Gun violence has no borders — as evidenced in recent weeks with mass shootings in Toronto and Colorado — but laws in Canada and the U.S. differ, prompting at least one Ontario lawyer to say "cultural difference" is the best defence for Americans caught with weapons.
"Saying, 'I forgot,' doesn't sell too well in our court system." — Greg Goulin, defence lawyer
Greg Goulin, a defence lawyer in Windsor, Ont., represents Americans caught with restricted and prohibited weapons when they cross into Canada.
He said the best defence is to claim cultural differences.
"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.
He called loaded handguns "very frequent" in the U.S. and "standard additional equipment" in homes and cars.
"To me, the cultural difference is so very obvious," Goulin said.
Since Jan. 1, 2011, the Canada Border Services Agency has seized nine restricted guns and 27 prohibited guns at Windsor, Ont.'s two busiest border crossings.
Restricted firearms include certain handguns and some semi-automatic long guns (not all semi-automatic long guns are restricted or prohibited). Rifles that can be fired when telescoped or folded to shorter than 660 millimetres (26 inches) are also restricted. The Firearms Act allows for possession of certain restricted firearms for designated purposes only, such as gun collecting or target shooting.
Prohibited firearms include most 32- and 25-calibre handguns and handguns with a barrel length of 105 mm or shorter. Fully automatic firearms, converted automatics, firearms with a sawed-off barrel and some military rifles (like the AK 47) are also prohibited.
Goulin said Canadian courts accept "cultural differences" as a legitimate defence. He said in some cases, "upstanding U.S. citizens" have been caught with a handgun at the border because they live in high-crime areas where owning and carrying a firearm is "normal" or "justifiable."
Goulin represented one person who was shot and then, after a lengthy recovery in hospital, was robbed at gunpoint.
"He wasn’t going to be parted from his gun," Goulin said. "You have a certain degree of appreciation if you understand the violent culture they come from.
"Sometimes a handgun is considered an obvious necessity if you live among, in one case, coyotes."
Under the recently passed omnibus crime bill, the penalty for being caught bringing a handgun into Canada is a three-year minimum jail sentence.
"The Crown attorney’s office has a degree of discretion. Should the person have a reasonable explanation for their error and are willing to admit culpability in the matter, that minimum penalty can be reduced at the discretion of the Crown," Goulin said.
Signs do notify American visitors to Canada handguns are prohibited. Goulin said they don’t work all the time.
"When you come into the [Detroit-Windsor] tunnel, there’s very little time for you to see a sign. 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," Goulin said, referencing ongoing construction there.
He said a solution would be a one-by-four-metre sign that reads: "Canada: No Guns."
"The point is, [Americans] come there, they’re asked at the border, they appreciate they have a gun and still say no. Why? Why say no?" Goulin said.
The response, he said, is often, "I’m not in my home state, so how would I get another one?"