Comments on the definition of “crime gun”

handguns not long gunsCanada has a gang problem, not a gun problem -- Illegal handguns remain the weapon of choice for gangsters.

I argue here that the most appropriate definition of “crime gun” is the traditional definition that is used by the United States, the United Kingdom, and has been used by various Canadian police agencies, as illustrated by the 2007 Ontario Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit (PWEU):

A “crime gun” is any firearm:
That is used, or has been used in a criminal offence;
That is obtained, possessed or intended to be used to facilitate criminal activity;
That has a removed or obliterated serial number.

The phrase “used in a criminal offence” distinguishes between a ‘criminal activity’ that involves violence, a threat of violence, or a property crime, on the one hand, and crimes that are purely administrative offences, such as illegal firearm possession or an expired firearms licence, on the other. In administrative crimes, the firearm is not “used,” just possessed. Legally, this definition of “crime guns” reflects the traditional distinction between crimes created by statute and crimes against persons or property.

This definition contrasts starkly with the definition preferred by the RCMP National Weapons Enforcement Support Team (NWEST) which expands the definition of “crime gun” to include a wide range of administrative crimes in addition to the traditional criteria. The existence of this report was denied by the RCMP until MP Bob Zimmer shared with us a copy he’d managed to obtain. At that point, the RCMP reconsidered their original ‘no records’ response to our Access to Information Act request, and the Information Commissioner of Canada appealed the RCMP decision on our behalf.

Background

Over 2 Million Canadians (primarily hunters and sport shooters) possess Possession and Acquisition Licences (PAL) and therefore may legally own firearms and keep them safely in their homes, according to the RCMP. Surveys find between 17% and 31% of households have one or more firearms. PAL holders are checked nightly as part of the continuing eligibility program. In addition to PAL holders, many other Canadian homes may have firearms as well.

In 2014, Statistics Canada published their most recent comprehensive analysis of firearms and crime. Outside of Quebec, it was reported that in 2012, there were 5,575 police-reported violent crimes that were “firearms related” (2% of all violent crimes); and a firearm caused an injury in 1% of violent crimes (1,325).

This same Juristat issue also reported that there were 13,946 administrative offences involving firearms in 2012. According to a Special Request to Statistics Canada, very few (4%) administrative offences (between 2009-2015) were accompanied by additional charge or charges involving violence.

More recently, Statistics Canada seems to focus exclusively on “firearms related” crimes. This focus is unfortunate because it ignores injuries caused by firearms and downplays administrative offences involving firearms. The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey does not include a question about how many offenders had a PAL. This is probably because, except for administrative offences, extremely few firearms-related crimes involve PAL holders.

Agencies using the traditional definition of “crime gun”

The traditional Canadian definition of “crime gun” is the one that has long been used by a variety of Canadian police agencies: e.g., Toronto Police Services, Tactical Analysis Unit, part of the Firearms Support Services Directorate of the Canadian Firearms Program, Ontario Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit (PWEU), and the Vancouver Police:

A “crime gun” is any firearm:
That is used, or has been used in a criminal offence;
That is obtained, possessed or intended to be used to facilitate criminal activity;
That has a removed or obliterated serial number.

This definition assumes that ‘criminal activity’ involves violence or a threat of violence and does not simply include administrative offences, such as non-violent firearm possession.

This was the traditional Canadian definition prior to NWEST’s redefinition of the term and was formerly relied upon by many if not all police agencies. For example:

Antonowicz Consulting, use the traditional definition of “crime gun” in their analysis in, “Firearms Recovered by Police: A Multi-Site Study,” TR1997-6e, Canadian Firearms Centre, Department of Justice Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, July 1997.

Firearms Tracing and Enforcement Program, Ontario Police, Toronto Police Services, and Tactical Analysis Unit, Firearms Support Services, Directorate, Canadian Firearms Program, as reported by Heemskirk and Davies, 2008.

Axon and Moyers also use the traditional definition of “crime gun” in their analysis in their study, “An exploratory study of the use of firearms in criminal incidents in Toronto.” WD-1994-19e. Department of Justice Canada.

The Toronto Police Services (TPS) report an analysis of “crime guns” collected between January 1, 2003 through September 9, 2003. See also the TPS 2004 report. (Reported in the Minutes of the public meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board held on January 22, 2004.)

The NWEST definition also differs from international standards. Neither the United States and the United Kingdom have accepted the NWEST definition of “crime gun.” Police forces such as the Scotland Yard and the Home Office in England, the ATF and the FBI in the United States continue to rely upon the traditional definitions.

The ATF definition:

“’Crime gun’ includes any firearm used in a crime or suspected to have been used in a crime.” “Crime” in turn means a criminal victimization.

The UK Office for National Statistics makes similar distinctions:

“Offences involving firearms” encompass any notifiable offence recorded by the police where a firearm has been fired, used as a blunt instrument or been used as a threat. Firearm possession offences, where the firearm has not been used in the course of another offence, are not included in this analysis.

The ONS definition is the one used by the British Home Office.

The definition of “crime guns” is important because “crime guns” constitute a fraction of the guns the police recover during a year due to amnesties, investigations into attempted or actual suicides, mental health crises, and family violence incidents. The police use “crime guns” in part to set priorities on domestic disputes or organized crime (and associated drug gang violence).

Critique

The RCMP National Weapons Enforcement Support Team (NWEST) appears to have abandoned the traditional definition of “crime guns” and instead relies on an expanded definition of “crime gun” that adds administrative crimes to the traditional criteria.

The NWEST definition of “crime gun”:

A firearm is a crime gun if it meets any one of the following criteria: “any firearm that is illegally acquired, suspected to have been used in crime (includes found firearms), has an obliterated serial number, illegally modified (e.g., barrel significantly shortened).

Note: See Page 10 of the 2014 Firearms Investigative and Enforcement Services Directorate (FIESD) Report.

By mixing together illegal acquisition with the use or suspected use of a firearm in a crime blurs the distinction between administrative and violent crimes. This definition breaks with the traditional definition of the term “crime gun.”

PAL holders are rarely accused of homicide, according to Special Requests to Statistics Canada that both Senator Pratte and I have submitted. Although the UCR2 survey doesn’t include a question about firearm licences, I hypothesize that PAL holders constitute a disproportionately large fraction of those charged with administrative violations. A related hypothesis is that relatively few PAL holders are accused of crimes where a firearm causes an injury or crimes against property involving firearms.

Since approximately one-fifth of Canadian homes have a legal firearm, “firearms-related crime” statistics would be misleadingly high if administrative crimes are included. Since PAL holders are checked nightly as part of the continuing eligibility program, they would be expected to be less likely to misuse their firearm than those who possess a firearm illegally. The existence of the firearm may well be unrelated to the suspected crime.

Police seize firearms in diverse circumstances. According to the FIESD report I managed to get, thanks to the intervention of MP Bob Zimmer, about half (1,140/2,215, or 51%) of firearms seized in Western Canada in 2014 were “crime guns,” even using the more inclusive definition (see tables p 9 and p 11). Of these “crime guns,” at least 30% were seized in circumstances that appear unlikely to have been used to commit a crime (see table p 15).

The term “illegal acquisition” in the NWEST definition glosses over important distinctions, not only because it includes “found guns,” but also because it mixes smuggling and theft with lapsed permits. These are dramatically different types violations and appears to conflate life-long law-abiding Canadians charged with an administrative violation as with career criminals.

The term “found guns” is a “trash can” category. One description is:

Found firearms not immediately linked to a criminal occurrence are referred to the Suspicious Firearms Index. Law enforcement officers may come into possession of firearms suspected of being associated with criminal activity, but which are not the subject of an active investigation. These typically include found and seized firearms where no charges are pending. (Source: Heemskirk, Tony and Eric Davies, A report on illegal movement of firearms in British Columbia).

Examples of “found guns” would be firearms found during mental health or domestic altercations at a private residence (even when a firearm was not involved, but was uncovered in a later search) and the 609 firearms seized in 2013 during the High River flooding. To automatically classify all “found guns” as “crime guns” is over inclusive, because the firearm might not have been involved in a crime. Police may not routinely check to see if residents have a PAL, so that found guns may include legal firearms, if the owner had a firearms licence.

Summing up

The most appropriate definition of “crime gun” is the traditional definition that is used by the United States, the United Kingdom, and has been previously used by various Canadian police agencies:

A “crime gun” is any firearm:
That is used, or has been used in a criminal offence;
That is obtained, possessed or intended to be used to facilitate criminal activity;
That has a removed or obliterated serial number.

Importantly, this definition distinguishes between a ‘criminal activity’ that involves violence, a threat of violence, or a property crime on one hand, and crimes that are purely administrative offences, such as illegal firearm possession or an expired firearms licence, on the other. In administrative crimes, the firearm is not “used,” just possessed. Legally, this definition of “crime guns” reflects the traditional distinction between crimes created by statute and crimes against persons or property.

Considering administrative crimes on a par with violent crimes is a direct result of criminalizing the simple possession of a firearm and allowing the police to conflate law-abiding firearms owners with violent criminals. This practice is exaggerates the threat to public safety of administrative crimes and obscures potentially valuable information.

Even if absent minded, Canadians who allow their permits to lapse are not a serious threat to public safety. Focusing police efforts on citizens who commit minor administrative offences is a gross misuse of scarce resources.

3 Comments on "Comments on the definition of “crime gun”"

  1. Thank you JFGO Team for your tireless invaluable work and commitment to the firearm community. Your work does not go unnoticed as I post all articles on CGN and use the information provided to structure letters to parliment.

    Thank you for all you do.

  2. “crime created by statute”, (conflicts with charter provision, innocent until proven guilty. the “nightly background check” treats licensed law abiding gun owners with the same scrutiny applid to dangerous, violent, recidivist criminal repeat-offender pedophiles, rapists, and murderers. the criminal demographic had a juried trial before being subject to continuous eligibility screening. Charter provisio, ANY law that creates criminality where NO crime has taken place shall be of no force or effect.

    • Unfortunately, there are many crimes [or ‘violations’] 0created by statute in Canada. Anyone charged with traffic or garbage tickets, violating provincial hunting regulations, or any other administrative edict must prove their innocence. Just the reverse of criminal law. Bill C-68, and previous Canadian firearms laws make administrative errors criminal offences. Some violations do not even allow appeals. This is the very unpleasant side effect of modern bureaucracy. Parliament passes laws — before they know what the regulations will be — and the local authorities interpret the regulations with very little oversight. C’est la vie.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*