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'Gun Chase' investigation: The experiment to buy a gun on the dark web

Last Updated Apr 28, 2021 at 2:15 pm EDT

A masked man is seen sitting behind a computer in a darkened room. UNSPLASH

The RCMP have warned the darknet is becoming a more viable route for gun trafficking in Canada

Toronto police have seized several guns procured from the dark corners of the internet

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. Read and watch the other stories and videos here.

The documentary aired April 27 on Citytv. Click here to watch it. You can also watch it at the bottom of this article.

I wanted to see what it took to buy a gun.

As part of my work on VeraCity: The Gun Chase, I was looking into all the ways that guns made their way into criminals’ hands. The process for getting a gun legally — going through the courses, the tests, and the licensing process — is long, and criminals won’t make it through. In fact, most crime guns seized by police — nearly all of them — aren’t registered to licensed owners.

We’d explored how people with some knowledge of gang culture or connections can find one easily on the streets, but how would somebody outside of that world acquire a gun? In an era where you can buy just about anything with a thumbprint on your phone or the click of a mouse, we decided to check out what was available online.

The RCMP have warned the darknet is becoming a more viable route for gun trafficking in Canada, and we’d learned that Toronto police have seized several guns procured from the dark corners of the internet, and it’s easy to see why: criminal history, mental health and knowledge of gun safety rules and laws don’t apply. So we started there.

I thought it would be a “point and click” scenario. But it wasn’t. Caveat here: we weren’t actually going to buy a gun — we were trying to see how far we could get without finalizing the transaction.

Buying a gun on the dark web isn’t as easy as I thought. First off, you need to know where to go. Anybody can download TOR, but then you still need to find the sites. There isn’t an easy “Google” button on the dark web. I was fortunate enough to work with a director, Dylan Reibling, who has considerable experience in all things cyberspace; having worked on several films and projects exploring just that.

He knew the little corners of the dark web to search for the items we wanted, and he got me there.

But getting there is only part of the battle. All of the sites we searched — and there weren’t many, more like a dozen — wanted to be paid in Bitcoin. No big deal right? But buying Bitcoin for non-criminal purposes is easier than procuring it for nefarious reasons. Check out VeraCity: The Gun Chase for an explainer on this from a cryptocurrency expert, but essentially, Bitcoin can be traced, just not very easily.

Ironically, the most anonymous way to buy Bitcoin appears to be in person, with cash. Turns out for all the digital advances in the world, when it comes to crime, cash is still king.

To follow the steps that a criminal may take, we bought Bitcoin from a crypto dealer. We handed over an envelope of cash and with a few swipes and keystrokes, I had Bitcoin on my phone.

Now that I was armed with a way to pay the dealers on the dark web, we got back to it. I wouldn’t have found the sites, without my director’s expertise and a little guidance from a Michigan State professor we interviewed for the documentary. But once I was there, I was really surprised at the offerings.

We were only looking for guns and ammo. All the “stores” we went through were gun shops — sometimes with ties to guerrilla groups or claims of links with militia armies in parts of Asia. Nearly everyone of them didn’t just sell guns, but also army grade automatic weapons that aren’t anywhere close to legal, fake passports and cocaine by the kilogram.

RELATED: Run for the border: Guns smuggled from U.S. land on Toronto’s streets

Buying a gun – and even ammunition — without a licence in Canada is illegal. We knew that and didn’t want to break the law — even though we weren’t actually going to buy anything. But just to be safe, we had a colleague with a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) standing by and ready to make the purchase of ammunition that you can legally buy in Canada. They would be transferring the Bitcoin to the dealer’s account, and the purchase would be for ammunition that a licence-holder could buy legally in a brick and mortar gun shop.

But before we could hit “add to shopping cart” we needed to figure out where the bullets would go.

We certainly didn’t want to even type in our PAL owners’ address or mine — nobody wants somebody with an arsenal of weapons that seems to have “fallen off a truck” in a war-torn country, to know where you really live or even, just your real name. And we really wanted to go as far as we could without purchasing, even if the ammunition could be legally acquired in Canada by our PAL-holding colleague.

We looked into renting a postal box. You’d think that would be easy, but Canada Post requires government issued ID to rent a box, which means there’s still no anonymity. Even if you somehow acquired a very convincing fake ID, Canada Post could verify the address and if they caught on, would alert the police. Criminals likely wouldn’t want their exploits ended by a keen eye at the local drug store’s mail kiosk.

After investing considerable hours finding the sites, the ammo, anonymously acquired Bitcoin, we couldn’t go any further without revealing our identity or breaking the law in one, or several ways.

There are a lot of red lights and hurdles to go through when buying guns online, which is why police say it’s not a major source of guns on city streets. Let’s face it, buyers could transfer all their money and get nothing in return. It’s not like buyers can complain to a company’s HQ, or the police. Their only recourse for non-delivery would be a bad review, but that’s it. And most of the “stores” we visited already had mix bag of those.

Buying from the dark web comes with a lot of risk even for a criminal; like spending the money but not getting the goods, potentially buying from a covert police operation, getting caught at the post box, and waiting days or weeks for goods to arrive from around the corner or anywhere else in the world.

You can buy a gun without a licence through the dark web. But it’s easy to see why criminals will simply go to the streets to get the gun.