As part of an original Citytv documentary, VeraCity: The Gun Chase, reporter Cristina Howorun examines the causes behind and source of Toronto’s gun problem and the impact the violence has on victims and their families. Below is the third of five stories in our news series. Bookmark this page to read and watch the other stories.
The documentary premieres Tuesday, April 27, at 10 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CT, only on Citytv. Click here to watch the trailer.
More than 2.2 million Canadians have a firearms licence and very few of those people are using them in crimes. But nearly every gun seized by Toronto police that is involved in a crime is unregistered and in the hands of people who wouldn’t qualify for a gun under current Canadian regulations.
“Illegally possessed is pretty much every time that we seize firearms,” explains Insp. Joe Matthews, head of Toronto police’s guns and gangs unit.
“Now some of the guns can be possessed lawfully if they’re registered and the person has the appropriate certificates and registration, then they can have the firearm. But most of the firearms that we come in contact with are illegally possessed.”
In 2019, unlawful possession was the number one charge police laid in relation to guns.
“So the people that are possessing them are not the ones that would go and register and get a PAL (Possession and Acquisition Licence) to own a firearm,” Matthews explains.
“If you started off and everything went well, you’d probably be six months between when you applied for the firearms licence and actually got it,” explains Leslie Swan, an instructor for the Federal Firearm Safety Program.
In order to apply for a restricted licence, which would enable you to own a handgun, you need to take a three-day course.
“This would require you to pass certain tests — written tests, theoretical tests,” explains Swan.
There are also two hands-on tests that don’t require you to actually shoot a gun, but to load, unload and store guns safely. In all, its four tests and to pass you need to earn at least 80 per cent.
“And then you would have to be approved by the RCMP, by the federal authorities, then if you’re approved and you’ve completed all the requirements, you will get a licence,” Swan explains.
It’s a fairly tedious application — even more so if you are not a Canadian citizen — requiring you to get sign off from your marital partner, your ex-marital partner (if the separation was within two years), to provide two references, submit to a criminal background check and answer a string of questions related to potential mental health issues.
“On the face of it, they are trying to prevent mentally unstable people, people with criminal backgrounds, people who would have some flag that would indicate that they’re a potential danger to themselves or others,” Swan explains.
Mental health, “potential risk to others,” “potential risk to self,” account for most of the rejected applications for PAL in 2019, according to the Commissioners Firearms Report.
According to Statistics Canada, 75 per cent of deaths by gun are suicides, suggesting mental health is at least as serious of a concern as criminality.
“If you’re a criminal and your intention is to use a gun in criminal ways, why would you draw attention to yourself, put your name down, register with the police? That would seem foolish for a criminal.”
Once somebody is licensed to own a firearm, they are on the police’s radar.
“All of your information goes into CPIC, so the Canadian Police Information Centre and their computer system,” explains JR Cox, who owns gun ranges in Ontario and Alberta.
“The firearm centre gets a report every day on every firearm owner,” Cox explains. “So if there’s an issue, if your name pops up on a police report because you’re tagged, you’re a firearms licence holder, a report will come out.”
“You could have just been a witness in an accident. You come up and they will see if they have to investigate you further. Unlike the sex offender registry, which doesn’t have the same level of scrutiny.”
Licensed firearms holders are literally vetted by the police every day. They can’t relocate, even within the same city, without informing the firearms centre immediately. The system appears to work; in 2019, 3,220 licences were revoked — predominantly because of potential risks to self or others, court ordered prohibitions, and mental health issues.
While the scrutiny people with firearm licenses face is considerable, the number of licence applications and approvals have steadily increased over the past 10 years. Cox says it has little to do with crime or self defence and much more to do with leisure.
“They’re buying firearms for sport, for target shooting, hunting, long-range shooting. But they’re not buying them to put them under the pillow for self-defense.”
Coming up in our special news series, The Gun Chase: Getting an illegal gun has never been easier — even during the COVID-19 pandemic — according to former gang leaders and criminals.