Straw purchasing puts more legally bought guns in the hands of Alberta criminals: ALERT

More guns are being used in Alberta crimes and that's partially due to a rise in something called straw purchasing, where a firearms licence is used to obtain weapons intended for the criminal market.

'Firearms are showing up in a lot more investigations then they did in the past.'

Rifles, handguns, silencers and ammunition recovered in a 2016 arrest. (ALERT )

More guns are being used in Alberta crimes and that's partially due to a rise in something called straw purchasing, where a firearms licence is used to obtain weapons intended for the criminal market. 

"It's the main source of how firearms are being purchased and how they come into people's hands on the streets nowadays," said Sgt. Eric Stewart, head of the Guns and Gangs unit for the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT).

"In the last five years, we've seen kind of a shift," said Stewart. "Firearms are showing up in a lot more investigations then they did in the past."

A straw purchaser, someone who does not usually have a criminal record, has a valid Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) and has often obtained the extra requirement allowing them to buy restricted firearms. 

While straw purchasers may not be involved in other criminal activity, the trafficked weapons are used in all types of crime, said Stewart. 

"The guns are ending up being used in robberies, shootings, home invasions, and murders," he said. "This is why guns end up on our streets and why [criminals] have them, either for protection or for use." 

Stewart said that other firearms ending up in criminal hands have been stolen from residential and commercial properties.

Some are smuggled into Alberta from the United States, but that number is lower than ever before, he told CBC News.

"Domestically, here in Alberta and Canada, you can obtain them so much easier, so there's no need to get them out of the U.S."

Handguns are the weapons of choice for criminals because they are easy to conceal, said RCMP Sgt. Eric Stewart. (ALERT)

First case in Alberta

The first case of straw purchasing in Alberta made its way through the courts in May, when Justin Shipowich pleaded guilty to purchasing 39 restricted firearms for the purpose of trafficking.

"Certainly that sentencing will have some precedential value going forward for similar offenders in similar circumstances," said Adam Garrett, an Edmonton Crown prosecutor who specializes in organized crime. 

Five other cases of domestic weapons trafficking are currently before the courts, according to Alberta Justice. 

The eight-year prison sentence handed down to Shipowich is in line with similar cases that were heard by the courts in Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba, Garrett said.

The charges of trafficking in firearms and possession for the purpose of trafficking firearms carry sentences ranging from three to 10 years.

"It's not a shortcut to make some easy extra money," said Garrett of straw purchasing activities. "It's a very serious criminal offence."

Guns hard to recover 

All types of firearms are being trafficked in Alberta but handguns — which are classified as restricted or prohibited in Canada — are particularly popular with criminals. 

"We do see an influx of handguns being out there on the streets," said Stewart. "It's a smaller gun to carry." 

And unlike drug trafficking, firearms can be used and sold multiple times.

"Guns travel across Canada," explained Stewart. "They continue to be used, they continue to be passed along." 

Only five of the 39 weapons trafficked by Shipowich were recovered. One, a Glock pistol, was found in Toronto, according to court documents.

Illegal weapons are more likely to be transported and handled in a careless way, said Garrett.

"When these firearms are trafficked into criminal hands, the police lose the ability to enforce those regulations," he said, "and the result is a grave risk to public safety."

Handguns are often used in the drug trade, said Crown prosecutor Adam Garrett. These guns were recovered by ALERT during a drug bust in Calgary in 2015. (ALERT)

Suspicious activities 

Recognizing the rise in domestic weapons trafficking, law enforcement agencies are working together to identify straw purchasers, said Stewart. 

"We're able to put our heads together to identify suspicious behaviour," he said. 

Each province has a Chief Firearms Officer (CFO) who oversees the regulatory aspect of gun ownership, said Rob O'Reilly, director of Firearms Regulatory Services with the RCMP. 

The CFO has the authority to investigate suspicious purchases and to revoke someone's firearms licence if they no longer meet the eligibility standard. 

"If we're seeing an individual acquiring a large amount of firearms in a very short period of time, we'll want to have a conversation with them," said O'Reilly.

The vast majority of those gun owners are collectors who can prove that their purchase is legitimate, he said. If a CFO suspects criminal activity, the file is passed on to the police. 

The RCMPs National Weapons Enforcement Support Teams also provides investigative support for police and can trace and analyze recovered firearms. 

Gun owners push back

The National Firearms Association is worried that law enforcement agencies are viewing law-abiding gun owners as potential straw purchasers. 

"The system is already very tightly controlled," said vice-president Blair Hagen. "And 99.9 per cent of that control is directed at people with no criminal intent."

More regulations on gun ownership won't prevent weapons trafficking, said Hagen. He thinks the best deterrent is a lengthy prison sentence for offenders. 

"There will always be somebody stupid enough or desperate enough to try to do this within the system, using a firearms licence," said Hagen.  

Stewart said police don't want to target law-abiding gun owners. 

"We want their support," he said. "We're trying to target the people who are making bad decisions."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca