Nova Scotia

Lawyer for some families in N.S. mass shooting says gun bans won't prevent similar tragedies

Recommendations from the final report into Nova Scotia's 2020 mass shooting around prohibiting certain firearms and magazines in Canada doesn't address how similar tragedies could be avoided, says a lawyer for many families of the victims.

Stopping illegal guns from being smuggled from the U.S. is more important, he says

An arrangement of firearms including rifles and pistols are laid out on a beige background
After police shot and killed the gunman at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., they found three handguns and two rifles in his possession. He obtained three of the guns in Houlton, Maine. (Mass Casualty Commission)

Recommendations from the final report into Nova Scotia's mass shooting to prohibit certain firearms and magazines in Canada are a "distraction" that don't address how similar tragedies could be avoided, says a lawyer for many families of the victims.

The report of the Mass Casualty Commission released March 30 says the federal government should prohibit all semi-automatic handguns, as well as centrefire semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that are designed to accept detachable magazines with capacities of more than five rounds.

The commissioners also recommend prohibiting the use of a magazine with more than five rounds and that licence holders should only be able to buy ammunition for their own licensed gun. Generally, licensed gun owners may have prohibited firearms only if there is an ongoing exception under the Firearms Act, so they could keep them under certain conditions.

"While we're making those symbolic gestures and banning this rifle or that pistol or this magazine, what we're not doing is having a serious conversation about how these sorts of weapons are getting into the hands of actual criminals," said Michael Scott, a lawyer with Patterson Law, which represents most of the 22 families of the victims.

"It's the distraction issue that I think that everybody should be concerned with, and at some point we have to demand more than symbolic gestures."

A white man in a suit and tie sits in an office in front of a window
Michael Scott, a lawyer for Patterson Law, represents more than a dozen families of the victims. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Gabriel Wortman began his rampage in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020 by attacking his partner and then killing 13 people in the small Colchester County community while driving a replica RCMP cruiser.

He killed nine others the next day as he drove south across the province, eventually being shot and killed by police at a gas station north of Halifax.

Court records and documents released by the commission show police found five firearms in the gunman's possession. Three were traced back to Houlton, Maine, a town near the New Brunswick border the gunman visited frequently. 

The remaining guns were a rifle he received from a New Brunswick friend's estate, and an RCMP-issued service pistol taken from victim Const. Heidi Stevenson.

Gordon Hunt of Truro, N.S., says to implement the report's recommendations would hurt his livelihood.

Hunt, who runs the Hunt Indoor Gun Range and an attached sports store in Truro, said target shooting "would be basically finished."

He said most guns used in the range, which has more than 300 members, would fit the description of those recommended for regulation in the report.

"We'd probably be out of business," Hunt said. "The only thing we would have left would be the [store], which, I'm thinking that a lot of people would just throw in the towel and say it's not worth it."

Hunt said he got into shooting through his father, and plans to eventually hand over the business to his son who works alongside him now. The sport is "passed-down heritage" in Nova Scotia and across Canada, Hunt said, and licensed gun owners are tired of restrictions piling up as a way to address violent crime like the mass shooting.

A white man sits at a counter with a display of various long guns standing against a wooden wall behind him, and ammunition visible on the shelves
Gordon Hunt owns Hunt Indoor Gun Range and sports store in Truro, which has been open for 10 years. (CBC)

"We're being chastised I guess … because of that, and we work really, really hard to be legal and to be safe. And so we take a little bit of offence if we feel that we're jumbled in with that type of thing because that is as far away from what we are as can be," Hunt said.

Some of the report recommendations dovetail with the federal government's planned Bill C-21, including automatically revoking firearms licences held by those convicted of domestic violence. Hunt said he is totally in agreement with that.

Most illegal handguns come from the U.S.

The U.S. is the source of anywhere from 70 to 99 per cent of the guns — mostly handguns — used in Canadian crimes.

Francis Langlois, a firearms policy expert in Trois-Rivières, Que., said police there have said 80 to 85 per cent of crime-related handguns in the province come from the U.S.

"It's a lot when you think about it," Langlois said. "It's a big number."

Langlois says there are two distinct gun control issues — the regulation of legal firearms to reduce harms like suicide and domestic violence, and the illegal guns used in crime. 

A man with glasses and a striped shirt looks at the camera while wearing large black headphones
Francis Langlois is a firearms policy expert in Quebec. (CBC)

"Although those two issues are related, they need different policies to be addressed …  the conversation on guns is all mixed up," Langlois said.

"Tightening regulation for legal guns doesn't have a lot of impact on illegal guns."

Langlois said more border officers are needed to help address smuggling, and much more data is needed on where crime guns are coming from.

Statistics Canada has acknowledged there is "currently little information available to determine the source of firearms used in crime," such as whether a gun was stolen, illegally purchased or smuggled into the country.

That information is sometimes not recorded by police services or simply not available, Statistics Canada said, and no province requires that investigators send all crime guns for tracing. 

Statistics Canada made a number of additions to the crime information it collects starting in 2021, including data on the number of firearms recovered, seized or stolen in a criminal incident. However, officials said it may take a few years for these reporting changes to be fully implemented by police.

A CBC News investigation found Americans who helped the gunman get those firearms may have violated U.S. law, including a proxy purchase at a gun show, but no one has ever been charged. Wortman, who didn't have a firearms licence, is believed to have smuggled the guns into Canada in his truck. 

The gunman was put on a Canadian Border Services Agency watch list in 2010 because of recurring trips to the Caribbean and was searched multiple times that year, but nothing was found. He was stopped various times during dozens of other border crossings in the following years, but no firearms were ever found.

The inquiry heard that RCMP would not have been aware the gunman was on a CBSA lookout because the two agencies did not share such information. Similarly, CBSA officers were unaware of RCMP reports about Wortman in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

The gunman also had a Nexus card, which meant both the U.S. and Canada considered him a low-risk traveller. 

The panel's final report concluded that incomplete information sharing between the CBSA and other law enforcement agencies meant CBSA was "not able to fully assess risk factors" when the gunman applied for a Nexus card or when he crossed the border.

The single recommendation specifically about border issues states that all law-enforcement agencies with a mandate to stop cross-border smuggling should develop systems to share information, and develop a collaborative framework to "ensure effective scrutiny" at the border.

"We would have liked to see more of that rather than simply acknowledging what was already known," said Scott.

A collage of 22 people shows the faces of the people who died in four rows
Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

Although the commission was "clear and fearless" in identifying issues with RCMP structure and intimate-partner violence, Scott said his clients were disappointed to see so little on border issues, and nothing at all on addressing Americans who break their own firearms laws.

"Aside from ... a somewhat oblique recommendation that we should work more closely with our American partners — [and] that doesn't appear to be working," Scott said.

Data from CBSA shows that in 2021 the agency collected 1,109 guns from 403 seizures across the country, and 1,100 guns from 540 seizures in 2022. The vast majority of those guns were seized in Ontario — 1,473 of the total 2,209 across both years — with only 27 seized in New Brunswick. 

The border service's position of Atlantic intelligence firearms liaison officer was inactive for years leading up to the mass shooting, the MCC report said. It called the role "invaluable" for collecting, co-ordinating and sharing firearms intelligence with multiple organizations.

CBSA spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé said in an email that the "function" of the liaison officer position was reinstated in the region in November 2021.

"The CBSA has been working to enhance its efforts to interdict firearms entering Canada, including through the work of the Mass Casualty Commission, and has taken a number of steps to date," Bérubé said.

During a Halifax visit in early March, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the federal government has invested an additional $450 million in the CBSA since April 2020. That includes beefing up the ability to scan for contraband in containers passing through the Port of Halifax.

The MCC report also recommended changes to address the illegal access of guns from wills and estates.

Canadian and American flags fly at the border
The Blue Water Bridge into Port Huron, Mich., is show in 2020. Witnesses say the gunman in the N.S. mass shooting smuggled guns and alcohol across the Maine border into Canada. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

The commissioners suggested information from government databases like Vital Statistics could be transferred to firearms officers, allowing them to get immediate notification of a death or licence expiry.

Those administering an estate should also be educated on their responsibility for the timely deactivation, surrender, or destruction of firearms in the estate — and hold them accountable, the report said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haley Ryan

Reporter

Haley Ryan is the municipal affairs reporter for CBC covering mainland Nova Scotia. Got a story idea? Send an email to haley.ryan@cbc.ca, or reach out on Twitter @hkryan17.

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