MONTREAL — Canada bans most guns and has a minuscule number of gun-
related homicides a year. But, worried about smuggled firearms from the United States, its government is preparing to stiffen its already tough gun laws and step up border surveillance.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised new regulations and a string of measures to counter gun smuggling, which is regarded here as a dangerous problem underscoring the United States’ much looser firearm laws.
The move comes as police have discovered an increased number of high-powered handguns and semiautomatic and automatic weapons in Canadian cities.
Since 2005, Toronto has had the worst of it. As gun battles broke out across the city between rival street gangs that year, innocent people got caught in the crossfire.
Jane Creba, 15, was killed when gang members began firing through Christmas holiday crowds downtown. The high school student became a symbol of what came to be known as the Year of the Gun.
Homicides in Toronto spiked to 80 in 2005, from 64 in 2004, and the majority were shooting-related. About 70 percent of the guns used were handguns and automatic weapons smuggled from the United States, police say.
Since then, the number of shootings has decreased, but the danger still lurks. How many trafficked guns cross the border is unknown. But the Canadian Border Services Agency said there has been a continued increase in gun seizures. In 2012, agents seized 226 illegal weapons (mostly handguns). By 2015, that figure had risen to 316.
Toronto police last month responded to the threat posed by high-powered firearms by announcing that the city’s 17 precincts would acquire 50 semiautomatic, short-barreled assault rifles, raising fears about the militarization of Canadian police.
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders told reporters in December that police had seized 11 machine guns, adding that he was worried about officer safety.
Yet compared with the United States, the incidence of gun violence in Canada, which has a population of 35.2 million people, is almost minute. The latest figures, from 2014, show only 156 gun-related homicides in Canada compared with 10,945 in its more populous southern neighbor.
What alarms Canadians is that the figures show an increase of 21 gun-
related killings in 2014, a rise of about 16 percent.
Trudeau promised in December to introduce stricter laws that would “get handguns and assault weapons off our streets.”
The country’s 5,526-mile border with the United States makes smuggling into Canada a relatively easy game, particularly in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River regions. Yet smugglers still employ some deviously clever tactics.
In one recent investigation, Toronto police discovered that Canadian smugglers were attaching handguns and GPS devices to the undercarriages of vehicles owned by Ontario residents attending sports events in the Detroit area. The smugglers then tracked the cars back into Canada, where they removed the weapons without the vehicle owners’ knowledge.
In Quebec, police traced more than a dozen handguns used in gang-related killings to a man in Burlington, Vt., who had ordered them legally through the mail and then sold them to smugglers who took them across the St. Lawrence River into Canada.
“Unfortunately it is easier to get a gun illegally in Canada than it is to get one legally,” said Blair Hagen, executive vice president of the National Firearms Association.
Handguns in Canada are mostly forbidden — with an exception for types used for target shooting. So are machine guns, silencers and large magazines. Semiautomatics are heavily restricted.
To obtain a gun license, Canadians must go through extensive background checks that include criminal-record and mental health checks as well as interviews with family members and former spouses. The application process can take up to six months.
Nothing in the Canadian constitution even remotely implies a right to own a firearm. Still, Canada is a nation of about 2 million registered gun owners — mostly hunters — who own an estimated 10 million to 20 million firearms. Many of these guns are in remote northern communities such as La Loche, Saskatchewan, where a teenager has been charged with using a rifle to kill four people last month.
Canadian gun ownership is dwarfed by the estimated 357 million firearms owned by Americans, more than the U.S. population, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report and Washington Post estimate.
The Canadian government’s proposed measures would include spending 100 million Canadian dollars — about 72 million U.S. dollars — annually to investigate gun smuggling. The money also would be used to install devices at border stations to “detect and halt illegal guns from the United States.”
These could include hand-held X-ray devices or much larger machines that a vehicle would drive through. Canada already uses these devices for containers and commercial vehicles in its busier border stations.
In addition, the government has promised to pass a measure requiring gun importers to engrave the import year and country of manufacture on their products. Officials say this would help police identify trafficked firearms and move quickly to plug holes in border surveillance.
Gun lobby groups say the proposals would make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to possess guns while doing nothing to stop crime.
Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association and its lobbying group, the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action, said the proposals to imprint firearms with the information is simply a “system to harass the Canadian industry, and it will add to the cost [of a gun] by a couple of hundred dollars.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that ownership of handguns and semiautomatics is heavily restricted in Canada, but there are exceptions allowing some use by civilians