Gun seizures up but fears of porous border remain

The Canada Border Services Agency last year seized twice the number of weapons at border crossings compared to six years ago, according to a CBC News analysis of agency data, but experts fear little progress is being made in stemming the flow of illegal guns into Canada.

Experts say budget cuts will make it even harder to stop firearms smugglers

Guns at the border

10 years ago
Duration 12:19
Security experts discuss the number of illegal guns seized at Canadian border crossings

The Canada Border Services Agency last year seized twice the number of weapons at border crossings compared to six years ago, according to a CBC News analysis of agency data, but experts fear little progress is being made in stemming the flow of illegal guns into Canada.

The database, obtained by CBC News Network's Power & Politics through the Access to Information Act, shows that while guns make up about a third of all weapons confiscated by border officials, the seizures only tally in the hundreds annually.

That compares to tens of thousands of illegal guns nabbed in police operations on Canadian streets each year.

The Canada Border Services Agency last year seized twice the number of weapons at border crossings compared to six years ago. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

For example, in 2011, the CBSA seized 673 guns at ports of entry such as land border crossings, airports, ports and mail centres. By comparison, police seized 33,727 firearms that year, according to Canadian Firearms Program statistics. Many of these illegal firearms are believed to have come from outside the country.

Analysis of the CBSA data shows that switchblades, brass knuckles, tear gas or pepper spray canisters, butterfly knives and stun guns make up the remaining two-thirds of weapons seized at ports of entry.

But police are most concerned about handguns and other illegal firearms entering the country, with entry hotspots being the Vancouver area and southern Ontario, the two regions of the country with the busiest border crossings.

Americans neglect to declare weapons

The CBSA declined to make someone available for an interview, but a spokesperson said in an email to CBC News that most of the guns its officers find belong to Americans who neglect to declare them, not criminals.

While the agency does nab criminals attempting to smuggle weapons, and publicizes the seizures in news releases, border busts involving suspected criminals are not common, leading experts to conclude the weapons are evading detection at the border.

"[The CBSA] doesn't have any solid risk models for how we seize guns," says Christian Leuprecht, an associate professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in organized crime.

"And given that the United States is unlikely to do away with the Second Amendment [which gives citizens the right to bear arms], we have to come up with a strategy as to what we’re going to do to stem the flow."

According to police officers and organized crime experts, smuggled guns are typically purchased from a handful of states, such as Georgia and Ohio, with lax gun laws. In many cases, middlemen transport the firearms across busy border points, usually by hiding them in concealed compartments in vehicles or strapping them to their bodies. Seldom do they get pulled over for a more detailed "secondary inspection," allowing them to deliver their guns to customers, typically gang members and organized crime.

Complicating matters is the internet.

Quebec soldier charged

While the CBC News analysis of the agency's database reveals that gun seizures at the country's mail centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are small — just 14 in 2012 — the number of all weapons seized at mail centres rose sharply over the six years, to 899 in 2012 from 47 in 2007.

The mail and the internet figured prominently in the arrest last week of Quebec soldier David Theriault, who was charged with more than 30 illegal weapons production and trafficking offences.

Ontario Provincial Police said raids conducted at CFB Borden and several locations in Quebec netted hundreds of firearms, gun enhancements and parts, including silencers and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The Quebec soldier is alleged to have attempted to create an international smuggling ring, which would have allowed individuals on five continents to use parts such as "selector switches" to turn semi-automatic guns into fully automatic weapons allegedly intended to "kill people," according to Patricia Dobbin, the detective-inspector running the Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit. Theriault is to appear in court Thursday in Barrie, Ont.

There's another development that could turn out to be a boon for smugglers, at least according to a report released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute last week.

In the report, co-author Christian Leuprecht argues negotiations with the United States to ease the flow of goods across the border while tightening security will actually make it easier for organized criminals to smuggle drugs and guns in truck containers.

"As transnational organized crime groups become increasingly sophisticated in the crimes they perpetrate, the jurisdictions they exploit and the methodologies they employ, it would be unwise to assume that the border can be an effective point of interdiction."

The CBSA, already facing criticism that recent and planned cuts will make it even more difficult to stop smugglers, argues that it will work with the U.S. to increase intelligence as part of the Beyond the Border initiative.

In its most recent performance report, the agency asserts that it "uses automated risk assessment systems and intelligence to identify potential risks to the security and safety of people and goods."

Candice Bergen, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety, insisted cuts at CBSA will not affect frontline officers or seizures at the border. She also noted during an interview on CBC News Network's Power and Politics that most weapons are intercepted at an unmanned border point.

"The fact is, the majority of illegal guns are not coming across at points of entry, they're coming across unmanned areas," she told host Evan Solomon. "And that's where the RCMP and other law enforcement obviously have an important role and important task in terms of not only intelligence, because that's what helps at the points of entry with CBSA, but working together with our American counterparts to stop guns."


David McKie is a journalist and producer with Power & Politics in the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa.