For lost and stolen guns, long-gun registry was an owner’s best friend

Firearms wait to be flung into a blast furnace and destroyed in Cleveland, Ohio in this 2011 file image. The end of the long gun registry means that more lost and stolen firearms are likely to be destroyed rather than traced to their owners, a veteran OPP firearms officer warns. Mark Duncan/The Associated Press

We know a few things about the .22-calibre bolt-action rifle owned, lost and recovered years later by someone in Mississauga.

We know that it was made in the Philippines, that its magazine takes five rounds and that it was registered in Canada’s now-defunct long gun registry as recently as March 1, 2010. Based on current values the owner probably paid a few hundred dollars for it, and .22 ammunition is cheap. It could have been a gift, or inherited – the records don’t say. It’s the kind of rifle you own for some inexpensive target shooting, maybe up at the cottage, or to shoot at small mammals like raccoons.

We don’t know how the rifle was stolen on May 17, 2002, or how it was found. But it must have been a shock when police contacted the owner on March 1, 2010, almost eight years after the original theft, to come and pick it up.

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Between 2001 and 2012, 4,311 non-restricted long guns reported lost or stolen across Canada – including 2,686 rifles and 1,575 shotguns – were successfully returned to their owners by police, according to a redacted copy of the firearms registry released to Global News under access-to-information laws.

To do that, says retired OPP Staff-Sgt. Doug Carlson, officers used the long gun registry.

“When someone had a firearm stolen, or they misplaced it, all we had to do was pull up the [data] and you could see exactly what the guy owned. The registry was a great help in keeping track of lost and stolen firearms.”

Carlson ran northwestern Ontario’s gun control system for six years before his retirement. He dealt with licensing and prohibition issues and was the go-to person for police with question about gun rules.

The long-gun returned after the longest absence was a Russian-made single-shot rifle owned by someone in Quebec City. Police traced the gun to its lawful owner more than ten years after it was stolen in June, 2001.

There’s the stolen No. 1 Lee-Enfield – the heavy but well-made rifle carried by millions of Commonwealth soldiers during the First World War – reunited with its owner in east-central Toronto just under seven and a half years after it was stolen. Someone in Calgary got his 12-gauge pump-action Ithaca back four and a half years after it was stolen in 2007. And someone in Clarenville, Nfld. waited five years before being told to come and pick up his stolen lever-action 30-30 Winchester.

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The list is a cross-section of gunmakers – Remington, Browning, Savage, Marlin, Baikal, Mauser, Parker-Hale.

The average wait between loss or theft of a long gun and recovery was about a year and a half. But just over 100 were recovered within a week.

There is no more long-gun registry: The database was officially destroyed in every province but Quebec last year, and la belle province lost a legal battle to keep its own registry thanks to a court ruling this week.

It’s now much harder to return a lost or stolen gun, Carlson said. Police start by creating a record in the Canadian Police Information Centre, a national law-enforcement database.

If the gun owner reported the theft or loss along with the gun’s serial number, says Kelowna RCMP spokesman Kris Clark,”if it was located we could use that record to locate the owner.”

But typically, Carlson said, gun owners don’t know the serial numbers of their firearms in the absence of the gun itself, which makes it impossible to create a record to trace it after a theft.

“Maybe they’ll have thrown away their registration certificates, saying ‘That’s the end of this’ – it’s just human nature,” Carlson said. “Somebody could walk out of your house with an armful of firearms. If you don’t have those proper descriptors, it won’t be on the system. Whereas with the registry, when most firearms were registered, [the owner] just had to phone in, and his firearms would be instantly known on the system.”
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It doesn’t help that firearms dealers “aren’t allowed to record customers’ names any more,” Carlson added. “It’s just another handicap on trying to recover lost and stolen firearms.”

Blair Hagen of the National Firearms Association sees the tradeoff as acceptable: “Two billion dollars is too much to pay for a lost and found registry, under any circumstances.”

If police can’t find an owner within about three months, and don’t need the gun for evidential purposes, it’s destroyed, Clark said.

Based on data from previous years, as many as 350 recovered long guns – legally owned by somebody – will be sent to be melted down each year in Canada rather than returned to their owners, because the data no longer exists to do so.

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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