Chris O'Brien Ottawa Police Under the Gun

Sgt. Chris O'Brien of the Ottawa police says illegal firearms can be merely a phone call away for well-connected criminals. (CBC)

Ottawa police believe more local gang members are carrying guns now than at any other time in the city's recent history, and low-quality, semi-automatic handguns smuggled in from the United States as the weapons of choice.

The handguns sell illegally for anywhere from $1,500 to more than $3,000 on the streets of Ottawa, and are too easy to buy, police said.

"If you are a well-connected criminal and you know who the people are to approach for these things, it could be as simple as making one phone call if you have the money available," said Sgt. Chris O'Brien, an Ottawa police officer with the provincial enforcement unit responsible for investigating guns used in crimes.

"It's a pervasive problem… Once one bad guy gets a gun, they're all going to want to get a gun in order to maintain competitiveness against the people that do have guns."

"If you're willing to pay $3,000 you'll get a gun. Anybody can get one," said one former crack cocaine dealer who spoke to CBC News on the condition that he remain anonymous.

Highway for smugglers

O'Brien said the latest statistics from 2013 show that 60 per cent of all guns used in Ontario crimes come from the U.S., usually southern states with lax gun laws.

He said criminal groups then transport the guns to New York, where the contraband is smuggled across the border into Canada.

Brent Lafave CBSA smuggle guns firearms cornwall border under the gun

Retired Canada Border Services Agency investigator Brent Lafave calls the St. Lawrence River a highway for smugglers. (CBC)

Retired Canada Border Services Agency investigator Brent Lafave, who worked for the CBSA in Cornwall for 32 years, describes the St. Lawrence River as a highway for smugglers when the sun sets.

"They've got high-speed Ski-Doos, trailers, everything's blacked out," he said.

"In the summertime, it's boats. The boats are all matte black and they're very difficult to pick up. The boat drivers will be all in matte black clothing. Sometimes they'll have night observation devices. These boats are fast, they're purpose-built for smuggling."

Different ways to conceal

Once the guns make it into Ottawa, police said the weapons are well-hidden from authorities in homes and moved around the city concealed in vehicles.

Under the Gun Conceal Smuggle Weapon

Ottawa police say low-quality, semi-automatic handguns like this one are the new "weapon of choice" on city streets. (CBC)

"They say necessity is the mother of invention," said Solomon Friedman, a lawyer who represents gang members, including a man involved in the Tanger outlet mall shooting on Boxing Day.

"When you have a firearm that sells for $400 in the United States and $4,000 on the streets of Ottawa, people get pretty creative and they (hide) them in all sorts of auto parts."

Friedman said sometimes gang members custom-build panels in vehicles and use sophisticated electronic traps to conceal weapons.

He said the devices can even involve lowering a window and putting the heat to a certain setting to pop open the trap and reveal the hidden contraband inside.

"The gun commodity, it's a very difficult commodity to track and trace," said Acting Staff Sgt. Ken Bryden with the Ottawa police guns and gangs unit.

"It's moved around between gang members, it's moved around to different parts of the city for use, for concealment."

Last year, Ottawa police seized 53 guns used in crimes, including 29 handguns.

However, police said only two of those firearms were used in gang shootings in 2013 and 2014.

Coming up Thursday on Under the Gun: How gang-related shootings affect the communities where they happen.