Gun Crime and the Firearms Trade in Canada

Gun crime has exploded in Canada since 2013, with gun violence in big cities like Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto reaching record highs. Homicides were close to all-time lows in 2013, as they had been trending downward since 1970. Since 2013, however, the homicide rate has continued to rise each year, reaching 1.95 per 100,000 in 2020, a 74 percent increase. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, the number of shooting victims tripled between 2014 and 2019. 

Growing domestic access to American guns and black markets for firearms in Canada are a large part of the problem. In 2012, restrictions on gun owners were eased by the Harper government, and spikes in firearm imports from the United States immediately followed. From 2011 to 2014, rifle imports from the US doubled, and have continued rising each year. According to the US Department of State, about 200 to 300 US citizens are known to illegally import firearms into Canada each year. Vancouver remains the single largest port of entry for these weapons. 

Legal firearms are also an emerging issue, with American citizens able to import firearms and ammunition after filling out a simple Non-Resident Firearm Declaration Form, an Authorization to Transport Form, and paying a $25 fee upon entry into Canada. The Canadian gun market has also developed as a result of the Harper-era reforms, with an increasing number of guns purchased legally in Canada then resold on black markets. 

Disparities in Gun Violence

According to Statistics Canada, gun violence has risen by a significant margin across the country. Yet, when looking at the data, there are disparities in how different communities across Canada are affected by gun violence. As expected, big cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal remain the most affected, due to increased population density, international commerce, and criminal activity. Edmonton and Ottawa have seen the largest increases in the gun violence rate among big cities since 2015. Smaller cities, like Winnipeg and Surrey, also show uncommon surges in gun violence. Specific groups are also targeted at disproportionate rates. According to Public Safety Canada, marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, visible minority groups, lower-income families, people in Northern and remote communities, and First Nations peoples are disproportionately affected by gun violence. 

Canadian Gun Laws

To acquire a gun legally in Canada, one has to jump through certain hoops. All gun owners must be licensed, and all registered firearms must be inspected with the RCMP. Assault-style weapons and automatic weapons have been banned. Sawed-off shotguns and rifles are also illegal. Licensed guns are highly restricted, mostly limited to sport, and carrying any weapon for self-defence purposes is illegal; but this does not mean that using a weapon to defend oneself is illegal. To get one of these banned weapons illegally, however, is an entirely different story. Some have bought them from US sellers and domestic straw buyers (a person who makes a purchase on behalf of someone else), while others have opted to manufacture them at home. 

Why This Matters

For Canadian national security, this has meant rising crime, violence, and killings across the country. There have been 1,472 homicides by shooting in Canada between 2013 and 2019. Large cities, already plagued by untenable living costs, face security problems that have decreased living standards and economic development. Moreover, the firearms trade has helped finance and sustain organized crime globally. Due to the scarcity of legal firearms, illegal guns in Canada are sold at higher prices than in the United States. This has attracted international criminal syndicates and has emboldened domestic groups, congregating mainly in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto.

Policy Response: US-Canada Task Force

In April 2021, the Canadian and American governments established a cross-border task force to end firearm smuggling and trafficking. The task force is dedicated to “disrupting and dismantling the illegal movement of firearms, ammunition, and explosive weapons across the U.S.-Canadian border.” It is set up between US Homeland Security Investigations and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Partnering agencies include the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Public Safety Canada, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The task force increases cross-border intelligence sharing to “detect and intercept” illegal firearms. Joint cross-border operations to “identify and prosecute criminal networks” will also be conducted within the task force. CBSA and CBP will increase collaborative work at ports of entry.

Shortcomings

The task force, while commendable for its ambition, has several downsides. To begin with, its founding document is quite short, is filled with purposely vague language, and offers no public data on either financing or operations. In addition, the task force is merely a continuation of existing procedures. American and Canadian agencies regularly hold cross-border operations and facilitate information-sharing through joint offices at Canadian ports of entry, including in Vancouver. Since the creation of the task force, there has been some progress made, with arrests and weapon confiscations successfully carried out in Ontario in Lanark, Perth, and Fort Erie. Yet, there has been no indication regarding the role played by the task force or US agencies in the relative success of these operations.

Policy Recommendations

Beyond gun control legislation, changes should be made to the task force to weaken the firearms trade and diminish gun violence in Canada. Specific funding and resources should be allocated to the task force and concrete goals should be set to clarify its objectives and means. 

To ensure transparency and accountability to those objectives, data on its operations should be made publicly available. Specifically, the involvement of US agencies in successful raids in Canada should be mentioned in public statements. Within Canadian agencies, units should be created and tasked with monitoring illegal guns, as is done by the Justice Department and the ATF with its newly-created strike forces. The units should coordinate information-sharing, findings, and operations with both US partners and provincial and municipal law enforcement bodies to increase cooperation and effectiveness. Mexico should also be added to the task force, as many firearms circulating in Canadian and American markets end up in the hands of criminal syndicates and self-defence groups in Mexico. 

Finally, importing guns into Canada should be made a criminal offence to prevent American guns from entering Canadian markets in the first place. Those caught at the border with firearms should be sent home, have their firearms confiscated, be fined, or be arrested, depending on the purpose and quantity of the firearms. The task force should also be run in conjunction with law enforcement-driven community relations in areas with high and rising gun crime. This could include providing protection and guiding citizens towards socio-economic services to underserved neighbourhoods, to get to the roots of gun crime and gun violence, namely economic insecurity and lack of community support. These policy changes would add transparency, accountability, cooperation, and data-driven effectiveness to the task force, which has shown promise but has yet to prove its operational success.

Edited by Chase Kelliher

Joseph Bouchard

Originally from Quebec City, Joseph earned a BA in International Relations and Latin American Studies from the University of British Columbia. He is currently pursuing a Master's of International Affairs...