Obama gun initiative has potential to reduce illegal gun smuggling into Canada

Weapons seized during several gang-related arrests are displayed during a police news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on March 6, 2009. (CP)

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions this week targeting firearms sales his primary goal was to try to make some dent in the numbingly routine gun violence plaguing America.

But some of Obama’s initiatives, done by executive order to get around congressional inflexibility on the issue, potentially could help slow the steady stream of guns smuggled across the Canada-U.S. border.

The parts of his initiative that might be relevant to Canada involve the rules for licensing gun-sellers and tightening of rules requiring background checks of gun buyers.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been ordered to clarify who needs a federal licence to sell guns, including those who don’t have a bricks and mortar store but deal on the Internet or at gun shows.

Critics have complained the rule will criminalize collectors who just want to unload a few of their guns. But the White House’s backgrounder said even small transactions may trigger the licensing requirement if other factors are present that indicate it’s an ongoing business, not a casual transaction. The potential penalties are stiff: a fine of up to USD$250,000 and up to five years in prison.

The U.S. Administration is also trying to tighten loopholes that allowed gun buyers to avoid background checks, such as at gun shows and by using a trust, corporation or other legal entity as the buyer. There were fewer than 900 of such applications in 2000 but the figure had rocketed to 90,000 by 2014, according to the White House’s release.

The president also requested funding to hire 200 new ATF agents and investigators, while the FBI will hire 230 people to process mandatory background checks 24/7. Obama will also push the states to provide records to the background-check system to ensure convicted criminals aren’t allowed to buy guns.

None of these measures specifically target gun smuggling, but it’s hoped they will result in fewer guns entering the pipeline into Canada.

“There are a number of measures that involve other agencies, but for those managed by ATF, I can say that these are certainly moves intended to impact straw purchasing and keep firearms out of the wrong hands,” ATF spokesman Corey Ray told Yahoo Canada.

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Anything that makes it harder for guns to reach Canadian streets is welcome, said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control.

There are large gaps in U.S. federal and state gun laws, she told Yahoo Canada. Some states with particularly weak laws, such as Ohio, are popular sources for gun purchases destined for the illegal market, she said. Criminals find licensed dealers willing to sell off the books or often utilize straw buyers – people with no criminal record who can pass a background check.

Most illegal handguns originate from U.S.

A large percentage of firearms that end up in Canadian criminal hands, including the vast majority of handguns, come via the United States.

The ATF routinely helps law enforcement agencies in the U.S. as well as Canada trace guns seized by officers, though not all are linked to crimes.

Data compiled by the ATF’s office of strategic intelligence and information and supplied to Yahoo Canada shows the agency from 2009 to 2014 handled between 1,243 and 1,482 trace requests from Canadian agencies. All but a handful were U.S.-sourced and about half originated in a presumably legal retail purchase.

Handguns account for roughly one-half to two-thirds of the guns submitted for tracing, though the percentage has dropped slightly in recent years.

But as Cukier points out, trace requests account for only a fraction of seized guns and the statistics don’t include unsuccessful traces, say in cases where serial numbers have been removed.

According to up-to-date stats from Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), customs officers confiscated 827 guns last year, compared with in 545 in 2014 and 478 the year before that. Some seizures involved two or more firearms.

The majority of guns seized were either restricted firearms such as handguns and certain long guns or prohibited firearms (anything from certain assault rifles and short-barreled handguns to fully automatic weapons).

In most cases there’s no firm evidence the gun was destined for Canada’s criminal underworld.

“Most undeclared firearms seized by the CBSA at land border ports of entry are personal firearms belonging to travellers arriving from the United States,” said CBSA spokeswoman Esme Bailey.

But Cukier said while the guns may be seized, often no charges are laid against the individual who either inadvertently or intentionally brought it into the country.

‘Trail of ants’ brings illegal guns into Canada

Many illicit firearms are smuggled into Canada using what she termed a “trail of ants” approach, one weapon at a time, perhaps by legally clean “mules” or by truckers looking to make a little extra cash.

The union representing border guards has said in the past it’s likely only a small percentage of smuggled weapons are discovered.

No one from the Public Safety Canada, the RCMP and CBSA wanted to comment on the effect Obama’s announced measures might have on the problem.

“While we cannot speculate on the impacts of proposed government initiatives in the United States, we can assure you that the government of Canada is committed to take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets,” Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said via email.

Bardsley noted the new Liberal government’s election platform promised $100 million annually to support police guns-and-gangs task forces and investing in new technology to help CBSA detect illegal guns at the border.

The CBSA also said it works closely with its U.S. counterpart, as well as ATF and the FBI, sharing data and intelligence to help identify new and emerging threats at the border.

That kind of co-operation is crucial, Cukier stressed, because intelligence-based policing is better at disrupting the flow of illegal weapons by identifying sources and networks than trying to inspect millions of vehicles that cross the border each year.

Whether Obama’s initiatives, if they are even fully implemented, will make a dent in the number of guns heading north remains to be seen.