As the Liberals move to put a freeze on handgun sales in Canada, some are questioning how effective it will be in preventing gun violence given gun smuggling from one of the world’s largest sources of private firearms just south of the border.
Gun expert and author A.J. Somerset said the U.S.-Canada border is “porous” and it would be very difficult to stop the smuggling of small objects, but the Liberals freezing legal handguns could boost the black market for the weapon.
“The market for illegal handguns is going to be flexible,” he said. “If we cut off one potential supply of stolen handguns … that doesn’t really affect the overall supply of illegal handguns, because they just rely more on smuggling.”
In 2020, Toronto police say they seized 663 guns illegally possessed and used or suspected to be used in a crime, or have an obliterated serial number. Around 318 were classified as prohibited, meaning they were illegal to buy or possess in Canada and were likely smuggled into the country.
In April, the Canada Border Services Agency reported that more than 1,100 guns were seized by border officials in 2021, up from over 700 in 2019 and nearly 500 in 2020, when the U.S. border was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Justin Trudeau announced Monday Bill C-21, which seeks to freeze the buying, selling, importing and trading of handguns nationwide.
“This is not an easy thing to do, but we all agree it is the responsible thing to do,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while announcing the new measures.
“Other than using firearms for sport shooting and hunting, there is no reason anyone in Canada should need guns in their everyday lives.”
The announcement came in the wake of a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead.
The new legislation proposed would add new measures to address gun smuggling, including increasing the maximum penalty from 10 years to 14. However, Somerset said that unless police are better at catching smugglers, who are getting more creative, such as by using drones, it will continue.
Data is also lacking on how much gun violence is being committed by legally-owned guns, according to Wilfred Laurier University assistant public safety professor and former police officer Scott Blantford. He said Statistics Canada doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal guns in its stats and doesn’t trace all guns used in crimes to see if they came from south of the border.
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A Global News investigation found that Canada’s gun tracing program is lacking. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted close to 500,000 gun traces at the request of law enforcement officials in 2020, but only a few thousand are ever requested by police agencies north of the border.
“(The Liberals) are making decisions upon restricting a particular type of firearm based on what I would suggest is incomplete information,” Blantford said.
He also pointed out that firearm-related violent crime has been relatively low. Statistics Canada reported in late May that it accounted for 2.8 per cent of all victims of violent crime reported by police in 2020, a “small proportion” of police-reported violent crime, the agency said.
Statistics Canada also reported that in 2020, 277 homicides reported were firearm-related, compared to 234 homicides by stabbing in the same year out of a total 743 homicides, according to data company Statistica.
The amount of gun violence also varies depending on region. In its May report, Statistics Canada said that between 2019 and 2020, increases of over 30 per cent in firearm-related violent crimes were reported in rural B.C., Ontario and Alberta.
Some experts do see positives to the legislation, though. Somerset pointed to new powers for the chief firearms officer to be able to share information with law enforcement agencies to help catch “straw purchases” of handguns, which are when licensed owners sell to unlicensed individuals. Detecting patterns on such purchases has been difficult due to privacy laws, Somerset said.
“That’s a really good measure, which actually should have been done years ago,” he said.
Another positive of the legislation is confronting Canada’s gun culture, according to Simon Fraser University criminology professor Robert Gordon. He said it is important to address that culture before it becomes similar to the one in the U.S., which he says is “out of control.”
“(The laws) should help in the long-term to shift public attitudes away from the acceptability of firearms,” he said. “We do not want a firearms culture in Canada.”
— with files from Andrew Russell