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Staring Down the Barrel
+Rosie Rowbotham  

"That's our business... we sell guns."
Updated March 15, 2004

In March 2004, CBC journalist Rosie Rowbotham arranged an interview with two illegal arms dealers. He and CBC.ca developer Dwight Friesen were blindfolded and driven to a secret location in Toronto, where weapons for sale were displayed and the dealers described their work.

View a special extended version of the interview with photographs from the meeting.
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The photographs that accompany the presentation were taken by Dwight Friesen. You can read Dwight's account of the evening below.

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My night with weapons dealers in Toronto

By Dwight Friesen
 Updated March 15, 2004

It's long past midnight and I am blindfolded in the back of an SUV. The vehicle lurches in unpredictable directions, stops abruptly and weaves through invisible traffic. It's not that we have a particularly bad driver - he's just trying to ferret out anyone that might be following us on our undercover journey. I am on the verge of vomiting from inner-ear confusion, multiple cups of coffee and excessive secondhand smoke.

Rosie RowbothamIf the ordeal has this effect on me, I can only wonder how the man sitting beside me is managing. Rosie Rowbotham is a producer with the CBC Investigative News team and the reason I'm here tonight. In his pre-CBC life, Rosie served 20 years in prison on a series of charges including conspiracy to import hashish. It's this underworld experience that has allowed him to arrange a mock gun buy for us on this frigid winter night. He is mildly claustrophobic and he can't be enjoying the smothering effect of the blindfold.

It's a good bet that the guys in the front of the SUV have done time in prison as well. They ride with the windows down, turning the truck into something akin to a rolling freezer. We are blindfolded to protect them, as well as to protect the weapons dealers that we are on the way to interview. As one of the criminals will tell us later, the blindfolds are also in place to prevent them from "Showing up on our doorstep."

Thankfully Rosie's personality is a mix of Rodney Dangerfield, Edward G. Robinson and Cecil B. De Mille, which I hope will help ease any anxieties on the part of the dealers.

The people we are meeting know that we work for the CBC, but have agreed to conduct the evening as though we were real arms buyers. They made us wait for hours in a pizzeria before making contact, then took the batteries out of our cell phones so we could not be tracked as we left together.

The less-than stellar pizzeria coffee is now my biggest worry. I would hate for our handlers to think that I was throwing up out of fear, before the evening even had a chance to get started.

BlindfoldedWhile we never know exactly where we are driven, we know that it is certainly off the map -- a place where screams and gunshots cannot be heard. Rosie has forewarned me that our destination is regularly used for things like hostage takings and interrogations.

After driving for what seems like half an hour, I can sense that we cross a set of railway tracks and then come to a stop on gravel. One of our escorts talks into a walkie-talkie, giving me the sense that we're going through a series of checkpoints. I realize that sentries in remote positions are observing our vehicle to ensure that we're traveling alone. After we clear two of these checkpoints we hear a garage door opening and our escorts instruct us to take off our blindfolds.

Our first image is that of five masked men standing rigidly behind a table full of guns. All this skullduggery with the blindfolds is a well-known psychological trick to soften someone up. Guess what - it works. At this point, I am really hoping that Rosie knows what he is doing. I hope that nobody lifts up their mask to scratch their nose. Even Rosie found the sight disturbing.

Looking around I notice that we're in a nondescript warehouse, a simple prefab industrial building. Rosie sets up his recording gear and I start shooting - rather, I start taking the pictures. Two of the masked men do all of the talking, while the others prepare the weapons and fill requests. They all have the alert stance of boxers and their movements are fast.

44.Some of them display a deep knowledge of firearms, and some do not. I get the sense that there is a wide range of experience in the room. At one point you will hear someone on the tape who has difficulty telling a .357 from a .44 - a distinction that should be immediately clear to an arms dealer.

I listen to the interview as it occurs, but only for nouns - only to capture the objects to which these men refer. Rosie massages his forehead with his free hand and points the microphone around like a Geiger counter. Thirty minutes later I've taken over 100 pictures.

They decide to start firing the weapons into bales of insulation that stacked against a cinderblock wall. The fiberglass is there to prevent shrapnel from the concrete from cutting us. I realize that my photographs would pack more punch if I positioned myself in front of the weapons, but in this situation a sidelong view will have to do.

I'm photographing one of them load the shotgun. He's just posing really, but I notice that he's put the shotgun shell in the gun backwards. I politely suggest that he try it the other way around. Luckily he doesn't take offence.

At one point, one of the automatic pistols jams up and four men gather around trying to get the casing out of the chamber. I shrink back with the pessimistic vision of the weapon going off and missing everyone except me. The masked men offer up advice like taxi drivers looking over a busted engine. A pair of needle nose pliers and some WD-40 eventually help clear the breech and they return to target practice.

When the demonstration ends, our hosts are eager for us to leave. Although they are confident that the warehouse is out of earshot, the shotgun has a distinctive bang that travels, and they don't want to get caught with the merchandise. Rosie says goodbye and we are bundled back in the SUV with the blindfolds on.

Finally Rosie and I are standing in the middle of the pizzeria parking lot with ringing ears and clothes that stink of gunpowder. We have been given safe passage, and agreements have been kept. Because Rosie is who he is, I've been given a rare glimpse into a different world.

Dwight FriesenIt's only when I assembled these images over the interview that I had time to think about the evening, and listen to the things these two men said that night. I'm glad I wasn't listening too closely while I was there.

Some will question whether criminals like these ought to be heard from at all. But if you had any doubt that weapons dealers make their living in Toronto, that doubt can no longer exist.

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