Statistics Canada has started a project to increase the amount of information collected on guns used in crime.
Researchers have said for decades there isn't enough data about where guns come from and how they are used.
Without that information, it is a greater challenge to stop the flow of illegal guns into Canada or to curb gun violence.
"It's been a problem for 30 years," said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control.
"The information is quite fragmented. Jurisdictions like Toronto collect and trace and track crime guns, but a lot of others don't."
Statistics Canada is working with police services and Public Safety Canada to change that.
Last year, the agency added a variable to its homicide survey allowing police to indicate whether firearms used to commit a homicide were sent for tracing, and to provide the origin if discovered.
Besides that, Statistics Canada hasn't said how it will increase the amount of information it receives on crime guns, just that it's working on it.
But that's a good first step, said Cukier.
More data would help identify hot spots of gun activity in the country, she said.
It's something law enforcement in the U.S. has done successfully. In the past, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has traced a large number of crime guns back to illegal sales.
"In Canada, we don't have the mechanisms to make those sorts of determinations because we don't have the tracing, the tracing data," said Cukier.
"When it comes to identifying hot spots in Canada — dirty dealers, points of entry and so on — I think the police would say there is less information than they would like to have."
Collecting that information nationally would allow police to target smuggling rather than discovering illegal firearms by chance when a car crosses the border, she said.
The Canada Border Services Agency seized 647 firearms in the 2019-20 fiscal year. In the last three fiscal years, that number peaked at 751 seizures in 2017-18.
There is no way of knowing how many guns escape detection.
Cukier said the broad pattern of gun crime in the country has been known for years.
Licensed guns like rifles and shotguns are often used in domestic assaults and attacks on police officers in rural communities. Handguns used by gangs are smuggled in from the U.S., stolen or sold illegally, she said.
But the figures used in crimes are elusive.
Even what police refer to as a gun used in a crime isn't the same across the country, according to an email from Peter Frayne, a Statistics Canada spokesperson.
Some jurisdictions may refer to a 'crime gun' as a firearm used to shoot, rob or threaten another person.
But some police services don't use the term, meaning there is a "barrier to consistent data collection and recording," according to Frayne.
Statistics Canada says it's working with police and other groups to come up with a definition.
The lack of standard definition upsets Nova Scotia gun owner Daniel Harrington, who is an award-winning target shooter. He uses a Stag 10 rifle that has now been banned by the federal government.
Harrington said legislators should get all the facts before they create laws that hurt licensed gun owners, especially when guns smuggled into the country could be the problem.
"[It's] so backwards," he said.
He said it is important to define what it is that needs to be stopped.
"Like, assault rifle has no legal definition in Canada," he said. "So define it, find out where it's coming from, find out what you can do to stop that and then do it," said Harrington.
Statistics Canada's work is further complicated by a lack of requests to trace a gun's ownership history.
Not all crime guns are submitted for tracing by police. There is no legal requirement that firearms be submitted by police for tracing through the RCMP-run Canadian National Firearms Tracing Centre.
The aim of the centre is to help law enforcement figure out the history of a gun connected to a criminal investigation and to use that information as potential evidence in court, said Catherine Fortin, an RCMP spokesperson in an email.
"We are not mandated to collect statistics on illegal firearms," she said.
That means the centre does not retain the information it gathers.
"Instead, the results are sent back to the police of jurisdiction, and are recorded in various, and inconsistent, formats," said Frayne.
Not all tracing pans out, meaning the origins of some guns remains a mystery.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is also trying to fill in some of the gaps. The association represents senior police leadership from across the country.
It has been exploring ways to increase data collection on the criminal uses of firearms through Statistics Canada.
The association also wants to "standardize definitions of key firearm-related concepts," said spokesperson Natalie Wright in an email.
Wright said they are trying to identify possible options for data collection and analysis on firearms.
Despite the difficulties, collecting the information is still worth the effort, according to Jooyoung Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. Lee studies the causes and consequences of gun violence.
"It's important to determine the origin of crime guns because any attempts at legislating the sale and flow of firearms has to recognize that the United States is a global supplier of firearms," said Lee, "We just simply don't know how many guns are Canadian in origin versus American in origin."
Cukier said even without a complete picture of where guns used in crime are coming from, she believes laws like the federal government's ban on assault-style firearms still have to go ahead.
"I've heard a lot of people say, 'There's no point in banning military-assault weapons because we have a problem with gun smuggling,'" she said.
"That's like saying we shouldn't try to treat breast cancer because lung cancer is a big problem. The ban on military-assault weapons is aimed at reducing the risk we will have mass shootings."
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