UPDATED: Guns at the border: on seizures and spending


Handout photo

I was surprised on Saturday to hear Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, in an interview on CBC Radio’s The House, mention that the Canada Border Services Agency has seized nearly 30,000 prohibited weapons since 2006.

That number sounded awfully high to me, and I asked the minister’s office for the source of his figure. [Here’s the update]: Government officials got back to me late this afternoon and explained that Nicholson was referring to of all sorts of prohibited weapons—from brass knuckles to oddball knives—and not just guns. This figure indeed totals 33,002 over the period Nicholson mentioned.

Still, listeners (like me) who thought he was talking strictly about guns, or even handguns, might be forgiven. Here’s what Nicholson actually said: “We’ve cracked down on the importation of guns into this country. We realize that we’ve got to stop these things at the border, and we’ve had a lot of success over the last six years. It’s my understanding that Canada Border Services Agency has seized almost 30,000 prohibited weapons since 2006 alone.”

The haul of seized guns is far smaller, however, and it’s handguns that are of timely interest in the wake of last week’s Scarborough shooting and today’s Toronto gun-crime summit.

According to data provided to me just last week by CBSA, a total of 205 prohibited guns were seized by the border service last year. Since 2006, and including the first seven months of 2012, CBSA seized 1,019 prohibited firearms as they were being brought illegally into Canada.

The “prohibited” category includes weapons like short-barreled handguns that aren’t allowed in Canada under any circumstances. Since 2006, CBSA has also seized 805 “non-restricted” weapons, such as regular rifles and shotguns, and 1,123 “restricted” weapons, like the sorts of handguns Canadians are sometimes allowed to own under very strict rules.

Still, from what I can see, seizures in all three categories add up to 2,947 firearms since 2006. So perhaps Nicholson was rounding off to 3,000 and mistakenly multiplied by ten. If so, that’s just a mistake. (See update above: the minister had his figure right.) What’s of greater interest, I think, is the question of how seriously the government takes blocking the smuggling of handguns into Canada, where they inflict so much pain and misery.

We often speak of drugs and guns in the same sentence. Thus, it seems to me that one way to size up the government’s efforts to disrupt the illegal gun trade is to compare the resources  they throw behind that goal with the amounts spent combatting illicit drugs.

Under the federal National Anti-Drug Strategy, the RCMP is slated to get $25.4 million this year, most of it earmarked for going after marijuana grow-ops and clandestine drug labs. By comparison, the RCMP gets $8.2 million under the federal Investments to Combat the Criminal Use of Firearms program.

Even that overstates the targeted investment in the RCMP’s work to stop handguns from reaching gang members in our cities. Just $1.12 million of the RCMP’s anti-gun funding is designated specifically for a “criminal intelligence program” aimed at the fighting the illegal gun trade; most of the money goes to running the Canadian Firearms Program, which, even after the Tories scrapped the gun registry, still handles the routine licencing of gun owners.

Similarly CBSA gets $3.6 million under the government’s anti-drug strategy, and just $1.33 million from the federal investment program to combat the criminal use of guns.

So if levels of federal spending are any indication, it seems Canada’s crime strategy deems drugs as being about three times as worthy of attention by police and border agents as it does guns. I wonder if the Canadian public shares that sense of what’s appropriate.



UPDATED: Guns at the border: on seizures and spending

  1. So if levels of federal spending are any indication, it seems Canada’s crime strategy sees drugs as about three times as worthy of attention by police and border agents as it does guns. I wonder if the Canadian public shares that sense of what appropriate.

    It’s an interesting question to be sure. That said, to play Devil’s advocate (and I’m not sure how one would measure these two issues relative to one another) if one could argue based on evidence that the flow of illegal drugs across the border is ten times as “heavy” as the flow of illegal guns is, then suddenly spending three times as much on that problem might not seem so crazy.

    One would have to come up with some sort of calculation whereby X ounces of cocaine or heroine can be shown to present the same relative danger to the Canadian populous as Y illegal firearms do, but it doesn’t seem to me to be necessarily irrational on it’s face that it’s at least conceivable that the flow of dangerous drugs into Canada is sufficiently larger than the flow of dangerous weapons such as to warrant spending more to prevent the former. Then again, I also rather suspect that the percentage of spending going to attack the “scourge” of marijuana might well override that notion.

    • I don`t have to play Devil`s advocate to defend a policy that puts more emphasis on the drug trade than the illegal gun trade. The thugs using the guns to kill people are almost all involved in the drug trade—you cut the head of the snake–then he dies.
      But I`m not sure how successful tightening up the borders from hard drug smuggling has been—probably not very.
      As for the guns—they are here and they don`t wear out . Unlike the drugs you can use them over and over again—maybe they should be looking for bullets at the border.
      i would agree with you with the marijuana bit.Their spending there may just be driving the business into the hands of the hard drug thugs.

    • It isn’t really the “scourge” of marijuana but grow-ops and “clandastine drug labs do cause a wealth of health and financial concerns to Canadians that go way beyond just the products that come out of them. They cause destruction to homes that are then “patched up” and sold to unsuspecting buyers who move their children in and who suffer the devestating results of toxic mould that lingers in these buildings.
      As for border agents giving more attention to drugs than firearms…how would that even happen. It would seem to me that a thorough search of any vehicle crossing the border is going to reveal both firearms and drugs. If you are looking for one, you will likely find the other.

  2. Please let us know when the Minister’s office gets back to you in regards to the “mistaken” numbers… I won’t be holding my breath.

    Also kind of embarrassing for the CBC, that Minister’s of the Crown are allowed to come on the program and lie to the audience without being held accountable.

    • Yes, if neither our government nor our public national broadcaster have any credibility, how on earth will we really know what is going on? CBC should have been fact checking that number, not the MacLean’s journalist.

      • Reporters don’t do instant “fact checks” during an interview. Because if they did, nobody would ever agree to an interview, or you’d have nothing but inoffensive talking points. As it happens now, we have the possibility of catching a Minister of the Crown either telling a lie or sounding stupid. How is that worse, from a public interest standpoint, than no interview at all? And as to “held accountable”, that’s not the media’s job. Their job is to give you as much info as they can so you can hold politicians accountable.

        • You have the possibility of catching a Minister in a lie….how? Did you not read Mr. Geddes correction where he admitted that there was no mistake and no lie but that infact the Minister was correct because he was talking about all prohibited weapons not just handguns.

          • The subject on the table is guns, it has been since the Scarborough shooting. The subject is not miscellaneous weaponry. Having watched Mr. Nicholson all these years, I have no problem believing that he gave an answer that exaggerated the real number of guns intercepted at the border, while being able to claim technical correctness. He’s another Harper cabinet minister I would not purchase a used car from.

          • And I`m sure they would have no interest in carrying on any business with you.

          • I am heartbroken to hear that – but think of the savings…

          • It is the job of a reporter to make clarifications such as ‘when you say prohibited weapons, are you talking about guns specifically?’
            This is NO different than the physicians who treat immigrants suggesting that all lower income Canadians receive vision, dental and prescription medication coverage when we know that only those are welfare, permanent disability and First Nations peoples are the only ones getting the coverage through the federal and provincial governments. Yet NO journalists asked about poor working Canadians and if they had extended benefit coverage. So are these doctors lying, being disengenuous, giving answers that exaggerate the benefits that Canadians enjoy OR are they just promoting their own cause? It would seem even the saintly aren’t always straightfoward.

          • Ah, the ‘everyone does it’ defence. Refugees are in the same situation as people who qualify for social services, i.e. no resources for health expenditures. And in B.C. we help low income people with medicare premiums and pharmacare.

          • No, it is not the everyone does it defence. In Alberta, we pay no healthcare premiums. So what? There is still no dental or vision coverage for the children of working poor. Why pretend Canadians with low incomes are getting this coverage when it is a blatant untruth?
            Yet Aaron Wherry never called the doctors on it and no doctors are marching on provincial legislatures to rebel against the lack of coverage.
            As for the seizure of prohibited weapons including guns at the border, obviously the vehicles are being searched at the border crossings. Hence the large number of prohibited weapons seized. It is what it is. The ratio of guns to other weapons doesn’t make the search effort any less valid.

        • Or it could be the Minister was accurate in his 30000 figure ( see Geddes update) but you 3 could not wait for the update—it`s much easier in your world to just slam the man—liberals are so predictable.

          • And the Harper conservatives have become so used to lying without consequence there’s no reason to expect one to be telling the truth.

  3. Uhm John…Way more Canadians die of illegal drug overdose and abuse than die of gunshots. Probably 2 orders of magnitude. Gun crime gets lots of press but still rare in Cdn context.

    • Uhm, guns facilitate the drug trade.

    • Umm…I can tell you most stats show abouut 800 Canadians die of gunshots each year. But since there are NO national statistics on death by overdose of meds (legal or illegal), there’s no factual way you could say what you said above. You don’t even have enough evidence to use the term “probably”.

      • Actually it is a no-brainer of sorts. If you look up research supporting the safe injection site for Vancouver, you will see that over 1000 people died of illicit drug overdose in ONE neighborhood in a four year period in Canada. How many neighborhoods exist in how many urban centres where people are using fairly large quantities of illicicit drugs with no safe injection sites to protect against accidental overdoses. These are just the hardcore users. If we have 250 per year in one neighborhood in Vancouver, then what about Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, etc. Now lets look at suicides by overdose… given that women tend to pick overdose as their choice of method of suicide, we would be way over 800 per year.

  4. “Nicholson was rounding off to 3,000 and mistakenly multiplied by ten.”

    The Harper Conservatives are not too good at simple math. Harper says we have the #1 economy in the world. But all the stats show he has mistakenly divided the actual number by ten:

    * OECD productivity (2011): #17
    * OECD government debt/GDP (IMF 2011): #25
    * OECD Unemployment rate (2012 Q1): #17
    * OECD GDP growth (2011): #15
    * Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (2011): #12
    * Conference Board of Canada Economy Rankings (2011): #11
    * Davos Global Competitive Index (2011-2012): #12

    (The OECD contains the world’s top 30 economies plus some developing countries.)

  5. One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that you are mistakenly assuming that “prohibited weapons” means “prohibited firearms.” This category also includes brass knuckles, switchblades, butterfly knives, push daggers, Mace, Tasers, and so on, so it is entirely possible that the number of prohibited weapons seized vastly outnumbers prohibited firearms seized.

    • The simplest explanation for the discrepancy is that Nicholson is a bumbling fool who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

      • They use the reverse formula for costing.

      • Hmmm or people rushed to judgement without knowing the facts……..

        • Maybe but those people wouldn’t include R. Waller OR ajs. Both put forward hypotheses about a suspiciously high number which in itself could have been right or wrong. ajs was later proven right based on further investigation.

        • Does Nicholson know the facts or is he misleading Canadians? In the context of saying he is “cracking down on the importation of guns” he says his Government has stopped the inflow of 30,000 “prohibited weapons.”

          I know enough about the facts and the Harper Government’s interpretation of them to know that when they are not ignorant of the facts they are cooking them.

          Like Vic Toews closed down old prisons which included 1000 cells. He claimed he saved taxpayers $120M/yr ($120,000/yr per inmate X 1000.) This ignores the fact that it will cost the same to house the 1000 prisoners in different prisons.

          Harper claims he has “created 750,000 jobs.” He measures this figure from the recession trough, which shows he either knows nothing of economics or is misrepresenting the facts. Economists measure the recovery from before the recession start. So there were 300,000 jobs created but 600,000 workers added to the work force which is why the unemployment level is 1 point higher.

        • Here’s a couple more: Harper claims Canada has the lowest debt of the G7 “by a country mile.” Wrong. We have 85% debt/GDP, tied with France which has 86%. We are #3 of G7 countries. #25 of OECD countries. Absolutely nothing to brag about.

          Harper also boasts we have the strongest economic growth of major industrialized nations. Fact is our GDP growth in 2011 was a meager 2.2%. That placed us #132 in the world. #15 among OECD countries. #2 among G7 countries. Again, even if we were #1 among G7 countries there are still many major industrialized countries ahead of us.

          So it’s definitely hard to tell when the Harper Conservatives are trying to con Canadians and when they are simply ignorant.

    • Looks like you were correct.

  6. “So if levels of federal spending are any indication, it seems Canada’s crime strategy deems drugs as being about three times as worthy of attention by police and border agents as it does guns.”

    I doubt there is anything that can be done to stop the flow of guns except reduce the demand. As the adage goes: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Or, more accurately, people in countries with high levels of poverty and inequality tend to kill more people:

    OECD public social spending rank:
    Austria #3, Germany #6, Norway #13, Canada #23, US #25

    Inequality (Gini index):
    Austria #13, Germany #9, Norway #5, Canada #32, US #90

    US homicide rate:
    3X Canada’s; 6X Germany’s; 7X Norway’s; 8X Austria’s

  7. Ron Waller sets the record straight! Thank you!
    Some truckers hauling hay to Florida bring back a handgun or two to be sold here at a nice profit.
    An aquaintance , a Canadian, in Florida went into a gun shop and bought handgun ammumition to smuggle into Canada for a friend of his, a Reverend. Obviously, that Reverend had an illegal handgun, otherwise he could have bought the ammunition in Canada.
    Obviously , guns don’t kill, people do. So let’s concentrate on the People aspect of this problem. Otherwise we will next be addressing the knife killing problem etc.

    • The thing about knives, though, is that using one requires one to get up close and personal. Many of these gun users would be too cowardly to try that – and on those rare occasions when they did, there would be less collateral damage; people don’t tend to die from stray knife wounds.

      Get the guns off the street and there will be fewer innocent-bystander woundings and deaths.

      • And yet many more people die by the knife and other means than from the gun.

        • I have a fair collection of blades, all for my work and my exploits in the kitchen. I could use them to defend myself, but as Keith said above that is a much more intimate act requiring me to really experience the activity. The only purpose for the existence of a gun is to kill and kill easily. There is a reason why shoot em up video games are popular, pulling a trigger is easy; I can’t think of a first person stab em up game though.

          • Respectfully, not sure what you’re trying to say, so the act of killing someone with a knife is more intimate, so what? Dead is still dead and the fact remains that generally more people die from knife wounds than gunshot in any given year in Canada. According to the RCMP web site at least.

            Regarding your statement that guns are designed to kill, maybe so, but there is solid research and evidence (both American and Canadian) that defensive gun use protects more lives than are lost to gun shot by several orders of magnitude. More often than not a gun is used as a deterrent or for protection without actually shooting someone or something.

            Relating the video game statement, back when I played Call of Duty one certainly got more props for stabbing someone than shooting them.

          • Do you have a link to any of this solid research?;

          • Google “canadian defensive gun use”.

          • Did it occur to you that the police might mistake a citizen brandishing a gun at a crime scene for the original perp? It is pretty risky behavior.

          • I’m against brandishing a gun while police are around.

          • Killing someone with a knife requires one to want to kill someone, it’s rare for a person to stab someone to death accidentally. Killing someone with a gun, well that is much easier and accidental discharges kill folk regularly.
            Not too sure where your research comes from, but my evidence refuting your claim comes form the RCMP.
            The presence of firearms in large numbers appears to increase the violent and non-violent crime rate and murders by a significant amount.

            There are still no 1st person stab-em up games out though are there?

          • Right here; http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/fire-feu-eval/t2a-eng.htm

            I mis-spoke by saying more people die from knife than gun, the paper states “victims are at equal risk of being shot of stabbed”.

            1st person stab-em up games, sure, Assassins Creed 1,2, and 3 or Skyrim and the Elder Scroll series if you’re into swords.

            I do agree with Keith that the fewer guns the bad guys have the less colateral damage there will be.

            However I also agree with the author above Keith that we would have more success reducing overall violence by fixing the “people problem” first rather than simply attacking the “gun problem”.

            And finally, yes I agree that gun smuggling is bad.

          • I thought the Creed series was swords and while they can stab, strolling down the street with one is kind of obvious.
            At least we’re talking verifiable facts, How long before all the stats disappear because they embarrass our accountant in chief?

        • Chart death by use and you have a very different story, I’m sure.

          • Nope, checked the RCMP web site for leading causes of homicide and there are consistently more knife deaths than by gun shot (not always a big spread however).

            Admittedly there should be less colateral damage if these guys went after each other with knives than guns (not trying to be glib).

          • “By use”.

            That means.. out of all the times people use a knife, what’s the percentage of those that wind up in somebody’s death?

            Now how about for a gun?

            If you want, I’ll give you very heavy odds that out of every time knives are used, there’s a hell of a lot less of a chance it’s being used to kill someone than a gun is.

            And incidentally, anybody who says there’s “solid” research about the preventative nature of guns is full of shit. The problem with researching “prevention”.. you’re attempting to measure a negative. The secondary problem is that in order to find a place where that prevention can happen you’re already measuring a place where guns are legal vs places where their not, so you’re already talking apples and oranges when it comes to crime incidence.

            Now, I’ll grant you that there’s not much “solid” research out there about the converse either, that higher restrictions create a safer society for incidence of crime.

            What they do, however, is reduce crime lethality.

        • Not innocent victims killed by stray knife wounds, there’s not. We have had quite a few innocent bystanders killed or wounded by stray bullets in the GTA over the last few years thanks to thugs who shoot indiscriminately.

          Subject: [macleansca] Re: Guns at the border: on seizures and spending

          • Gee Keith….most victims are innocent…in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Think about OJ Simpson’s ex-wife and her friend.

          • OK; innocent victims may have been a poor choice of words; try – for most instances – unintended victims. Guns also make possible indiscriminate shootings like Aurora, Columbine, Taber…

            People will kill if they are determined to do so; in that respect the pro-gun mantra “people kill people” is true. But guns make it far easier, and so far more people die.

      • Yes unfortunately up close and personal is what happens during domestic violence. That is why knives, axes, and blunt intruments work so well to kill and maim your loved ones.

        • My point is that persons who are not the target of the assailant are far less likely to be killed or maimed if a weapon other than a gun is used. Humans have been killing each other probably as long as there have been humans; guns just make it easier. And we really don’t need to help the homicidal by providing such weapons on indiscriminate death. Aurora with a knife? Would have been far less deadly.