Statistics Canada has discovered inconsistencies in the way police across the country collect key firearms data, creating information gaps that have vexed the agency at a time of deep national division over how best to tackle rising gun crime.
The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, a division of Statistics Canada, has been working to identify and close data gaps on guns for nearly a year in collaboration with Public Safety Canada.
As part of that work, it issued a survey to around 60 police agencies asking detailed questions about how investigators record firearms seized after a crime − known as crime guns − what kinds of gun data they collect and what sorts of gun data they consider most useful.
More than 30 responses came back by the Jan. 18 deadline.
Based on the survey and other recent work, analysts encountered three main barriers to collating solid information on crime-gun origins, said Rebecca Kong, chief of policing services for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.
Foremost among them is the country’s patchwork approach to firearms tracing.
While investigators in Ontario are required to send all crime guns for tracing, that requirement doesn’t exist across the rest of the country, Ms. Kong said.
“There is a bit of challenge,” Ms. Kong said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “What we discovered is that there are no specific rules around when a firearm should be submitted for tracing outside of Ontario.”
A 2017 report from the B.C. Task Force on Illegal Firearms stated that approximately 30 per cent of crime guns are not traced.
But tracing every seized crime gun can uncover evidence in seemingly unrelated cases, build intelligence and build a reliable picture of where crime guns come from, the report said.
That last point is especially relevant at the moment as the federal government continues to mull a ban on all handguns and some semi-automatic rifles, a measure many gun-control advocates believe would help stem gun violence. Opponents of such a restriction insist that the government lacks sufficient data to prove that legally owned handguns and rifles pose much of a public safety threat and that most crime guns come from cross-border smuggling.
But the few municipal forces that do keep fastidious numbers on recovered guns say the rate of crime guns that can be traced to legal domestic sources remains a problem. Toronto police, for instance, determined that the split between crime guns traced to domestic sources and those traced to cross-border smuggling has remained at roughly 50/50 since 2007.
A second challenge for Statistics Canada analysts is the variable nature of firearms tracing. Even the best firearms labs only succeed in tracing about half the crime guns they analyze, according to a U.S. study and disclosures from several police departments, but the success rate can dip into the teens or soar up to 74 per cent depending on many variables.
Most forces rely on the RCMP’s Canadian National Firearms Tracing Centre to perform traces. If a firearm is successfully traced, the RCMP doesn’t retain the information. All trace results are returned to the police force that made the original request, said Ms. Kong, further complicating things for Statistics Canada analysts trying to retrieve tracing data.
There’s also a definition problem. Canadian police forces don’t have a standard definition of what constitutes a crime gun. The RCMP, for instance, regards all illegally acquired guns as crime guns, Ms. Kong said. By that definition, every firearm seized from someone guilty of a minor paperwork error would be counted as a crime gun.
“There is room for improvement in terms of having a consistent definition,” she said.
The Statistics Canada survey, which The Globe obtained through access-to-information legislation, also asks police forces what information they would record in a number of series of scenarios, such as “A gun is found by a citizen,” “Shots are heard by a witness” and “Bullet casings are found, but no gun.”
“One of the things that that we were pleased to see is the breadth of information already collected by police with respect to firearms,” Ms. Kong said.
The push for better firearms data has taken on a new urgency over the past few months. Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair recently completed a cross-country consultation where the dearth of figures on crime-gun origins came up repeatedly. And the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) has created a Special Purpose Committee on Firearms that’s focusing on data.
“Certainly it’s one of the things we think can be improved across the country: the sharing of accurate data and information,” said committee co-chair Bill Fordy, a deputy chief with the Niagara Regional Police Service.
Statistics Canada will be working with the CACP to determine what new elements it might collect from police forces. “How and what we implement is going to be decided in the next six months,” said Yvan Clermont, director of the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. “We are going to try to make sure we get quality results and implementable solutions.”