CANADA

TAKING AIM ON GUNS

A rash of brutal murders sparks calls for more controls on firearms

TOM FENNELL April 25 1994
CANADA

TAKING AIM ON GUNS

A rash of brutal murders sparks calls for more controls on firearms

TOM FENNELL April 25 1994

TAKING AIM ON GUNS

CANADA

A rash of brutal murders sparks calls for more controls on firearms

TOM FENNELL

WARREN CARAGATA

Reece Hudgins is in a hurry. For the past six weeks, the 37-year-old Toronto undertaker has been scrambling to acquire handguns for him and his wife. He has been in and out of police stations numerous times, and has had his past investigated for criminal activity. His record is clean, but Hudgins believes that he is in a race against a groundswell of public outrage over the brutal killing of three Ontario residents over the past month. Thousands of people attended their funerals and more than 10,000 signed petitions asking Ottawa to drastically curtail gun ownership in Canada. Politicians, scrambling to catch up with public opinion, urged tough action:

Justice Minister Allan Rock even suggested banning guns altogether in major cities. If that happens,

Hudgins said thousands of law-abiding gun owners will suffer. “The criminals seem to have all the rights,” said Hudgins, who wants the guns for target practice. “I hope I can get mine before they ban them.” The public outcry over guns has grown steadily since the murders. On March 27, Nicholas Battersby, a 27-year-old Englishman, died in a random drive-by shooting in Ottawa as he walked along a downtown street. Three days later, 25-year-old McMaster University student Joan Heimbecker was gunned down in her campus apartment. Her former boyfriend, Rory Foreman, surrendered to police in Colorado last week and is being returned to Canada to face murder charges. Then on April 5, 23-year-old Georgina Leimonis was killed with a sawed-off shotgun during a robbery in an upscale Toronto café called Just Desserts. Last week Lawrence Augustus Brown, 25, of Toronto, turned himself into police and was later charged with firstdegree murder. And like Marc Lepine’s shooting of 14 women at the

Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, the three murders may spark another round of tough guncontrol legislation.

In response to the Montreal murders, the former Conservative government passed Bill C17 in 1991, which among other things forced handgun owners to store their weapons in locked boxes and store their ammunition separately. Now, some gun-control advocates want to go even further. Kevin Woolley, who manages a Toronto pharmacy, was so upset by the killing that he has circulated a petition demanding that the federal government ban all guns in Toronto. More than 10,000 people signed. “I haven’t had one complaint,” said Woolley. “People don’t see any reason to have guns in Toronto.”

Some provincial and municipal politicians proposed their own solutions. Ontario Conservative Leader Mike Harris told the Ontario legislature last week that people should receive cash or other rewards for turning their guns over to police—as is done in some American jurisdictions. The next day, deputy Liberal leader Sean Conway stood in the provincial legislature, waved a box of 50 9-mm bullets in the air and called on the government to limit the sale of ammunition to legal gun

owners with hunting licences. Not to be outdone, Metro Toronto Councillor Norm Gardner turned a rifle he owned over to police as part of a drive to get people to tum in their guns. “People are saying, ‘cut the bullshit,’ ” said Gardner. “They want politicians to do something about this.”

But all the proposals to further restrict legal gun ownership may do little to curb violent crime. In fact, the results of a recent undercover investigation in Ontario indicate that smuggled guns, not those legally owned in Canada, are responsible for many of the violent incidents that alarm Canadians. Geoff Francis, an undercover police officer with the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario, who took part in Operation Gun Runner in 1993, said that 166 of 193 handguns seized over a nine-month period by police in southern Ontario had been smuggled into Canada. “The majority are coming from the United States,” said Francis. “I have no doubt about that.”

Francis said arms smugglers targeted Canada because of simple economics: a handgun that sells for $100 in Detroit can be resold for more than $500 in Canada. He said the guns are being smuggled across in cars, boats and trains. And by far the most popular firearms are rapid-firing semi-automatic weapons. Once in Canada, Francis said, the guns are quickly sold through networks of criminals. Intelligence Service Det. Insp. Barry Hill said the flow of weapons across the border has grown to the point where dealers have been forced to cut their prices in Canada to attract customers. “There are so many guns coming in,” said Hill, “that prices are actually coming down.”

And statistically, at least, criminologists say that any weakness in Canada’s gun laws does not appear to be fuelling a wave of violent crime. In fact, Canada’s murder rate, which stood at 2.7 per 100,000 people in 1992, has remained virtually unchanged over the past 10 years. As well, according to Statistics Canada, the use of guns in robberies has declined from 42 per cent of all robberies in 1975, to 26 per cent in 1992. Ted Palys, an associate professor in the School of Criminology at Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University believes Canadians may be demanding tough gun-control measures because they are overly influenced by heavy media coverage of lawlessness in the United States, where the rate of violent crimes is 10 times higher than in Canada. “People have a distorted view about how much violent crime we have in this country.”

At the same time, groups representing legal gun owners say they are being used as scapegoats by politicians desperate to appease public opinion. David Tomlinson, president of the Edmonton-based National Firearms Association, said the government will not solve the problem of violent crime by taking away a person’s right to own a gun. Any criminal who really wants a gun, he said, can easily buy one from an underground gun dealer. “The only people the government can disarm are the victims,” said Tomlinson. “And that will only encourage more violence because only criminals will have guns.”

And police in Canada’s major cities say that they are seeing an alarming number of handguns on the streets. But how those guns are falling into the hands of criminals is a matter of heated debate. In 1993, customs officials across Canada seized 2,221 illegal weapons at the border, of which 1,681 were primarily handguns. By comparison, in 1992, 1,777 weapons were confiscated, of which 1,565 were mostly handguns. John Johnston, district manager for Revenue Canada Customs in Niagara Falls, Ont., said there is no evidence to suggest that the seizures are linked to organized gun smuggling. Instead, he said, the

vast majority of guns are taken from U.S. truck drivers and tourists who ignored warnings at the border not to carry their guns into Canada. Added Windsor Police Staff Sgt. Lloyd Grahame: “They think they can sneak the guns across, and then they get caught.” But police in many other cities, including Metro Toronto, say that gun smuggling into Canada has reached epidemic levels. The most popular weapons are cheaply made .380 calibre handguns. Largely manufactured by Bryco Industries in Irvine, Calif., the small guns, which wholesale for about $100 in the U.S., are just 5.3 inches long and weigh only 16 oz. Det. Paul Mullin, who works in the Metro Toronto fire-arms registration branch, said the guns sell for about $500 on the city’s streets. Said Mullin: “Why sell drugs when you can make money selling guns?”

The extent of the gun smuggling into Canada became apparent in March, 1993, when Stephen Gooding and David Gill, both of Toronto, were arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to numerous weapons charges. The two men, who were sentenced to two years in prison, told police that they had smuggled nearly 300 of the small guns into Toronto. It wasn’t hard.

The two men met their supplier in Detroit and then stuffed the guns behind the back seat of their car for the return trip home. Many of the guns were sold to young drug dealers. “It gives them status on the streets,” said Mullin.

Just as disturbing, say police, is the fact that many legitimate guns, which are often never used by their ^ owners, are being stolen and used y in crimes. There are more than one million registered guns in Canada, | and to prove his point that some are being used by criminals, Mullin produced a shotgun with the barrel and stock cut back to create a smaller illegal weapon similar to the one that killed Leimonis. Said Mullin: “Just look what happened in the Just Desserts case.”

For Canada’s rookie justice minister, reaching a parliamentary consensus on gun control will not be easy. The Liberal caucus is divided along urban and rural lines. Thunder Bay/Nipigon MP Joe Comuzzi, who opposes any new gun-control measures that would further restrict guns, said that drafting new gun legislation that will satisfy every part of the country, including areas where hunting is popular, will be extremely difficult. But his fellow Liberal MP Shaughnessy Cohen, who represents Windsor/St. Clair, said tougher laws are desperately needed. “Handguns exist for the purpose of killing other people,” said Cohen. “They have no other legitimate purpose.”

The main opposition parties are also at odds. Bloc Québécois justice critic Pierrette

Venne said Quebecers have supported calls for tougher gun-control measures ever since the Ecole Polytechnique murders. But Reform party MP Bob Mills of Red Deer, Alta., counters that people living in rural areas should not be punished for urban crime. “The guy in downtown Toronto can’t understand why anyone would ever need a gun,” said Mills. “But the guy in Red Deer thinks you’re taking away one of his freedoms.”

Rock, who represents the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre, makes no secret of his personal distaste for firearms—although he has

not yet explained exactly how the government might banish them from urban centres. “I came to Ottawa with the firm belief that the only people in this country who should have guns are police officers and soldiers,” he told reporters last week. But foreshadowing some of the compromise and bargaining that may lie ahead, Rock quickly added that since coming to Ottawa, he has encountered people from other parts of the country who hold sharply different points of view, including those who argue that farmers need firearms to control pests and that aboriginals need them to hunt. Above all, he said, he wants to ensure that Canada does not fall into the American quagmire, “where people believe that they have to acquire a weapon for protection of themselves.” On that, at least, all sides can agree.

TOM FENNELL with WARREN CARAGATA in Ottawa