UPDATED: Guns at the border: on seizures and spending

FILE-- Seized guns taken during Project Rebel, a joint operation involving police in Ontario, ATF and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are shown in a handout photo. Photo is for use as desired with a package of stories on gun smuggling over the Canada-U.S. border and the deadly consequences on Canadian streets. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Peel Regional Police
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.