Canada Letter: When the guns flow north

Police have long held that most of Canada's illicit firearms are smuggled from the United States.

What Canada Doesn't Know About Its Guns

A drone lifted off from Michigan this month and flew across the St. Clair River toward Port Lambton, Ontario. Its spooked pilot aborted the landing after being spotted by a neighbor, leaving the police to later fish the drone out of a tree and discover 11 handguns strapped to it with plastic bags, tape and carabiner clips.

Seized firearms were on display during a news conference with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Crime Stoppers in Surrey, British Columbia, in May 2021.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Not much is known about the origins of the guns associated with crime in Canada. But the police have long held that most illicit firearms are smuggled from the United States, home to more guns than any other country.

The problem is also glaring on the U.S.-Mexico border. Last August, Mexico sued 10 American gunmakers, blaming them for fueling violence in Mexico.

The spillover across Canada's border with the United States extends beyond the guns themselves to the shared grief and calls for increased firearms regulations in the wake of mass shootings, including two just this month: 10 people were killed in a racist attack in a Buffalo supermarket on May 14; and 19 students and two teachers were killed on Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

"I think of the parents suffering unbelievable losses in Texas," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Saskatoon on Wednesday. "I also think of the teachers because I was a teacher, professionally obliged to care for and support our kids." He added that the government will take "new steps in the coming weeks on gun control."

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Two years ago, after the deadliest mass shooting in Canada's history took place in Nova Scotia, his government banned military-style assault weapons. Last week, it carried out previously announced firearms record-keeping regulations. (Two of the guns used by the Nova Scotia shooter were smuggled from the United States, according to documents revealed in the ongoing public inquiry about the mass shooting.)

Family and friends of the 22 victims of the April 2020 shooting in rural Nova Scotia marked the first anniversary of the tragedy last year.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

As of May 18, Canadians who purchase a nonrestricted firearm, basically a rifle or shotgun, must provide identification as well as a valid firearms license. Businesses are required to keep these records, which may be viewed by the police with a warrant.

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Canada's previous registry for shotguns and standard rifles was maintained by the federal government rather than sellers. That long-gun registry, which was plagued by technical issues but supported by most police forces, was scrapped in 2012 by Stephen Harper, the prime minister of the Conservative government at the time.

"Conservatives very much associate themselves now with the opposition to gun control, but that wasn't always the case," Blake Brown, a history professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, told me. He said that Liberals and Conservatives passed firearms control measures in the 1950s and 1960s, and that both parties strengthened Canada's gun laws in the years following the 1989 Montreal massacre.

In his book "Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada," Professor Brown wrote that Canada's cultural attitudes toward firearms diverged from those in the United States as early as the 1860s.

"Certainly there have been periods in American history where they've been more aggressive in gun control than in Canada," he said. "But, overall, the trend has been that Canada has seen themselves differently when it comes to firearms." That has led to stricter gun laws amid fears of importing American gun violence.

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Despite these historical distinctions, the gun debate raging south of the border often reverberates here. While it was far from the spotlight issue in our federal election last September, candidates in the ongoing Conservative Party leadership race have been rehashing it.

During our federal election coverage in September, my colleague Ian Austen reported that there were 12.7 million legal and illegal guns in Canada, or 34.7 civilian firearms per 100 people in 2017, the most recent data. (These figures are from the Small Arms Survey, a nonprofit organization based in Switzerland, which estimates that there are more than 300 million guns in the United States and 120.5 firearms per 100 people.)

Months after Canada banned assault-style firearms, gun rights supporters protested against firearms regulations in Ottawa.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Around the time of the election, I obtained government records related to Canada's decision to ban assault-style guns. The documents, previously released under access-to-information laws, include a partly-redacted report by Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, an interagency group. It found that shotguns and rifles in Canada's illegal market generally enter the system through legal purchases. That's unlike illicit handguns, it said, which tend to be smuggled into Canada.

In response to my queries last fall, neither the Royal Canadian Mounted Police nor Statistics Canada said they had smuggling data. Neither did the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which announced last April that it had created a cross-border task force with Canada to tackle gun smuggling.

The Canada Border Services Agency tracks seizures at the border, but there is a gap in Canada's understanding of the extent of the smuggling issue.

Since there is no systemic data collection on the origins of crime guns, one internal Statistics Canada presentation I read emphatically placed it in the "What we don't know" category.

In the last couple of years, these data gaps propelled the federal public safety and statistics agencies to push for more comprehensive collection of data on guns.

While tracing the source of guns used in crime is currently required only in Ontario, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police "is hoping to move the entire country" in that direction, Natalie Wright, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an email.

Without gun tracing and better data, the full picture of the United States' effect on gun crimes in Canada will remain incomplete and based on haphazardly-tracked incidents like that of the gun-toting drone.

Trans Canada

The markets at Granville Island are an ideal pit stop along the bike path for those who want to stock up their picnic baskets.Emma Tsui for The New York Times
  • Traveling to Vancouver? The writer Timothy Taylor recommends hopping on a bike for a sightseeing tour along the waterside paths that connect Stanley Park to the Granville Island market and beyond.
  • Quebec moved to bolster the status of French in the province this week, passing a new law that the government says is needed to preserve the language, despite fierce objections from English speakers, Indigenous people and other groups.
  • Thunderstorms that swept through parts of Ontario and Quebec on Saturday turned deadly. The death toll has since increased to 11 people, most killed by falling trees.
  • The N.H.L.'s Battle of Alberta has come to a triumphant end for Edmonton Oilers fans after the team's victory, but not so much for supporters of the Calgary Flames.
  • Kenneth Welsh, the Edmonton-born stage actor who also appeared in more than 240 movie and television roles, including the early 1990s television series "Twin Peaks," died this month. He was 80.
  • What happens after the cameras stop rolling on home makeover shows? For some, the dream home fantasy fades to reveal shoddy construction, electrical issues and health hazards, according to a lawsuit against Cineflix Media, the Canadian production company behind the show "Property Brothers."
  • "The dream of more competition leading to better internet service for Canadians is on life support," writes columnist Shira Ovide — in her subscriber-only newsletter, On Tech — of the internet policy drama unfolding in Canada. As an update: The telecom regulator set new policies on Thursday to promote competition.

Vjosa Isai a Canada news assistant at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.

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