Spike in gun seizures tied to growing Winnipeg meth problem, police say
Nearly 1,200 airsoft guns, rifles, other firearms taken by police in 2017 and more than half tied to crime
Police seized more firearms in Winnipeg last year than in any of the past five years, and the rise in crystal meth use and related drug and gang activity are partly to blame, they say.
The Winnipeg Police Service took possession of 1,165 firearms in 2017 — the most the force has seized since at least 2013, says data provided to CBC News. In 2013, 934 firearms were seized, a mark surpassed by August in 2017.
"You don't have to look too far from a drug seizure to find a firearm," Winnipeg police Const. Jay Murray said.
That spike came amid an ongoing methamphetamine crisis in Winnipeg and concerns nationally about an increase in gun crime in Canada.
Academics, politicians, police and justice officials from across Canada — including a Crown attorney from Manitoba — converged on Ottawa this week for a conference on rising gun and gang violence rates in the country.
"As Canadians, we are fortunate to live in one of the safest countries in the world. Crime rates in Canada are much lower today than decades ago," a spokesperson for federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who hosted the summit, said in a statement.
"But over the past few years, homicides, gun crime and gang activity have all steadily increased. Gun homicides almost doubled over the past four years, rising to 223 in 2016. Over half are gang-related."
Although neither the City of Winnipeg nor the Winnipeg Police Service sent representatives to the conference, Const. Murray said the force is grappling with gun crime concerns locally.
Two-thirds (758) of firearms seized last year were tied to crime, while the remainder (407) were deemed non-crime-related.
Of those non-criminal seizures, more than 200 were turned over to police for safekeeping or out of public safety concerns, and the rest were given to police to be destroyed, Murray said.
More firepower, more training
The Winnipeg Police Service has taken a number of steps to prepare its members to respond to a rise in gun crime.
Last year, the WPS started arming its patrol officers with more firepower, allowing them to carry carbine rifles in addition to the standard issue side arms.
"With an increase in firearms on the street, we have to take the proper precautions to protect both the public and ourselves," Murray said, adding the 7,700-kilogram, $342,000 armoured tactical vehicle purchased by the force in 2015 has also been "an essential and critical asset for a number of high-risk calls."
"It provides us with a distinct tactical advantage when we attend incidents where we might come into contact with firearms on the street."
Winnipeg police have also started getting more training for active shooter situations, motivated by a spike in mass shootings primarily in the U.S. The Winnipeg Police Service announced in January it was also buying new body armour for its tactical unit members.
1 in 5 guns seized not lethal
The biggest category of seized guns is firearms classified as non-lethal, at 22 per cent — but those airsoft and pellet guns are still a major concern for police because they look so real.
The most seized firearm was air soft guns (262), which fire non-lethal plastic pellets. Rifles (218), sawed-off rifles (72) and sawed-off shotguns (65) were the second, third and fourth most common, police said.
Murray said police seem to be encountering more people on the street with handheld airsoft and pellet guns. He believes that also might be tied to drug dealers in the local meth racket and could account for why the city is seeing higher gun crime overall.
Dealers will arm themselves to protect their product and establish their territory, and Murray said sometimes they'll buy airsoft pistols or pellet guns when they can't get their hands on something lethal because they often look like the real thing.
With more guns on the street in Winnipeg, there's a greater chance that someone in psychological distress will get one, and that thought can also put police on edge, Murray said.
"I think if you take most of these firearms and put them next to a real firearm, it can be really tough to tell the difference.… It's amazing how realistic these guns can look."
If police can't tell a gun is a replica, the situation probably won't end well, although no officer wants to have to use lethal force, he said.
"The last thing you ever want to hear is that you had to fire a weapon at someone who wasn't actually carrying a real firearm."
Last fall, the federal government announced $330-million over the next five years to help curb illegal gun activity and gang violence at the municipal, provincial and federal level. Funding will also go to Indigenous groups and communities to help them address those issues, Goodale said.
"As controversial as measures related to firearms can be — and we've seen the kind of debate that's been provoked in the past around these issues — that particular point with respect to background checks and making sure that it is a system that works to protect public safety, that's an area where there is broad consensus," Goodale said in a statement.
"Our goal is to prioritize public safety and at the same time making sure that we are being practical and fair with respect to legitimate firearm owners."