Gun violence across Canada spurs new task force headed by Regina police chief

As police services across Canada struggle to deal with the human cost of gun violence in their communities, Regina’s police chief is heading a task force on the issue.

Police chiefs want legislative solutions, including tracking big purchases of licensed guns

Regina police Chief Evan Bray is the chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police task force on firearms. (CBC)

As police services across Canada struggle to deal with the human cost of gun violence in their communities, Regina's police chief is heading a national task force on the issue.

Chief Evan Bray, who has 24 years of experience in policing, said anecdotally, officers in his early days in Regina could expect to come across one gun a month. Now, they're seeing them once or twice per night.

"Even the psychological effect of that is something that we often talk about with our police officers, because that night after night responding to those types of calls takes its toll," Bray told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

But the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is looking for more than anecdotes.

The association formed a task force in late 2018 called the Special Purpose Committee on Firearms, with Bray as chair, to find solid data on what's happening with firearms across the country, and to dig into solutions with academics and gun experts.

Toronto saw a record 96 homicides in 2018. The city's mayor has urged residents there to lobby the federal government for a handgun ban. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

While data is still being being mined for that task force, a special series called One Bullet by CBC Radio's The Current is taking a close look at shootings in Canada, and the causes and effects of gun violence.

The numbers around guns and violent death are heading in the wrong direction in Canada, the series has found.

Violent firearm crime continued to tick upward for the third year in a row in 2017, up seven per cent to 2,734 offences, according to Statistics Canada — though that included everything from shooting a gun "with intent" to pointing one at someone to having a gun on you while committing another offence.

Sawed-off weapons, like this one seized by Prince Albert police in November 2018, are more likely to be seized than handguns in Regina, says Bray. (Submitted by Prince Albert Police Service)

In Regina, Bray says, the long-barrelled rifles and sawed-off shotguns that are most often seized are very different from the large number of handguns in eastern cities like Toronto and Montreal.

In 2018, Toronto saw 96 homicides, breaking a record set in 1991. The city's mayor has urged residents there to lobby the federal government for a handgun ban.

Regina also sees a lot of imitation weapons that are difficult to distinguish from the real thing, said Bray.

"So think about a dark alley or a dimly lit bedroom, or a situation where officers are making a quick, split-second decision — those firearms, although imitation, really post a health risk and a challenge," he said.

But where are the guns coming from?

Bray already knows that most firearms used in crimes in Saskatchewan are domestically sourced within the province.

The task force is looking for legislative solutions. One it's already looking at centres around the fact that most criminals caught using firearms don't have the licence that's required to buy them, Bray said.

What's happening is people with licences buy a lot of firearms and sell them illegally, said Bray — and the task force wants a system in place to track that.

"If people are making large purchases of firearms, I think citizens of Canada would expect that we have a process in place that ensures that someone's reported that that's happening, and we can look into it," he said.

In the end, the task force wants legislation, education and data-driven work to make communities safer with regard to firearms, Bray said.

With files from The Morning Edition