Firearms, Accidental Deaths, Suicides and Violent Crime: An Updated Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation

9. Illegal Access to Firearms

9. Illegal Access to Firearms

9.1 The Need to Curtail the Illegal Firearms Market

Research on the misuse of firearms has tended to focus on how many firearms are legally available. Similarly, firearm regulation schemes control the legitimate or authorized market for firearms. However, preventing firearms from falling into the wrong hands, and limiting irresponsible uses of firearms means curtailing the illegal firearms market. In fact, a priority should be placed on concurrent strategies to control and regulate the legal firearms market and to deter the illegal trade; if this does not occur, it is possible that the illegal market may become more lucrative and create new opportunities for criminals. Axon and Moyer (1994: xiii) emphasized the importance of controlling the circulation of illegal firearms and of preventing criminals from getting them.

Some U.S. researchers have indicated concern that law enforcement officials do not devote enough attention to illicit gun markets. Authors have analysed various proposals to suppress or disrupt the illegal market for firearms, particularly markets serving youths (e.g,: Bilchik, 1996; Cook et al., 1995; Kennedy et al., 1996; Weil and Knox, 1996). Some have suggested that undercover police work could disrupt and shrink the illicit gun market; others contend that law enforcement should give a higher priority to investigating and prosecuting cases in which firearm were stolen (Cook et al., 1995; Cook and Leitzel, 1996). Without necessarily disagreeing with such suggestions, others have also argued that the characteristics of the illegal firearm market make it a poor target for law enforcement (Koper and Reuter, 1996: 137).

9.2 Sources of Illegal Firearms

It is important to know more about how offenders get firearms, their motives for owning and carrying them, and the nature of the local firearm markets. Canadian studies have not yet focused on these issues, and U.S. research findings cannot be transposed to the Canadian situation.

Several U.S. studies have documented the relative ease with which criminals, including juvenile offenders, can illegally obtain firearms (Decker et al., 1996; Sheley, 1994; 1994a; Sheley and Brewer, 1995; Sheley and Wright, 1993; 1995). Approximately 68 percent of offenders who were interviewed soon after their arrest in a major U.S. city indicated that they could obtain a firearm in less than a month; 21 percent thought they could get one in a day or less. Only seven percent of offenders said they could not get a firearm (Decker et al., 1996: 38). Offenders who admitting to being involved in dealing drugs or in gangs reported even greater ease of access to firearms (Ibidem).

In theory, there are three major illegal sources of firearms: theft, smuggling and illegal manufacturing. Unfortunately, there is very little information in Canada on any of these activities. In its 1997 Annual Report on Organized Crime in Canada, the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada reported that "organized crime groups and individual criminals have access to a wide variety of firearms with an increasing predilection for automatic weapons" (1997: 15). According to the same source, these firearms are usually smuggled into Canada or acquired through criminal activities such as break-and-enters and thefts (Ibidem). There appear to be few reports of illegal manufacturing of firearms in Canada.

Recently, researchers have tried to uncover more information about the nature of the firearms used in crime or in other incidents reported to the police (Axon and Moyer, 1994; Daniel Antonowicz Consulting, 1997; Don, 1995; Department of Justice Canada, 1995b). The information is limited to incidents in which firearms were recovered by the police, and these represent only a small proportion of all firearm-related incidents.

An exploratory study conducted in Toronto examined police investigative files on homicide and robberies with firearms, as well as reports of seized firearms (Axon and Moyer, 1994). The study found that handguns used in violent crimes, most of which were illegally owned, were a problem in that city. Offenders used a handgun in more than 70 percent of homicides between 1991 and 1993. Most police records did not contain information on whether the firearm was smuggled, purchased illegally, stolen, or borrowed. The study also found that, in cases where a firearm was recovered by the police, at least one-half of murderers and robbers possessed the firearms illegally. Nearly two-thirds of the murderers and robbers had criminal records; half had been involved in incidents of seized firearms. The authors of the study estimated that illegal firearms were used in the following types of crime in Toronto: 52 percent of homicides where a firearm was recovered; and 68 percent of incidents in which a real gun was seized (Idem: 43).

9.3 Stolen Firearms

According to the 1996 Firearms Report to the Solicitor General by the Commissioner of the RCMP, a total of 4,409 firearms were reported stolen during that year, of which 44 percent were restricted weapons (1996: 20). According to the same source, 65,046 firearms have been reported stolen since 1974 and were still unaccounted for at the end of 1996. Close to 60 percent of these firearms were reported stolen in Quebec and Ontario. A little over 45 percent of the stolen firearms (29,545) were restricted weapons. In addition to these figures, close to 22,000 other firearms have been officially reported lost or missing since 1974 and remained so at the end of 1996; 96 percent of these were restricted weapons (Ibidem).

A review of firearm occurrences investigated by the Edmonton Police (Don, 1995: 9) revealed that in the last six months of 1993, there were 119 cases of stolen firearms. A little over half of these incidents involved prohibited (n=5) or restricted (n=56) weapons, a finding which indicates that owners may tend to report a stolen firearm more often when that firearm is registered. Of the 119 cases, 70 percent of the firearms were stolen from homes and eight percent were taken from businesses (Idem).

Beyond this limited information, very little is known about stolen firearms in Canada, what happens to them after they are stolen, how often they are recovered, and how often they are used in crime. Wade and Tennuci note that, at present, police cannot readily determine if unrestricted weapons found in the course of law enforcement activities have been stolen (1994: 41).

In the United States, several authors have noted how stolen firearms are an important source for criminals and, in particular, for youths, even where firearms and handguns are easily accessible (Cook et al., 1995:86; Decker et al., 1996; Sheley and Wright, 1993;1995). During interviews, offenders who had been arrested (Decker et al., 1996: 42) revealed that stealing firearms is an important way to get them. In this survey, 13 percent of respondents admitted to having stolen a firearm at least once; the percentage was considerably higher among drug dealers, at 30 percent, and gang members, at 29 percent.

Stolen firearms seem to be plentiful on the black market. In the United States, researchers estimate that approximately half a million firearms are stolen annually (Cook et al., 1995). Based on the national survey on private ownership and use of firearms conducted in 1994, Cook and Ludwig estimated that criminals stole one or more firearms from 0.9 percent of all households containing firearms in the United States in that year. They estimated that 593,000 firearms were stolen; 211,000 of which were handguns (Cook and Ludwig, 1997:7).

Based on the limited information available in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, it would seem that thefts of firearms most often occur in private residences (e.g., Cook and Ludwig, 1997; Corkery, 1994). When a burglary occurs and firearms are available in a household, they are likely to be stolen. However, there is no evidence that households containing firearms are necessarily targeted for burglaries. A study of crime reports submitted by 16 police forces in England and Wales revealed the unlikelihood of firearm owners being specifically targeted by offenders (Corkery, 1994). When available, imitation firearms and replicas were also stolen (Idem). It appears that the relationship between the market for stolen firearms and patterns of firearm theft are linked in much the same way as they are for other goods. Those general linkages, however, are still poorly understood (Sutton, 1995).

9.4 Firearm Smuggling

The large number of unregistered, restricted firearms recovered by police indicates that firearms are being smuggled and illegally imported into Canada (e.g., Axon and Moyer, 1994: xiii: Department of Justice Canada, 1995: 12). The 1997 Annual Report on Organized Crime by the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada suggests that the United States is the source of most legal and illegal firearms in Canada. According to that report, "it is relatively easy for Canadians to acquire firearms in the United States either through an American accomplice or ‘straw’ purchaser, or directly by themselves. (…) Firearms are smuggled into Canada through normal ports of entry and the numerous unmanned border crossings" (CSIS, 1997: 15). However, the true extent of the problem is unknown and cannot presently be estimated.

According to the same CSIS report, firearm couriers are not necessarily habitual criminals. The smuggling of firearms into the country appears to involve individuals or small groups moving shipments containing between three and 12 firearms (Ibidem). The consultations conducted by the Firearm Smuggling Work Group (Department of Justice Canada, 1995) revealed how little systematic information actually exists on smuggling activities.

In Canada, offenders may obtain illegal firearms from the millions of firearms that can be legally purchased or owned in the United States, but are either prohibited or restricted in this country. Another large source of firearms is from the Central American subregion which, as one of the major areas of confrontation during the Cold War, was supplied with firearms that are still in circulation and available to criminal groups (Chloros et al., 1997; United Nations, 1997c:19).

Illegally imported firearms may well have been legally manufactured and exported; legally imported firearms may have been illegally exported; illegally acquired firearms in one location may be legally sold in another, and so on and so forth. It may be very difficult to control the trafficking in firearms at the national level without addressing the question of the international firearms trade. And, as Goldring (1997: 1) argued, it will prove equally difficult to control the illicit international market in firearms without monitoring and controlling domestic access to these weapons.

Several authors have noted that a lack of international cooperation may weaken national efforts to control illegal access to firearms (Goldring, 1997). Some national firearm regulations may even create international problems. For instance, when certain firearms are prohibited in a country without a means to destroy them, this may create a surplus of these firearms on the licit or illicit international firearm market. The point has been made by the United Nations that to successfully regulate the availability of firearms, there must be a strong link between national and international efforts (1997a; 1998).

Researchers who studied aspects of illicit light weapons trafficking at the international level have often observed how an artificial distinction between licit and illicit markets for firearms serves as a smokescreen to hide the lawlessness of the international firearms market (Dyer and O’Callaghan, 1998).

The distinction between a legal firearm transaction and an illegal one is most useful within a national context, at least to the extent that there is, as in Canada, a national scheme to regulate how firearms are manufactured, imported, transferred and acquired. In such cases, the illegal market refers to those transactions that occur outside of or against existing regulations. However, when the same distinction is used at the international level, or in countries where regulations may vary within their borders, it often serves to obscure the fact that these two markets are not so dissimilar. The distinction between licit and illicit markets may be moot (Lock, 1995).

The United Nations Expert Group on Firearm Regulation found evidence of increasing transnational illicit transfers of firearms, many of which are of military design. Many countries are reporting serious concerns over the increasing number of firearms that are illegally imported, smuggled, stolen or trafficked (United Nations, 1998). Most countries reported that similar levels of prohibition or restriction are adopted in relation to both the export and import of firearms, although several states that restrict all imports of firearms do not place the same degree of restriction on their export (United Nations, 1998: 11). Countries generally reported that they had no evidence of illegal export of firearms, an interesting observation considering that most of these countries also reported difficulties with illegal importation (United Nations, 1998:78). Since one has to assume that illegally imported firearms have to be exported from somewhere, such reports do not answer the question of how many of them are perhaps exported legally with at least some form of complicity on the part in the country of origin.

It has been argued that the proliferation of firearms may vary somewhat from region to region, but there is no region in the world that is unaffected (Goldring, 1997; Klare, 1995; Lock, 1995; Mathiak, 1996; Williams, 1995; United Nations, 1997c). The structure of the firearms market, Lock noted (1995: 1), is not amenable to easy control. The end of the Cold War has opened the floodgates of surplus stocks. Huge overcapacities in manufacturing result in the most aggressive marketing with no borderline towards criminal activity (Lock, 1995: 1). Given the state of relative lawlessness which currently prevails with respect to international firearm trade, it has been argued that efforts to control the black market must include international agreements or regimes to help promote transparency, accountability, restraint and control in light weapons manufacturing, transfers and holdings (Goldring, 1997).

9.5 Links Between Drugs and Firearms Trafficking

Researchers have been able to link individuals and groups who deal drugs to owning illegal firearms. In the United States, some research suggests that drug dealers are major participants in illegal transactions involving firearms (Koper and Reuter, 1996: 136). Given the level of violence involved in the illegal drug industry and the risks associated with drug-related criminal activities, it is hardly surprising that offenders involved in such activities tend to be frequently and heavily armed.

In Canada, there is also some evidence to suggest that trafficking and smuggling networks, once established for other purposes, are usually not averse to making additional profits by smuggling or dealing in illegal firearms (Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, 1997: 6). Firearms are also known to be used as currency in illicit drug exchanges, and vice-versa (Ibidem). However, beyond the observation of these and other obvious links between the two types of illegal activities, little is actually known about the relationship between them.

Mariño (1996), using newspaper reports, compiled information on several dozen reported cases of clear links between local wars, arms trafficking and drug trafficking in over 35 countries around the world. He attributed this "recurring and important nexus between arms and drugs" to the combined effect of a dangerous mix of repressive drug prohibition and liberal arms trade policies.

A United Nations Panel of Experts noted that "in some regions, drug control efforts have increased the demand for small arms and light weapons by both law enforcement authorities and drug traffickers, thereby raising the level of violence" (United Nations, 1997c: 21). The experts concluded that there was a link between weapons being available, trafficking in drugs and arms, and the level of violence (Idem: 20). Goldring (1997: 7) quoted from a report from the Mexican Federal Attorney General’s Office providing evidence that guns and drugs frequently followed the same transportation routes, with guns entering Mexico from the United States while drugs went north from Mexico. Narcotic traffickers are apparently also heavily involved in illegal arms trafficking. "The inter-relationship," Goldring adds, "is evident in the fact that in certain places guns are priced in terms of kilos of cocaine" (1997: 8).

9.6 Summary

  • Measures to control and regulate the legal firearms market should be accompanied by equally vigorous measures to control the illicit firearms market.
  • There is a growing number of U.S. studies examining the relative ease with which criminals can acquire firearms, the ways these firearms are obtained, and how they are used by offenders. The findings of these studies cannot be applied directly to Canada; equivalent Canadian studies do not exist.
  • In 1996, there were 87,043 firearms reported lost, missing and stolen; this includes firearms recorded as missing and not recovered since 1974.
  • Limited information is known about stolen firearms in Canada, what happens to them after they are stolen, how often they are recovered, or how often they are used in crime.
  • The large number of unregistered, restricted firearms recovered by police indicate that firearms are being smuggled and illegally imported into Canada. However, the true extent of the problem is unknown and cannot, at present, be estimated.
  • There is some evidence, at the international level, of increasing transnational illicit transfers of firearms. However, there is not systematic information on the nature and frequency of firearms trafficking and smuggling activities.
  • Illegal drug trafficking is linked to illegal firearms markets. To date, there has been little research on the nature of these links, and on how the two sets of activities are interconnected.
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