Nova Scotia

'Find them all and just burn them': The fight against illegal guns in N.S.

In 2017 and 2018 police across the province seized more than 2,000 guns. Some are turned into police, but many are also seized from criminals arrested for crimes ranging from robbery to weapons offences.

Police in Nova Scotia seized more than 2,000 guns over 2 years

More than 250 handguns were seized by police in Nova Scotia in 2017 and 2018, according to data from the RCMP. (Robert Short/CBC)

Behind a closed bedroom door in her home, alone with her family pictures, Selina Carter lets her guard down and cries. This is how she copes with the terrible loss that has become such a part of her life.

In the last 11 years her brother and her cousin were both shot dead in Halifax, and her grandson's father was shot and killed in Toronto.

More than almost anything she wants to see all the illegal guns yanked off Halifax's streets so no one else will have to suffer the same kind of grief.

"I hope that they find them all and just burn them," she said. "It's a great loss to me, it's a pain you can't heal." 

Carter said the police need to do more to hunt down and dispose of illegal guns.

Selina Carter's brother and cousin were both shot and killed in Halifax. (Facebook)

It's a big job — in 2017 and 2018 police across the province seized 2,116 guns, according to data provided by the RCMP. Some were turned into police, but many were also seized from suspects arrested for crimes ranging from robbery to weapons offences.

The most frequent types were rifles (1,136), shotguns (720) and handguns (251). The information from RCMP does not include brand names.

One machine gun was also seized, along with two submachine guns, according to data from Halifax Regional Police. The weapons are particularly dangerous because of their high rate of fire.

"That is the reason they are prohibited is because of the danger level, they don't feel they're required for the purpose of hunting or target purposes" said Const. John MacLeod, a spokesperson for Halifax Regional Police.    

One of the submachine guns was stolen and then recovered by police, while the other two guns were handed to police by people who didn't want them anymore.

Jim Hoskins, a retired staff sergeant with the Halifax Regional Police, said he worries about the number of handguns in urban centres. (David Burke/CBC)

But it's the number of handguns being seized that really worries retired Halifax police staff sergeant Jim Hoskins. He'd like to see them banned in urban centres.

"Handguns are built for one reason and that's to kill people," said Hoskins. "The basic reason for building a handgun is so it can kill somebody, whether it's sold to you to protect yourself or whatever.

"The less handguns we have on the street the less killing there will be in Halifax." 

Halifax Regional Police seized 340 guns in 2017 and 2018. But that's just a small portion of the illegal weapons that are actually out there, according to Hoskins.

"I know myself from my past experience that if someone wants to get a handgun here they can get one fairly quickly."

Terry Izzard, 58, was shot on Nov. 14, 2016, after someone knocked on the door of his Halifax home. (Courtesy of the Izzard family)

People touched by gun violence have been concerned about the number of weapons on the street for years. Carter moved to Montreal to escape the drugs and violence in Halifax, but members of her family were still cut down.

In November 2016, her brother Terrance Izzard, 58, heard a knock at his Halifax home, opened the door and was shot

"These two people in black, the first one just goes 'boop, boop, boop, boop,'" said Carter.

Police said at the time they believed the longtime maintenance and janitorial worker was not the intended target of the shooting. The homicide remains unsolved.

Halifax Regional Police are shown near the scene of Izzard's shooting. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

In 2008, Carter's cousin, Jaumar (Maury) Carvery, was shot and killed while out for a walk in Halifax's Uniacke Square. He was about 50 metres from a police office.

"Walking down the lane, minding his business. Bang! There he gets shot," she said.

Then in 2015 her grandson's father was shot and killed in Toronto.

"He's going to a baby shower with his girl, going down the street almost to the house and then bang! He gets shot. Like, these are innocent people," she said.    

Carter said police need to step up and get more guns off the street. 

"Personally, I don't think they do a very good job. It's like they're not investigating hard enough for me."

Const. John MacLeod speaks for the Halifax Regional Police. (CBC)

Halifax Regional Police said they're working hard to cut down on the number of guns in the community.  

"Essentially, every officer is looking to pull those guns off the street, whether it's on patrol and they have information that's provided to them, or they come across it during an investigation, or our investigative units … that are out there," said MacLeod. "We are always looking to make our city safer."    

It's difficult to gauge how many guns seized by police across the province were used in violent crimes. The numbers provided by RCMP do not contain the reasons why firearms were seized.

Only the information from Halifax Regional Police provides any insight, although the force wouldn't divulge details surrounding individual cases.

Rifles were the most frequently seized firearm in Nova Scotia. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A third of the 340 guns collected by Halifax police were turned over to officers voluntarily by people looking to get rid of them.

Seventy-four firearms were taken from suspects charged with things like assault, assault with a weapon, robbery, forcible confinement, illegal possession of a weapon and theft. 

"Certainly it's very concerning to us and it should be to the public," said MacLeod.

Police also confiscated 79 weapons that weren't stored safely. Another 21 guns were found by officers while they conducted their duties.

The remaining 58 guns were collected for a variety of reasons, including from people in mental-health distress, from people not authorized to have a firearm, from people uttering threats, and by police acting on warrants.

The Canadian National Firearms Tracing Centre does track the origins of illegal weapons.

Police have to submit a firearm to the centre in order for it to be traced, but there is no legal requirement to do so. The number of firearms traced by the centre is an unknown percentage of the overall number of guns collected nationally and would provide a statistically irrelevant result, said RCMP Cpl. Caroline Duval. 

There is no national repository for this kind of information in Canada.

Hoskins said illegal weapons generally come across the border from the United States, or could be stolen from legitimate gun owners or gun shops.

Halifax-area residents turned in 152 guns to police through the Fires for Firearms gun amnesty program in 2016. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

In 2017 and 2018 the Canada Border Services Agency seized 42 firearms at its highway crossings in Atlantic Canada. Twenty-one of those were prohibited in Canada.

The agency said most of the undeclared firearms were personal weapons belonging to travellers arriving from the U.S.

But there's not a lot of research in Canada examining the movement of illegal guns, according to Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who studies gun violence.

Many people think there are elaborate gun trafficking rings that are somehow siphoning guns away from manufacturers, said Lee. The truth is much more mundane.

"A lot of times the guns that are used in shootings are, at one point in time, purchased legally then diverted. Sometimes that means the person deliberately sold the gun on the illicit market because they knew they could make money off of that transaction," he said.

Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at University of Toronto, studies gun violence. (CBC)

Other times a gun could be stolen from a legitimate firearms owner, or a family member who shouldn't have a gun could get a hold of one.  

"There are a lot of different ways in which these guns circulate and move in the real world, but again I don't think we have good data to distinguish how much one is relative to the other," said Lee.        

Regardless of how the guns get on the street, Carter said more intervention programs and community outreach needs to be done to keep people away from the deadly weapons that killed so many of her family.  

"It makes me sick to my stomach because they're beautiful people that are gone," said Carter.

About the Author

David Burke

Reporter

David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.