Are crime guns just domestic paper crimes? Are PAL holders the source of “crime guns”? Canada’s legal gun owners are again being blamed for increasing criminal violence in Canada. A recent article in The Globe and Mail pushed claims that between one-third and one-half of “crime guns” are “domestically sourced,” citing police tracking statistics first reported by the anti-gun Bloomberg News. The article goes on to imply that the growth in shootings and firearms-related crime is due to the increase in legally imported firearms (particularly handguns and semi-automatic long guns) over the past two decades. It stretches credulity that Canadian duck hunters and sport shooters are somehow responsible for the current upswing in violent crime.
The article in Bloomberg News cites two police reports to justify their claims that legal guns are linked to firearms crime. The Canadian National Firearms Tracing Centre reported that half of the “crime guns” that were traced in 2022 were “domestically sourced.” Additionally, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that one of every three Canadian “crime guns” submitted to them for tracing between 2017 to 2021 had been legally imported from the US. Details about how these percentages were determined are conveniently locked behind a paywall so it is impossible to check further into such claims. Nevertheless, I managed to find a copy of the BATF report but not the Canadian National Firearms Tracing Centre report. Access was blocked by the Canadian government.
These claims are profoundly misleading. They fly in the face of convincing evidence that Canada’s licensed gun owners are exceptionally law abiding. Legal guns are rarely used to commit crimes. Canada’s police chiefs have testified in Parliament that the bulk of the guns used in crime in Canada are smuggled. Statistics Canada data show that exceptionally few Possession and Acquisition Licence holders are accused of murder. Even during the gun registry few legally registered guns were used in gun crime – either directly or indirectly due to theft or straw purchases.
So what is the most likely domestic source for “crime guns?” Perhaps it is the pool of Canadians who failed to get a gun licence. Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Paper crimes, not violent crimes.
To find out, we need to explain a few terms. They may not mean what you think.
Few “crime guns” are traced
Only a fraction of guns involved in crime are recovered, and only some of them submitted for tracing, with only a small fraction of traces being successful. According to RCMP records, about two-thirds (69%) of crime guns are submitted for testing in Western Canada in a typical year, and under one-third (29%) of those were successfully traced. In 2020, StatsCan reported that only 29% of guns used in homicide were recovered, with 69% sent for tracing. Most (60%) of the traces were unsuccessful; thus, tracing results were based on only 11% of guns used in homicide. Unsurprisingly, guns involved in domestic disputes are much easier to recover and trace than guns involved in gang-related crimes.
A “crime gun” has not necessarily been used in a violent crime. The definition of “crime guns” includes “any firearm that is illegally acquired.” Thus, “crime guns” include guns collected by the police for administrative violations, i.e., not legally owned. The phrase, “any firearm that is illegally acquired,” mixes smuggling, theft, with lapsed permits.
By including illegal acquisition in “crime guns” the RCMP is allowed to gloss over important distinctions, such as “found guns” (i.e., guns that were found and seized firearms where no charges are pending) and guns actually used to commit crimes. These are dramatically different violations and equates lifelong law-abiding Canadians with violent criminals. By mixing together paper crimes with violent crimes, the term blurs the distinction between administrative and violent crimes.
The plot thickens. “Domestically sourced” does not mean that the firearm is (or was) in the hands of a legal owner. The police use this term to describe firearms that were manufactured in or legally imported into Canada. But the number of domestic sourced firearms has been exaggerated by an overly inclusive definition of “firearm” which includes non-firearms, such as air guns, replicas, starter pistols, and paint ball guns, as well as any firearm with no serial numbers, and older firearms. According to an analysis by the Toronto Police Service almost one-third (30%) of the “crime guns” collected from 2007 through 2017 were not actual firearms but air guns and the like.
Domestic crime guns have been seized for non-violent paper crimes
The vast bulk of “domestically sourced” crime guns have been seized from unlicensed owners for non-violent administrative violations. According to a Special Request I submitted to StatsCan, The lion’s share of administrative charges consist of charges for “possession of weapons.” Almost none (under 5%) of these charges involved violence. In Firearms and Violent Crime in Canada Statistics Canada reported that there were 12,320 administrative firearms violations in Canada (outside Quebec) compared with 5,575 “firearm-related” violent crimes in 2012. This is supported by a report by the RCMP National Weapons Enforcement Support Team (NWEST) that I was able to see thanks to an Access to Information Request, the bulk of “crime guns” in Western Canada were non-restricted long guns.
Canada’s dirty secret
Canada’s dirty secret is that the gun control system is a failure. The RCMP doesn’t want to admit that many Canadians never got a PAL nor registered their guns. Both professional surveys and import/export records show that there are millions more firearms in the country than those owned by PAL holders. According to Angus Reid surveys, there are at least 2 million Canadians who possess guns without a PAL. They are criminals because they violated administrative law. Some are principled “libertarians” who refuse to comply with a law they see as unjust, while others are scofflaws, people who ignore the law either through ignorance or disrespect.
If any of these “peaceful unlicensed owners” come into contact with the police for any reason, their firearms are confiscated even if no charges are involved. In police lingo, these are “domestically sourced crime guns.”