The Ontario government has for years been flouting a law that requires the Solicitor-General to track all firearms seized by police forces in the province, creating a major blind spot for authorities just as gun violence is on the rise in Toronto and across the country.
The province has sought to rectify the oversight in recent months, but only after The Globe and Mail made a freedom-of-information request for the records that turned up nothing.
The lapse is part of a larger, national data gap on firearms that has hobbled Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair’s efforts to stem gun crime in the wake of the Danforth shooting last year. Canada’s lack of gun data is a recurring theme in a report released by Mr. Blair’s office this month that summarizes the results of his cross-country consultation on the matter.
“There is a need to improve the ongoing collection and sharing of data on gun crime, particularly in terms of sources of illicit firearms and the types of crime being committed,” one passage reads. “It was expressed that data is critical for supporting law enforcement and border agencies’ efforts, as well as informing policy and legislation.”
Under Section 134 (8) of the Police Services Act, Ontario’s Solicitor-General is supposed to collect annual reports on gun seizures from every police force in the province. The provision came into law in 1990 and arose from an investigation into how a Niagara Region police chief, James Gayder, had accumulated a personal collection of 136 handguns, many of which had been seized by police over several years.
The investigation also found that police forces in Ontario had been selling seized and used police guns to offset the cost of new weapons and other equipment. The gun-tracking rule was enshrined, in part, to “police the police,” according to a 2007 Ontario Superior Court decision.
“This section was designed to enhance the safety of police services throughout the province and surely enhance the safety of the community at large,” said Steven Offer, who was solicitor-general when the provision became law, in an interview with The Globe.
At first the government found little practical use for the annual paper reports. But in the mid-nineties, the firearms unit of the Ontario Provincial Police retrieved the reports from storage in North Bay and used them to assemble a database called SOURCE, which contained a record of every firearm seized by police since 1994.
In the Ontario Superior Court decision, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (now the Ministry of the Solicitor-General) sought to deny a Toronto Star reporter’s request to access SOURCE data by arguing that it contained sensitive information used for “tracking both legal and illegal weapons and export and import offences dealing with firearms and other weapons under the Criminal Code.”
But at some point, SOURCE was discontinued and the Solicitor-General stopped collecting annual firearm reports from police.
The lapse came to the ministry’s attention when The Globe asked for a copy of the data via freedom-of-information legislation late last year.
“Please be advised that access to the requested records cannot be granted, as the information does not exist,” the ministry responded in a letter. “Experienced staff familiar with the record holdings of the Ministry conducted a records search. No responsive records were located … To date, this information has not been received/collected by the ministry.”
In recent weeks, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has sent police forces reminders of their legislated obligation to submit firearm information. The ministry, meanwhile, has requested firearm reports for 2018 and 2017.
“At the beginning of 2019, the ministry finalized a technical solution that allows for information to be extracted directly from police services’ records management systems and submitted to the ministry,” spokesman Brent Ross said. “The solution was put in place in an effort to reduce the administrative burden on police services.”
Mr. Ross said the information will be used to identify gun trafficking trends as well as “identifying links in cases between jurisdictions.”
The ministry did not disclose why the collection of firearm information had ceased.
The second-largest municipal force in the province, Peel Regional Police, submitted its two requested reports on April 1 but was previously unaware of the reporting requirement.
“We have updated our processes to ensure these annual reports are submitted in accordance with the act into the future,” Sergeant Matt Bertram said. “I would also like to clarify that although we had not submitted an annual report to the ministry, we have always maintained stringent records of all property, including firearms. This information is used not only to take inventory, but to identify trends and assist in decision-making around day-to-day operations and resource deployment.”
Several other major forces told The Globe they were complying with the law.
Toronto police recorded 428 shootings last year, the highest annual total in the force’s public statistical database, which dates to 2004. Across the country, gun crimes soared 42 per cent from 2013 to 2017.
“The need for collecting this information in 2019 is in fact greater than what it was in 1990 with respect to gun violence,” Mr. Offer said. "I would think there is greater reason to comply with this part of the act. I don’t think it’s appropriate that any piece of legislation be followed by some and not others.”