No 'magic lever' to solve gun crime: expert

Published Dec. 18, 2018 1:02 p.m. ET
Updated Dec. 21, 2018 9:30 a.m. ET
Toronto gun firearms seized

How to get handguns off the streets promises to be a divisive issue in the upcoming election year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government plans to limit access to handguns and assault weapons and has not ruled out an all-out ban.

"We are currently reflecting on how we are going to do better to counter the violence caused by handguns and assault weapons, yes. What's happening is unacceptable," Trudeau said during a radio appearance in Montreal on Dec. 6, the anniversary of the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre in which 14 women were killed.

"But, yes, we want to limit the easy access that criminals unfortunately still have to handguns and assault weapons," he said.

City councils in Toronto and Montreal have asked Ottawa to ban handguns, a move backed by mayors in other cities. The idea is that getting handguns off the streets will put a dent in fatal and non-fatal shootings.

But critics say a ban, opposed by the federal Conservatives, won’t deter the criminals who are trafficking and using illegal guns.

According to Statistics Canada, about 60 per cent of firearm-related violent crimes involved handguns in 2016.

There has been plenty of debate this year about the origins of the handguns that are used in violent crimes. Some law enforcement officials said that a growing number of handguns initially obtained legally are finding their way into the hands of criminals.

There are more than one million Canadian handguns legally held in private hands. Canadian citizens can only obtain a handgun licence if they are a target shooter, a collector, or need a handgun for their employment.

But independent firearms researcher Dennis Young says no statistics bear out the idea that lawful gun owners or their guns are the reason for increased shootings or guns on the streets. In fact, Young says he has yet to find anyone who tracks how many gun crimes are committed by licensed gun owners or how many handguns have been stolen from licensed owners.

“If politicians want a handgun ban, they have to fabricate the stats to justify that,” Young told in a telephone interview from his home in Airdrie, Alta.

An OPP organized crime taskforce arrested 23 people in December and charged them with 156 offences related to trafficking of illegal firearms and drugs in the Golden Horseshoe. The OPP says two of the arrested men have trafficked as many as 120 illegal guns.

Source: OPP

The accused are said to have been manufacturing restricted and untraceable firearms with unregulated parts purchased in Canada and then selling the guns to multiple “criminal cells” in Ontario.

In a press release, the OPP noted that the nine-month multi-jurisdictional investigation was trigged by a “rise in domestically-sourced guns.”

Police in the GTA seized dozens of handguns as part of Project Renner. (OPP)

The project team seized 14 handguns, six long guns, including a machine gun and an assault rifle, numerous other prohibited weapons and devices, including four silencers, grenades, and body armour, along with drugs and cash.

Amid growing concerns about gun crimes, Trudeau’s Liberals campaigned in 2015 on a promise to get handguns and assault weapons off the streets.

A quick fix

The prime minister appointed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to minister of border security and organized crime reduction. In his August mandate letter, Trudeau said Blair would “lead an examination of a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians.”

Blair held roundtables in Montreal and Toronto that were closed to the media and discussions have not been released publicly. But the minister did acknowledge that consultations have illustrated that the country needs to collect better gun crime data.

Young says Canada’s gun laws are already highly restrictive but politicians are looking for a quick fix while reacting to unfounded public fears about an American gun problem heading north.

A former RCMP officer and parliamentary assistant to a Saskatchewan MP who championed gun rights, Young has filed hundreds of freedom of information requests around gun data. He says the RCMP and other police services keep woeful statistics and that other agencies, including the Toronto police and Statistics Canada, operate with no agreed-upon definition of gun crime.

That, he says, leads to situations where an incident is called a gun crime when a firearm is merely present in a building or a car but hasn’t played a role in the commission of the crime. Licensed gun owners failing to renew their licences is often lumped into gun crime stats, which also paints an unfair picture, says Young.

‘Most pressing issue in Toronto’

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan advocated for a handgun ban when he sat on Toronto city council from 2006 to 2014 but says there was no political will at the time to go forward. He says a ban will only be effective if there is an effort to build on the strengths of marginalized communities with investments in childcare, education, housing, youth programming and job opportunities.

“That is the most critical way to respond,” he said. “You are not going to arrest your way out of the problem. The social transformation of neighbourhoods that are oppressed by violence is the most pressing issue in Toronto.”

University of Toronto sociology professor Jooyoung Lee, who studies gun crime, says handgun bans have been effective in Britain in cutting homicides and suicides but Canada has a “unique dilemma in terms of sharing a border with the country with the greatest gun consumption in the world.”

He agrees that to be at all effective, a ban must be coupled with investments aimed at eliminating economic and social marginalization. He says there also needs to be better data around the origins of guns to develop a clear picture over time, along with more investment in gun crime research that can lead to evidence-based policies.

“We have to abandon the notion that there is a magic lever that will reduce or eliminate gun violence. There is an ebb and flow over time that is changed by factors on the ground.”

According to Statistics Canada, violent crime accounted for 20 per cent of all police-reported crime in Canada in 2016. And of all violent crimes, just 3 per cent involved a firearm.

But firearm-related crime did rise between 2013 and 2016, when there were about 7,100 victims of violent crime where a firearm was present. That is a rate of 25 victims of firearm-related violent crime for every 100,000 Canadians, which was up 33 per cent over that reported in 2013. But over the same time, the rate of overall police-reported violent crime fell by 4 per cent.

National statistics also found there were 195 homicides involving firearms in 2016, accounting for 38.4 per cent of all homicides. Homicides grew 20 per cent between 2013 and 2016, driven by a “substantial increase” of 68 per cent in gang-related homicides.

In 2013, about 27 per cent of homicides were committed by a firearm, says Statistics Canada. That increased to 38 per cent in 2016.

When it comes to the tracking of the origins of guns used in homicides, Statistics Canada says data “should be interpreted with caution” because a large number of recovered guns cannot be traced. “The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics is currently working with police services to increase the quality of these data.”

Read the original version