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In a summer plagued by terrible news of mass shootings and gang-related violence, Canadians have been reminded even more than usual that there is no shortage of heated opinions about how to approach gun policy.

If only we had enough reliable information to facilitate an informed discussion about whether our existing laws fall short – especially when it relates to a possible shift in where guns used in crimes are coming from.

Last month, Toronto’s police chief said that about half of the firearms used in the commission of crimes in his city originate from Canadian sources – a marked change from five years ago, when three in four so-called “crime guns” came from the United States. A senior Toronto police official also made reference to 40 or more cases in which legal gun owners illicitly sold their weapons to criminals in recent years.

That’s an attention-grabbing data point, and hints at a mounting problem with straw purchasers. Other police forces, including Vancouver’s and the RCMP, have expressed broadly similar conclusions. And so, too, has Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Yet, the evidence supporting these claims is often anecdotal. As it stands, Canada has no central repository for such data that offers information on crime guns' origins.

The data vacuum may be owing, in part, to lack of consistent tracking. Reporting requirements and processes vary by jurisdiction. And police forces often prioritize front-line investigation over administrative record-keeping.

Another part of the problem appears to be definitional. The designation “crime gun” applies to a handgun used in a murder or robbery. It can also apply to an improperly stored or lost weapon, or a long gun seized in an entirely unrelated incident, for example a complaint for domestic violence.

Before proposing new policy solutions to gun violence, the federal government would do well to place some priority on collecting data that elucidates the problem. Moving beyond the usual, hot-button gun debates between firearms owners and control advocates, and building national consensus on any regulatory changes, would be helped by all concerned operating from a common set of facts.

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