With more weapons in hands of 'people who shouldn't have guns,' Winnipeg's fatal shooting rate spikes
6 gun homicides so far in 2019, compared to 3 in 2018; new police team aims to gather data on movement of guns
Fatal shootings have claimed six lives in Winnipeg so far in 2019 — double the number of gun homicides in all of 2018.
The six homicides this year involving guns (out of 14 homicides to date) compares to three last year (out of 22 total).
Judy Cook, the daughter of homicide victim Joselito Fernandez, said she'd like to know where all of these guns are coming from.
"You never think it would happen to you — like, I would never think [my dad's] … life would be shortened by something like this," said Cook. "Literally, it could happen to anybody."
Winnipeg police spokesperson Const. Rob Carver said seizing guns used to be rare, but now happens at least once a day.
A police report on firearms back in 1997 noticed an uptick in gun use in what was then the stabbing capital of Canada, but Carver said the dramatic increase in guns began some time in the last three years. A huge driver is the city's meth epidemic, he says.
"Guns and drugs have always been connected.… We know that the meth trade fuels firearm possession and use," Carver said.
"Whatever the drug of the day is, the people who are selling it, and now more using it — it's a violent subculture, and they are going to arm themselves."
In 2016, Winnipeg already had the country's second-highest rate of firearms use in police-reported crime (49.5 per 100,000 population, after Regina at 59.4). But gun seizures reached record levels in 2017 and again in 2018.
Winnipeg's new guns-and-gangs unit has been tasked with figuring out where firearms used in crimes come from and what happens to them.
Police studying guns' backstories
Some guns come illegally from the U.S. — "we're next to the largest firearms market in the entire world," Carver notes.
Others end up in the hands of criminals after break-ins.
More people who shouldn't have guns, have guns.- U of T professor Jooyoung Lee
Gun amnesty programs in recent years are part of the solution to that, said RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre.
"If people are storing them without planning to use them, we're hoping that that's making a difference," he said.
"We're going to keep working ... to make sure that it's safer out there. Any firearms in the hands of criminals are a danger to everybody."
In other cases, "someone who doesn't have a criminal background may get tasked with buying a gun, then putting it into the hands of criminals," said Carver.
"The backstory of a gun is always of interest."
A new Winnipeg Police Service team — the firearms investigative analysis section — will try to uncover those stories by looking at the sources of guns, whether they've been modified or are homemade, or if any laws were broken in the ownership or modification of the gun.
As the daughter of a shooting victim, Cook said she supports gathering that information.
"If they do find the root [of the gun] ... nobody else will have to go through what me and my family had to go through."
University of Toronto sociology professor Jooyoung Lee — who researches gun violence, including experiences of non-fatal gunshot victims — says there isn't good national data on where illegal guns come from.
"We haven't seen the kinds of shifts in the national economy that might explain why there might be an uptick in violent crime," Lee said, noting that violence — especially gun violence — can increase during a recession.
"If we take away that as a structural explanation ... then we're left with the much simpler one — that there might be more firearms out there in circulation," he said.
"And more people who shouldn't have guns, have guns."
Lee also notes it's now easy to find information on how to make weapons at home.
"This isn't stuff that 10, 20 years ago would have been as easy to find and locate," he says.
A few years ago, homemade guns were rare, but last year Winnipeg police seized 60. So far this year, they've seized 30.
One of those homemade guns was used to kill Dexter Cortavista Dejarisco in January.
The citizen Bear Clan Patrol group seized its first so-called "zip gun" this week — one made with a piece of copper pipe attached by twine to a piece of wood.
"It was for sure one of the crudest examples we've ever seen.… Really, really dangerous," Carver said.
"That can fire a bullet. It won't fire it well, and it may blow up, but it could fire a bullet — which means it's actually a deadly weapon to our officers. But it's also potentially deadly to the user because it could explode," he said.
"So it puts us in an odd situation: what's the probability it will shoot? We don't know. But it could certainly injure or harm someone."
Carver says the homemade guns are cheap and easy to get ahold of, and don't carry the same legal charges as an illegal gun.
In addition, people will modify weapons — sawing off the barrels of shotguns or rifles to make them easier to carry around, for example.
"It almost becomes like a long handgun," Carver said, "It isn't, but super dangerous."
Carver said the increase in guns will affect officers' use of force, because they never know when responding to a call if someone may be armed.
"I know mentally, it's starting to alter officers' tactical response and the mental map they use when they respond to calls," he said.
Lee says the increase in gun violence also has effects on victims — as well as bystanders and family members.
Those who survive shootings, in his research, can have life-altering disabilities, be knocked out of the labour market, and suffer mental health issues. Those effects can extend to people who witness things like last year's mass shooting in Toronto or know people who are affected by gun crime, he says.
But criminals probably aren't doing thorough cost-benefit analyses before deciding to arm themselves with a gun, Lee said.
"They are sometimes driven by impulsive emotions … things like shame, embarrassment, by rage — by these emotions that blindside individuals and make them feel like violence is their only possible action," he said.
"They're not necessarily seeing clearly into the future and not necessarily considering how their actions in the present are going to unfold and impact others around them, including themselves."