Talk about a wrong turn: An American is facing a long time in a Canadian jail for inadvertently crossing the border with a loaded handgun in his car.
It's an all to common problem as Americans who routinely carry guns forget the law changes drastically once you cross the 49th Parallel.
The Windsor Star reports Chicago-area resident Dimitrius Walker was arrested after crossing the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor. Walker, visiting family in Detroit earlier this month, said he never intended to come to Canada but became confused at a poorly-marked plaza and found himself on the bridge.
He told Canada Border Services officers he simply wanted to turn around and go back but they inspected his car and turned up a loaded 9mm Luger pistol in the trunk. Walker told officers he had an Illinois permit but they arrested him and his 18-year-old son.
The teen was released but Walker was charged with possessing a prohibited weapon and attempting to smuggle it into Canada, and making a deceptive statement to officers for claiming initially the gun didn't belong to him.
Under the Conservative government's new mandatory-minimum sentence for illegal gun possession, Walker, 35, conceivably could spend three years in a Canadian prison.
Walker later admitted the gun was his, the Star said, adding he needed it because he "lives in hell," referring to his Chicago neighbourhood. The city recorded more than 500 murders last year and 40 so far this year.
The Crown wanted Walker, an unemployed nightclub manager with five children and one on the way, held in custody because the offence was considered serious and he had a criminal record that included a 20-day sentence for assault in 1998.
But Justice of the peace Elizabeth Neilson released Walker on $7,500 bail.
Raising the bail would be a hardship, Walker said, because he receives food stamps and his house was foreclosed on three days before his arrest. He was coming to Detroit to see if his stepmother could take him in. He also has a brain lesion that requires medication.
Walker's lawyer, Christina Sweet, argued he was facing unduly harsh punishment for what amounted to an honest mistake. He was also ensnared in a "clash of cultures," where Americans are allowed to carry handguns and Canadians are not, the Star said.
Sweet said outside court that U.S. and Canadian authorities should put their heads together to find ways to avoid arresting Americans who've mistakenly turned onto the bridge.
[ Related: 5 guns seized in 14 days at Ambassador Bridge ]
"This isn't the first time," said Sweet.
It's doubtful Canada Border Services will be very sympathetic. Ontario border crossings such as Detroit-Windsor are major conduits for handguns smuggled into the Toronto area. Even "honest mistakes" get the hammer these days.
Remember the case of Kraig Jacobson, the Utah college student who made an impulsive visit to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls during a cross-country motorcycle trip last year? He lied to border officers about the .38-calibre pistol he was carrying (as protection from wild animals while camping, he said later).
Jacobson, 26, spent almost three weeks in jail and several more weeks out on bail in Canada before pleading guilty and being kicked out of the country last November. He told the National Post he was unaware Canada had gun control.
In another case late last year, border agents near Thunder Bay, Ont., arrested a couple in an RV for allegedly trying to smuggle in an 12-gauge shotgun, along with some pot and 17 litres of undeclared booze, Thunder Bay Newswatch reported.
Windsor lawyer Greg Goulin, who represents Americans caught with guns at the border, told CBC News last summer that the "cultural differences" defence is best when trying to skate from a weapons charge. Guns are ubiquitous, almost standard equipment in many American homes, he said.
“Saying ‘I forgot’ doesn’t sell too well in our court system. [We think], 'How can you forget you had a loaded handgun in your car?’” Goulin said. “To me, the cultural difference is so very obvious."
The U.S. Embassy's web site includes information about bringing weapons into Canada. But for most American travellers, highway signs near the border may be the first inkling they get that they can't bring their shootin' irons here, at least not without a lot of paperwork.
“When you come into the [Detroit-Windsor] tunnel, there’s very little time for you to see a sign," Goulin said. "When you come to the [Ambassador] bridge, there’s such a confusing set of signs to get to the bridge, I imagine a driver’s attention is drawn elsewhere.”
His solution would be a giant one-by-four-metre sign that reads: "Canada: No Guns."
Hey, why not make it flashing neon? Can't miss that, right?