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Thieves broke into three outdoor-equipment shops in the Quebec towns of Alma, Sherbrooke and Magog between Oct. 16 and Nov. 13, making off in the middle of the night with about 50 handguns worth tens of thousands of dollars.

In the midst of these thefts, on Nov. 7, Toronto police announced they had stopped a smuggling ring that had tried to bring 30 guns into Canada hidden in the gas tank of a rental car.

While data are scarce on the source of illegal handguns in Canada, the separate events in Quebec and Ontario highlight two ways criminals are trying to get their hands on firearms – and the sharp divide between the Liberal and the Conservative on the importance of banning such weapons.

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For the governing Liberals, the three heists illustrate a growing issue facing the country, the diversion of domestically sourced legal handguns to criminals. In that context, Bill Blair, the Minister of Organized Crime Reduction, is in the last leg of a consultation on whether to ban handguns, or at least toughen the rules on storage and transportation of restricted weapons.

Non-restricted weapons, such as shotguns, can be used for hunting. Restricted weapons, including all handguns, can be used only for target practice or kept as part of a collection.

“I’m looking at all of the ways in which we can interdict the supply of guns into the criminal world, and focusing on the border and the border alone would, in my opinion, only be doing half the job,” Mr. Blair said in an interview.

The federal government recently announced $86-million over the next five years to keep illegal guns from crossing the border. In particular, the Canada Border Services Agency will receive $51.5-million to build a training facility for sniffer dogs, dispatch new dog teams to key highway crossings, train border guards to better detect smuggled goods and buy more X-ray machines for postal centres and air-cargo facilities.

The opposition Conservatives says most gun crimes in Canada involve weapons that were smuggled into the country. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has unveiled a policy to crack down on gang members and smuggled guns. He says changing the rules for legally registered handguns and licensed owners would be pointless.

“It’s lazy government to ask people who follow the rules to follow more rules,” Mr. Scheer said in an interview.

The battle will continue into 2019, as the Liberals are expected to table gun legislation next year, and the Conservatives have said they want to make gun control an issue in the October federal election.

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According to Statistics Canada, the homicide rate was 1.8 victims per 100,000 population in 2017, the highest since it hit 1.9 per 100,000 in 2006, with handguns accounting for about 60 per cent of all firearm homicides.

“Firearm-related homicides have been rising since 2014, and gang-related violence has been the primary driver,” the federal agency said on Nov. 21.

According to the RCMP, 2.2 million Canadians have a valid license to acquire and possess a firearm in Canada. Of these, 640,000 have gone through the additional screening required to acquire a license for restricted firearms, such as handguns. The RCMP added that fewer than half of all owners of restricted licenses actually own a restricted firearm. As of September this year, 293,000 Canadians had one or more restricted or prohibited firearms, of which nearly a million are in circulation.

To combat gun crime, the Conservatives say that if they form the next government, they will introduce legislation that would, among other things, include prison sentences for people caught in possession of a smuggled gun or for buying a gun in Canada on behalf of someone else. Mr. Scheer has also promised to introduce new mandatory minimum sentences for gang members, and to identify criminal organizations such as the Hells Angels and MS-13 in the Criminal Code to facilitate their prosecution.

Mr. Scheer said banning handguns would be an ineffective way to deal with the factors behind increases in gun crimes.

“It would be a huge diversion of police resources to go around confiscating the firearms that have been held legally,” he said.

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