Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Thursday to enact a firearms ban in the coming days — but experts say that plan must be paired with aggressive action at the border if the government is to have any hope of slowing the flow of illegal firearms into this country.
The government’s firearms ban is expected to include a buyback program to compensate legal owners. The money spent on that program will be many millions of dollars more than the sum the government has earmarked for improvements at the border to intercept guns.
The RCMP has confirmed that the Nova Scotia shooter used firearms obtained illegally in Canada and from U.S. sources to carry out his crimes.
Eyewitnesses have said he used a number of weapons during his murderous rampage, including some sort of a long-barrelled rifle and a handgun.
Illegal smuggling over the Canada-U.S. border is the source of untold thousands of firearms floating around the country. The U.S. is the source of anywhere from 70 to 99 per cent of the guns — mostly handguns — used in the commission of crimes here, depending on the municipality where the crimes are committed.
The number of domestically-sourced “crime guns” has been climbing in recent years, but experts agree closing the U.S. pipeline is vital.
For years, politicians have promised to better police the porous border for weapons — but the number of firearms intercepted remains low compared to the number thought to exist in Canada.
There are an estimated 8 to 11 million private firearms in circulation. Border guards intercept a small fraction of that amount each year.
According to data supplied to CBC, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) seized 647 firearms of all makes and models last year. That number has been declining over the last three fiscal years.
Meanwhile, border guards confiscated some 13,000 “prohibited weapons” in 2019 — items like switchblades, brass knuckles, nunchucks and pepper spray.
The number of firearms seized at the border is even lower in Atlantic Canada. In that region, only 20 firearms were taken from travellers at the border in 2019, a small uptick from the 17 that were confiscated in 2018.
It’s impossible to know how many firearms are moved illegally across the border each year, evading CBSA guards.
Some of the firearms CBSA has seized are brought here by unsuspecting Americans who don’t know the protocol for bringing a gun into this country. Canadians must be licensed and foreigners must have the necessary paperwork before they can bring in a hunting rifle, for example.
Solomon Friedman, a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa and an expert on the Firearms Act, said the number of handguns flooding into the country is “considerably higher” than the number the CBSA intercepts.
He said it’s easier to catch a gun-toting American en route to a hunting lodge than a sophisticated smuggler.
“How many people smuggling handguns into Canada have been caught? Not many. They’re very difficult investigations,” Friedman told CBC News.
Smugglers have been getting creative to avoid interception — hiding handguns in gas tanks, for example, or (in one bizarre case) using a public library that straddles the Quebec-Vermont border to bootleg guns.
I always say effective gun control is important but gun control theatre is worthless.– Solomon Friedman
Friedman said further legislative or regulatory changes aren’t likely to deter smugglers or buyers like the Nova Scotia shooter. What’s needed, he said, is more action at the border.
“I always say effective gun control is important but gun control theatre is worthless. If we’re not going to actually target the sources of these firearms or the causes of these offences, it’s a pretty futile exercise,” Friedman said.
“The evidence is clear — criminals are not deterred by new offences or greater punishment. In the case of the most recent tragedy, he’s willing to commit the most serious offence in our criminal code — which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison — so how could further regulation possibly deter or prevent that conduct?” he said, speaking of the 22 murders the Nova Scotia shooter committed in a 12-hour period.
“Instead, we need to beef up our resources at the borders. That’s what the CBSA needs to do.”
Gary Mauser is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University in B.C., and a firearm rights advocate. He has long argued against further gun control measures, which he calls futile.
He says gang-related crimes, carried out by U.S. guns, are the source of most of the gun violence in Canada — but stopping the flow could prove difficult.
“Smuggling is almost impossible to stop since the U.S.-Canadian border is one of the busiest in the world,” Mauser said. “CBSA cannot check the very many of millions of shipments that cross the border every day.
“As long as drug crime is profitable, criminals will actively bring in illegal firearms. Clearly, legislation controlling the actions of the law-abiding cannot affect this.”
The government’s proposed ban on “military-style” assault rifles will include some sort of buyback program to compensate owners of these firearms when they’re eventually outlawed.
The cost of that program has been pegged at $250 million but Friedman said he suspects it will be many times that amount, given there are tens of thousands of what could be described as “assault-style” firearms in circulation.
Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government has committed just $87 million over five years for detection dogs, X-ray technology, ballistics testing and other measures to stifle rising gun violence.
The federal Liberal government says this work is a “top priority.”
“Funding allotted to the CBSA is being used to develop programs which help prevent the illegal smuggling of firearms into our country,” a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in a statement.
Friedman said it’s not just a matter of “throwing money at the problem.”
He said Canada should pursue joint agreements with the U.S. to better police “straw” purchases in border states — the bulk buying of firearms with the intention to resell — and improve information-sharing between the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the RCMP.
“Some of these things might actually be quite cheap. They just require us to do things differently than what we’ve done in the past,” Solomon said.
The Conservatives in Parliament have backed this sort of enforcement plan. The party’s outgoing leader, Andrew Scheer, pitched a special CBSA task force in the last election campaign, as opposed to a firearms ban.
Pierre Paul-Hus, the Conservative public safety critic, said the government is using the “immediate emotion of this tragedy” to implement major policy changes.
“Conservatives want to see a plan that includes support for police anti-gang and gun units, a CBSA Firearms Smuggling Task Force and increased access to mental health and addictions treatments,” Paul-Hus said.