Federal agencies are trying to step up efforts to trace the origins of weapons used in crimes, but it appears court hurdles may prevent action from going as far as some would like.
The federal government says the RCMP has introduced a new mandatory traceability policy, meaning that in locations where the Mounties are the competent police force, illegal weapons seized will be automatically sent to the force’s national firearms traceability center.
The House of Commons Public Safety Committee and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have called on the government to make a requirement that all crime weapons found during investigations by police across the country – not just the RCMP – be submitted for tracing will.
The latest figures show that only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of crime weapons recovered each year are tracked down.
In a newly released response to the Public Safety Committee’s April report on reducing gun and gang violence, the government says tracing is a key tool in identifying the sources of illegal firearms.
The RCMP National Traceability Center traces a firearm’s movement from its manufacture or importation into Canada through the hands of wholesalers and retailers to locate the last known legal owner or company. The center works with partners including the Firearms Analysis Tracing and Enforcement program in Ontario.
Tracing can also help determine if a gun was smuggled into Canada or from a domestic source.
Ottawa has earmarked $15 million and rolling $3.3 million over a five-year period beginning in 2021-22 to improve the RCMP’s ability to detect firearms and identify movement patterns, and to develop a new national support traceability database.
The federal center traced more than 2,140 firearms in 2020 and the Commons Committee has been told the new funding could triple the tracing capacity.
The money will also be used to convince the police of the strategic benefits of tracing back into criminal investigations. The federal response adds that the RCMP will “actively assist” police chiefs and partner agencies to advance the committee’s recommendation that all police agencies submit seized firearms for tracing.
But the government is close to a commitment to make tracing all criminal weapons mandatory.
When asked about the government’s intentions, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office said that while the RCMP has a new mandatory tracing policy, “the issue of weapons seized from other police services falls under provincial jurisdiction.”
In their July resolution calling for full tracing, police chiefs cited the lack of solid data for regions other than Ontario to help understand the routes criminal weapons take, adding that the effectiveness of the Traceability as a police intelligence tool “depends on the quality of information collected” and the related follow-up investigations.
RCMP Deputy Commissioner Stephen White told the Commons Committee: “We would need to do more tracing at a larger scale to really get a very good look at patterns and trends.”
Gun control advocacy group PolySeSouvient said there was general consensus that criminal weapons needed to be traced. “Unfortunately, there is no comparable consensus on the tools needed for effective tracing.”
While tracing smuggled guns usually starts with American manufacturers, tracing ownership of guns originating in Canada requires sales records and universal registration, said the group, which includes undergraduate and graduate students from Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, where 14 women attended in 1989 were shot down.
Canada had those measures until the Conservative government of Stephen Harper ended the federal long gun registry and abolished mandatory sales records, PolySeSouvient noted.
“While the Liberal government has only recently reinstated commercial sales records, both Conservatives and Liberals are opposed to bringing back universal registration.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 23, 2022.