[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You likely know that compared to the United States, Canadian gun laws are really strict. You probably also know that guns are still a problem here on the city streets, especially in Toronto. If it’s so hard to get a gun in Canada, where do all those guns come from?
Yes, indeed. They come from the United States. That’s obvious. But where do they really come from in the States? You see, it’s one thing to say the guns cross the border illegally. Yes, of course they do. But where are they purchased? Who’s buying? Who’s moving? How do these guns actually physically cross the border, and why do border services and the police catch so few of them as they enter the country?
After discovering just how easy it is to [00:01:00] get your hands on a gun in Toronto, one reporter wanted to figure out how that became so easy, and who’s responsible for it, and if there’s anything that could actually stop the flow. So she went into a jail and she started asking questions, and that’s how The Gun Chase began.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Cristina Howorun is a reporter for CityNews. Her latest project is an in-depth documentary called The Gun Chase, which airs as part of the VeraCity series, Tuesday night on CityNews. Hello, Cristina.
Cristina Howorun: Hi Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t you start, before we get into just how deep you got into this, where did the idea of this project and how you approached it come from?
Cristina Howorun: Well, we know that gun violence in urban communities has been an ongoing issue in Canada for several years. [00:02:00] And I also knew that we had some of the strictest gun laws in the Western world. So I really couldn’t reconcile the idea of, we have so many shootings and yet. It’s very difficult for people to actually get a gun.
So I started looking into it and I realized that, um, through Toronto Police’s work and through the work that’s being done through, um, some organizations, uh, law enforcement aid organizations across the country, that most of the guns used in crimes are actually coming from the border. So I really set out to find people to find, you know, a gangster or a former gangster, to find somebody that was involved in the smuggling trade, to just really learn how it worked. And, uh, once I started speaking to some of these people, I realized this is a much bigger story than we are able to fully cover in, you know, a three minute or two minute long news piece. So that’s how this all started.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m going to get you to describe, uh, the trip you went on, uh, going down this rabbit hole, but, but first, [00:03:00] how did you set out, you know, once you kind of figure out, okay, I want to talk to these people, I want to find out exactly how the guns get here. Um, what do you do first?
Cristina Howorun: So I, I’m not typically a crime reporter, which is one of the ironies about this. So it’s not like I have these fantastic connections, you know, in different police forces. Um, but I do do a lot of covering of the correctional institution and jails.
So I started reaching out to people who I knew had connections to this underworld, uh, to the criminal under element of society. And I asked them if they knew anybody that may have potentially been involved in and, you know, it was a lot of phone calls. And then I was very fortunate that a, a good source of mine hooked me up with a man that I’ll call the Captain.
And the Captain was a gun smuggler for several years. And, you know, over a series of, you know, this is pre-COVID, but meeting him for dinner at Earl’s and, uh, [00:04:00] you know, going out for coffee at Tim Horton’s, I gained his trust and he agreed to show us how it was done, um, and to explain his whole process.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Before we talk about how it’s done, maybe for people who live elsewhere in Canada, give me a sense, over the last few years, of the scope of the gun violence problem in Toronto.
Cristina Howorun: It’s, it’s more than doubled over the past couple of years. So if we look back to 2010, you know, I believe there are about 200 shootings and 70 people were unfortunately injured or killed because of these shootings.
You fast forward a decade and the number of shootings is approaching 500 per year. Uh, the people that are being hurt or killed is approaching 200. Um, so it’s been a significant growth over the past 10 years. And in fact, over the past five years in Toronto alone, there’s been more than 400 shootings every year. And that’s just Toronto.
So [00:05:00] that really quite easily spills into all of the suburbs that surround it. So you’ve have like the Hamilton and the Brampton and Mississauga, the Oakville, the Oshawa, and it really expands from there. It’s impacted whole communities that live in fear because they know that the housing complex where they reside, or just by virtue of postal code, that they are more likely to be collateral damage in a gunfight.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How often in these shootings are police actually able to track down where the gun came from?
Cristina Howorun: So police forces themselves don’t necessarily track the gun. If police forces all across Ontario and across Canada, really, submit them to specif- specific law enforcement agencies. So in Ontario, it’s this little known group that works out of the Solicitor General’s office called Criminal Intelligence Services Ontario. And I never heard of this group, but I do so much work with the Solicitor General, but [00:06:00] they don’t talk to the media.
And if a gun is submitted to them, they’re able to more often than not track the gun right back to its point of origin in terms of purchasing. Even if it is international, if it’s anywhere in the US, they can often get it right back to the store.
But also, even if the serial numbers that are on the gun have been etched off and scratched off, they can actually recreate those numbers and that helps them track the gun. So even if you think that you’ve got all those serial numbers, all burned off and scratched off and drilled off, the cops can find them. The cops can recreate them in more cases than you would imagine.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And so we know from that, that most of these guns are coming from the United States, right?
Cristina Howorun: We do. So in Toronto, alone, about 85% of handguns used in criminal events, uh, do trace back to the, to the US. Uh, all across Ontario, and that includes, you know, places like Ottawa [00:07:00] and Windsor and Thunder Bay, everywhere, it’s, it ranges in the 70 to 85% given just, on any given year.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So let’s say there’s a, a gun in the United States at a pawn shop, a gun store, I don’t know. Where does it start?
Cristina Howorun: It actually starts in a lot of different places. So straw purchasers are people that have gun licenses and that sell them to people who do not.
And that’s a bit of a problem in Canada, but it is a huge problem when it comes to smuggling. And some States, for example, Alabama, you really just need a driver’s license to buy a gun. And that’s at a gun shop, that’s at a pawn store, that’s at a gun show, because there are a lot of gun shows, particularly in the Southern States.
And so in the case of the Captain, what they would do, or what he and his crew would do, is they would find people in the States, um, sometimes it’s easy as going to a university or college campus, and saying, [00:08:00] “Hey guys, here’s 200 bucks. You guys all go get your, go buy a gun. And when you give it to us, we’ll give you another 200 bucks for your pocket.”
So you have all of these people that are like, “I’ll buy a gun and get, you know, $200 for nothing.” And they’ll buy guns, sell it back to part of the smuggling operation. And the smugglers then will take a car that is destined for Canada, and they will take it apart. They will hide the guns in the door panels in the, the air vents. Uh, they’ll hide them in the wheel, uh, over top of the tires and, and even in the hood.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Did you watch them do that?
Cristina Howorun: Yes. So as part of this documentary, the Captain, uh, he is a former smuggler, he took apart a, a vehicle for us and he showed us just how easy it was for him to hide things in the door panels. These are things that I had no idea you could even do.
And in [00:09:00] his case, when he was sending mules down to the States, to go handover drugs that they didn’t know they were handing over. Um, and then to come back in this, in the vehicle filled with guns that they didn’t know was filled with guns. He would take apart the panels on rental cars, and they would do it in such a way that you, he could turn back in that rental car eight days or seven days later, or however long this journey was.
And they would have no idea that whatever vehicle they rented from whatever rental place was actually being used to smuggle guns and, out of the country or drugs out of the country and guns into the country. Because he could put it back together so well, that you wouldn’t know that the entire door panels had been removed.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what happens now when they have, um, a car in the United States that’s been taken apart and loaded up with these guns.
Cristina Howorun: So in, in many cases, it’s, the individual will drive it back to the border. There’s a certain sort of person that the smugglers look for. [00:10:00] In the case of the, the Captain who is, with whom we spoke, uh, he would look for older people. He would look for pensioners. He would look for people who may have family already in the States. People that were hard up on money that could use a couple thousand dollars and a free trip to, to drive down to Florida and they’d get to visit friends. And they would think a lot of times that they were just bringing back money that, you know, the smuggler, the Captain did not want to declare for taxes.
So they knew there was something fishy, but they didn’t know how fishy and how nefarious this little drive really was. So he looked for pensioners, he looked for people that may have done a lot of cross border shopping so that they didn’t raise eyebrows when they crossed over the border. They knew the drill and they weren’t surprised if they said, do you have anything to declare, and things like that.
And you know, in my head and the way he’s described as oftentimes it’s a little old lady going down to visit her friend who has a trailer out in, uh, Florida for the summer. And she’s going down for a week. And, [00:11:00] uh, she’s got a free rental car, and she’s coming back and she doesn’t know that the side panels have all been filled up with guns and ammo.
They’ll cross the border. They’ll meet up with the Captain. The Captain will thank them for their service, so to speak and, uh. He’ll take apart the car and he, he acted almost like a middleman. He would sell it to the people that would sell it to people in the street. So there’d be one big purchaser and they would buy the 12 or 15 guns that he got back into the country. They’d sell them out onto the street.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And what’s that market like, both in terms of price, um, and in terms of type, you mentioned handguns, is it just handguns?
Cristina Howorun: It is predominantly handguns. Handguns are much smaller, they’re easier to conceal. Uh, they’re the preferred weapon of choice for many people that are in gangs because they are easy to conceal, in part at least. And, um, you could buy a handgun at a Florida gun show for $199 and you can sell it on the streets of Toronto, [00:12:00] Ottawa, Edmonton Calgary, Vancouver for $5,000.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Cristina Howorun: So it’s very, it’s a very lucrative market.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How many people like the Captain, uh, are doing this now, how prevalent is this?
Cristina Howorun: It is very prevalent. Uh, it’s impossible to know how many people are doing it, because if the police knew exactly who was doing it, they would all be behind bars.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Cristina Howorun: The Captain was actually caught, um, in an international sting because the police were aware of what was happening in the Southern States, and they were following somebody along in his operation. And that’s, he ended up being caught on in a s- in a suburb of Toronto with local police, OPP [Ontario Provincial Police], and ETF [Emergency Task Force] was even involved.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If there’s so many people doing this, um, why aren’t more guns caught at the border? Why aren’t I reading stories, or at least more stories, about guns being seized at the border? Like if this is something that’s kind of common knowledge that this is [00:13:00] how our guns get here, uh, how does so many still slip through?
Cristina Howorun: Because the CBSA [Canadian Border Services Agency] doesn’t have the resources to actually check every single vehicle crossing the border. Uh, one of the, one of the detectives I spoke with for this film, he explained that in his view, and he works with the CBSA, anytime that CBSA has good intelligence, they are a hundred percent successful.
But they’re not necessarily looking for me if I was to be a gun smuggler, which I would never be. But if I was going down as a mule, you know, I’m an employed person, I don’t have a criminal record, I’m not, you know, on any level of drugs, I, I’m driving a normal rental vehicle. I’m going to Florida, I’ve got suitcases. You know, everything looks like I’m actually going where I say I’m going. So they can’t, if they can’t stop every vehicle and they can’t make every vehicle go through an x-ray, these guns are going to continue to come through.
And [00:14:00] they come through other ways too. I mean, our former gangster that spoke with us, who’s now helping people get out of organized crime, like actually exit gangs and other criminal organizations. He says in the past, when he was doing this 20, 25 years ago, that there are parts of the border, and it, and it still stands, there are parts of the border that are completely u- undefended, so, y’know, unmanned. So you have people that can quite literally throw a bag of guns over on the other side of the border.
But the vehicle transfer is really the main way. And if CBSA doesn’t have more officers, it doesn’t have more x-ray screens, doesn’t have more booths so that you’re not just holding up traffic there’s no way to stop every gun.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What surprised you the most, um, when you started this documentary? You got pretty deep into this.
Cristina Howorun: I did. What surprised me was how easy it is to get a gun in Toronto. Um, you can rent a gun right now in many urban centres for $80 a [00:15:00] night, and no questions are asked. You simply go rent a gun from the guy in the corner, and you can do whatever you want with it, just make sure you bring it back. I learned that there are guns that are available for rent, um, in Ottawa and Toronto, I’ve heard this, that, um, you pay 80 bucks, but every bullet you fire costs you $20.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Cristina Howorun: So it becomes one of those, they can tell how many, how many you’ve shot based on this. Cause you can’t just go buy ammo unless you have a gun license now. So that surprised me, that people are just willing to rent out guns and not care that the gun that you’re getting back may have a body involved with it. That there may have been a murder involved with it.
I learned that there were guns that are literally community guns that are hidden in certain parts of different communities, and people that need to use it know where to go and know to go behind this dumpster, and if you move this part of the brick right here, it’s loose, and here’s the gun, and you can go use it and just put it back for [00:16:00] the next person that wants to use it.
So there are neighbourhoods, and we’ve heard this from a gentleman, uh, who’s currently remanded on gun charges. There are neighbourhoods and certain street corners where you can just walk up to somebody and say, Hey, do you have something? And they’re like, yeah, just bring it back. And you may not even be good friends with them, but they know where you live. So they know you’ll bring them back to their gun. That really surprised me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you talk to people in these communities, what do they say needs to be done to get a handle on this problem? Because you know, we know these communities, these are often racialized communities, often poor communities, more policing is probably not the easiest answer there. So, you know, what needs to happen?
Cristina Howorun: Everybody that I spoke with says that has to be a long game solution. So I was very surprised to find out that, for example, Evelyn Fox, uh, her son was murdered, his killer’s never been found. Her son had no gang affiliations, uh, police know he was not the intended target. He was, he died because [00:17:00] of a shot into a crowd. And I was really surprised to hear that she doesn’t believe a gun ban or a handgun ban will solve anything.
Because they’re not looking for band-aid solutions. The people in these communities are, are largely looking for long-term investments. So everybody I spoke with said the biggest solution is to put more resources into grassroots community organizations that can help deter youth from ever getting into this lifestyle. To have more community, um, centres, and activities for youth
Marcell Wilson, he was the former gang leader, he says that he only started down this path, on reflection, after they closed down the basketball courts in the community housing project that he lived in. And that’s when all of the kids had nothing to do, and all of a sudden it became cooler to look up to the 17 year old that was doing bad things.
And the same thing with Dwayne Beckford, who’s currently [00:18:00] remanded on gun charges. He said there was absolutely nothing for him to do when he turned 12 or 13. And so he started going down this path.
And so everybody says it’s not as simple as putting a basketball court or, you know, a skate park. But that’s a really big solution, is to make sure that youth have other things that they can be involved in. So hanging out on a street corner and selling drugs doesn’t seem that cool. And having more youth more opportunity for youth employment, because then they have a job. And so selling drugs again, or being involved in that lifestyle, isn’t that cool, because you can do all of these things and succeed.
So they are really calling for better investment, better housing, better resources for education and better activities for youth in these, um, marginalized communities and specific postal codes to have [00:19:00] access to.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you compare, uh, what they’re asking for to what you hear about solutions from politicians or from the police, how do the two stack up?
Cristina Howorun: I don’t want to say that they’re exactly opposite, but they’re not the same. So the provincial and the federal governments have invested a lot of money in gang deterrence and use diversion programs. But when you look at it, the majority of that money is still going towards policing initiatives.
It’s not going to towards, um, new recreation centres that are open later and that have things that kids actually want to do. Like basketball, like skate parks, like, um, you know, maybe tennis. They don’t have things that kids are actually wanting to do.
A gun ban, every person I spoke with has said, is not really going to have an impact, not, not on street violence, because the [00:20:00] people that are lawful gun owners aren’t contributing to the street violence. You have to go through so many police checks and character references. And I’m going through the process right now as part of this film. And I started the process eight months ago and I still don’t have a license.
So it’s not those individuals that are necessarily committing the crimes, but that seems to be where a lot of the government’s focus has been, is on making it a little bit difficult or more difficult to get a gun, you know, banning guns that aren’t used, or very rarely used in gun, in street violence, but make us all feel a little bit safer. Cause I admit, you know, we, we heard about, um, the tragedy, well we saw the tragedy last year in Nova Scotia and we all felt like, “Oh no, we don’t need guns.” And you know, it’s that knee-jerk reaction that fewer guns on the streets will, will make us safe.
But criminals don’t adhere to laws. [00:21:00] No, no gangster, um, and no potential murderer is going to go, “Oh, well, I’m driving from Toronto to Mississauga, and Mississauga bans guns, so I better leave my handgun in Toronto.” Cause that’s, if you have a hand gun illegally and you’re going to kill somebody, a ban is not, not going to stop you.
But potentially if, if that person had had different opportunities in life, they may not have made those choices. Marcell explained it and he says it so poignantly, when he says, “A gangster is not made, we’re created, and they’re created because of lack of opportunities.”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Cristina, thank you so much for this. I can’t wait to watch the documentary tonight.
Cristina Howorun: Thank you so much, Jordan. Thank you for the opportunity to share some of it with you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Cristina Howorun of CityNews. You can find The Gun Chase on CityTV tonight, Tuesday, April 27th, and afterwards, at citynews.ca. You can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca, you can find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can [00:22:00] talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And please do tell your friends about this show, send them a link, any podcast player will work. If you can please rate us and review us. We love to hear what you have to say.
Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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