networks.”
Smugglers are using increasingly sophisticated measures to evade police.
A search warrant application for a Toronto police investigation into the Dixon Crew, a Toronto gang, reveals that in 2013 gun runners randomly targeted unsuspecting Ontarians visiting Michigan. The traffickers hid guns and GPS units in socks, which they then hid inside the bumpers of vehicles with Ontario licence plates. Using the GPS units, they tracked the vehicles as they returned to Canada and then retrieved the firearms in the middle of the night.
At a recent guns and gangs summit, an RCMP official talked about the emerging threat of the dark net, a region of the internet accessible only to users with specific software. Rob O’Reilly, the interim director of firearms regulatory services at the RCMP, told attendees about someone in Sudbury who had purchased an AR-15 magazine and ammunition from a dark web vendor in Montana. The shipment came disguised in food packaging. Cryptocurrency obscured the transaction from the prying eyes of law enforcement.
Most observers agree that both Canada and the United States need closer co-operation among the myriad agencies responsible for guns and border integrity. The recent appointment of Bill Blair to a new federal cabinet post responsible for border security and organized crime reduction suggests the federal government realizes there’s a co-ordination problem.
Jeff McGuire, a former chief of the Niagara Regional Police Service and now executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, suggests changing legislation, policing practices and cross-border co-operation as a start.
“We’d need stronger enforcement, stronger sentencing, stronger punishment,” he said. “But a big part of our challenge is that it’s so easy in some U.S. states to purchase a handgun. We’ve heard of people bulk purchasing firearms, and it would help to know about that. Nobody who shoots targets needs 15 Rugers of the same model. Some flagging and intel work would help with that.”
But what about crime guns that originate in Canada? More and more, police forces say they are tracing crime guns to domestic sources.
Handguns are considered restricted weapons in Canada. Would-be owners need to pass background checks, take a two-day safety course, pass written and practical tests and join a shooting club to obtain a permit for transporting the weapon – known as an Authorization to Transport, it essentially allows the owner to take the gun from their safe at home to the shooting range and back.
The onerous process failed to put a lid on restricted gun ownership in recent years. RCMP data show the number of registered restricted weapons surged from 659,387 in 2013 to 839,295 in 2016, a 27-per-cent increase.
“The increase has been dramatic,” said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. “The standards have dropped, there’s not as much rigour being applied to the screening process, which makes it easier, which makes more people apply. As well, the lack of resources to do thorough investigations is a factor. … There’s a higher likelihood that you will be called as a passport reference than if you sign a firearms licence application [to vouch for someone].”
Police forces say there has been a corresponding increase in the ratio of crime guns traced to domestic sources. Toronto guns and gangs Detective Rob Di Danieli told The Canadian Press that roughly half of all crime guns came from domestic sources last year, up from 25 per cent five years ago.
There is little data to back up that assertion or provide any national picture of crime-gun origins.
“That’s one of the black boxes in the world of gun studies,” said Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who researches guns and gun violence. “We know that it’s happening. We know that when they make these busts and seizures that it’s happening. And we hear policy-makers talking about it as a problem, but the scope and the mechanisms of this problem are not well known, at least among the research community.”
The RCMP do not collect or maintain statistics on the origins of illegal handguns, according to spokesman Harold Pfleiderer.
Generally speaking, Dr. Lee said criminals get domestic guns in two ways: by stealing them and through straw purchasers, who buy guns legally then turn around and resell them to thugs willing to pay a premium.
Until the U.S. takes the improbable step of enacting tighter gun controls, Canada can never hope to eradicate illegal firearms in this country. Failing that, Dr. Cukier said, new restrictions on handguns here would curb part of the problem.
“We’ve had a decade of governments more concerned with the gun lobby, frankly, and the opposition of gun owners to sensible controls than we’ve had people looking at the evidence and putting public safety as a priority – and we’re paying the price for that,” she said.
She cited figures showing that homicides with guns have increased over the past four years, suicides are up, domestic violence is up and theft is up. The figures “should not surprise anybody,” she said.
“All of this was predictable, and much of it was preventable. The evidence is really clear: You strengthen gun control, you tend to reduce gun death and injury. You relax gun control, you tend to increase it.”