Canada’s Gun Laws Are Only as Good as Its Neighbor’s

The country’s worst mass shooting in decades shows that U.S.-sourced weapons still pose a problem, even if Trudeau tightens regulations.

The flags of Nova Scotia and Canada fly at half-staff outside the Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on April 19.
The flags of Nova Scotia and Canada fly at half-staff outside the Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on April 19. TIM KROCHAK/AFP via Getty Images

It was Canada’s worst mass shooting in decades.

Late on Saturday, April 18, Gabriel Wortman attacked his then-girlfriend after a small house party in Portapique, Nova Scotia. That act of domestic violence, in a tiny rural community about an hour and a half outside the provincial capital of Halifax, set off a horrific killing spree that shocked the country. The massacre has both renewed calls for increased gun control and highlighted how the flow of guns between the United States and Canada can undermine even the strictest restrictions.

As Canadians wait for answers, the public has turned toward just how Wortman was able to amass so much firepower.

“Some of the witnesses we have interviewed since that time have told us about a significant number of weapons,” Darren Campbell, the Nova Scotia superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), said in a press conference last month. During the shooting, Wortman used several semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles—at least one could be described as an assault-style rifle, police said. The fires set at his home have destroyed vital evidence, but police say one weapon was obtained in Canada while others were obtained in the United States.

The killings put an inflection point on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plans to bring in new gun control measures, including “red flag” laws, which would allow police to confiscate weapons from individuals who may be a threat and ban them from purchasing new guns. The governing Liberal Party had planned that new legislation for this spring, but, like much else, it was derailed by the outbreak of COVID-19.

On Friday, May 1, the Trudeau government announced it would ban some 1,500 semi-automatic and military-style rifles as a first step. Yet Wortman, police say, had no gun license, meaning he was already flouting existing firearms restrictions. That he was able to obtain so many weapons, though, exposes the core problem at the heart of Canada’s firearms laws: the United States.

Canada does not have the same kind of gun culture as its southern neighbor, but it is hardly trigger-shy. A study by the Small Arms Survey estimates that the United States has roughly 120 civilian-held firearms for every 100 Americans, the highest per capita rate in the world. Canada sits at fifth, with 34 guns per 100 citizens. Hunting is a rite of passage for many Canadians, and shooting ranges are a common site in many parts of the country.

The prevalence of gun-related injury and death is about five times higher in the United States than in Canada—its gun laws are undoubtedly a factor.

Under Canada’s firearm licensing regime, weapons fall into one of three categories: nonrestricted, covering more rifles and shotguns; restricted, covering some handguns and semi-automatic weapons; and prohibited, which bans many types of handguns and all automatic weapons. Anyone looking to buy or own a gun in Canada is required to obtain a license—restricted weapons require that the owner be a sport shooter or declare it as part of a collection. There are numerous exceptions and grandfather clauses in those rules.

There are problems with that system. Depending on who you ask, it is an arbitrary and byzantine regulatory nightmare or a haphazard and loophole-filled mess. But it generally makes buying a weapon without a license very difficult. So, for decades, Canadians have sought weapons from their southern neighbor to skirt Ottawa’s restrictions. A Globe and Mail investigation found that, while numbers were sketchy, many illegal weapons seized by police had been obtained in the United States—the numbers were particularly stark in Toronto, where some 70 percent were American-sourced.

Organized crime and gang shootings, which have increased in recent years, are enabled by smuggling and gun-running networks in both countries. That’s what makes the Nova Scotia shooting particularly worrisome: Wortman, a denturist, did not appear to have any criminal ties. Yet it seems he was able to obtain significant firepower just south of the border.

The RCMP have not said, yet, whether Wortman has U.S. citizenship or residency. Nonresidents are legally barred from purchasing firearms in the United States, and Canadians are not permitted to bring a weapon into Canada without a license, but how effectively both of those requirements are enforced is the real question.

Canada shares a border with New Hampshire, which holds an “F” from the Giffords Law Center for its lax gun laws.

Canada shares a border with New Hampshire, which holds an “F” from the Giffords Law Center for its lax gun laws. Private dealers, in particular, are not required to perform background checks—an opportunity for gun-shopping Canadians. (A bill to implement those checks was vetoed in 2019 by Gov. Chris Sununu.) The local Nova Scotia gossip magazine Frank interviewed Wortman’s father in April, who told the magazine that Wortman had ordered at least one handgun to a friend’s address in Maine “then smuggled it back into the country.”

In many states, it can be as simple as obtaining a state hunting license, which is possible for Canadians. (Eight Chinese students at the University of Arizona were able to purchase weapons in 2017 after obtaining a state hunting license.) Several of these “gun tourism” states would make it fairly easy for Canadians to buy American weapons that are otherwise not allowed north of the border.

It’s grimly fitting that Canada’s worst-ever instance of gun violence took place right along the border, in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. In 1873, a group of American and Canadian hunters surrounded an indigenous encampment, believing the residents had stolen their horses. The settlers opened fire and stormed into the camp, executing virtually everyone in their sight. Modern estimates put the death toll at 23, although some evidence suggests many more died that night.

Today, getting guns across the border is risky but not hard. Canadian border agents seize upwards of 600 firearms a year at the border—the Canadian government even began a public relations campaign, imploring Americans to leave their guns at home. It is likely that many more weapons pass through the U.S.-Canada land borders, where most vehicles are not searched.

It’s not just Canada’s problem. While U.S. politicians often speak of the importation of drug-related violence from Mexico into the United States, they tend to neglect America’s role in exporting weapons south. The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives reports that nearly half of all firearms recovered in Mexico and traced by the bureau were purchased in the United States.

But even if the weapons entered the country illegally, blaming the United States alone won’t fix the complex issues around guns in Canada. Mass shootings aren’t unknown in Canada itself, even if they’re far less common than in the United States. Some were committed with perfectly legal weapons. In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Grande Mosquée de Québec, in the provincial capital, and targeted worshippers during evening prayers, killing six. The main weapon used in the assault, a Czech Small Arms VZ. 58 Sporter rifle, is a semi-automatic military rifle that resembles an AK-47 and is perfectly legal to purchase. Biossnnette had a firearms license that allowed him to carry his rifle and handgun.

Other attacks show that the licensing rules are fairly easy to exploit. In 2005, James Roszko targeted RCMP officers who responded to a call on his farm near Mayerthorpe, Alberta, killing four. Roszko had amassed a stockpile of weapons from various sources—some were purchased legally by others, and some were stolen, while one pistol had been smuggled to Canada from Utah.

Trudeau is promising that greater gun control measures are still slated to be introduced in the coming months. He has said anti-smuggling measures would be part of that package but did not provide details.

Wortman’s attack highlights what has been a long-simmering problem: Canada’s gun laws are only as good as its neighbor’s. As long as one state continues to make it easy for virtually anyone to purchase weapons, especially high-powered semi-automatic rifles and handguns, any attempts by the other state to crack down will be significantly weaker.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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