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'River' of US guns also flows north of the border

In Canada, concerns mount about weapons smuggling – a problem that has long roiled Mexico.

By Murray CarpenterContributor / June 3, 2009

In this 2003 file photo, recreational shooter Pat Eyre fires a round from her 9mm Glock pistolat the United Shooting Range in Gromley, Ontario.

Kevin Frayer/AP/File

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Saint John, New Brunswick

A spate of recent shootings and drug busts here highlights a trend: Police are seeing illegal firearms – often from the United States – more frequently in this industrial port town.

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"We are turning up a lot of weapons, whether it be a long gun or a handgun," says Saint John Police Sgt. Mike McCaig, who coordinates investigations for the Fundy Integrated Intelligence Unit. "It's a serious situation."

The situation might not be as dire as the frequent gun battles taking place in Mexico, where thousands of guns from the US are being used in a drug war. But Canadian authorities say they're also scrambling to stanch the flow of illegal weapons from the US.

The same pattern that allows guns from the US to arm Mexican cartels – a disparity in gun laws, a porous border, and a thriving drug trade – is also sending guns into Canada, city officials and police here say.

"These guns are causing people to die on the streets of Toronto, and they come about because the US gun laws are so lax, and it's very difficult to stop the guns at the border," Toronto Mayor David Miller says.

Comprehensive statistics are scarce, but recent cases paint a picture of the problem.

At a drug bust in New Brunswick in December 2006, police recovered two handguns traced to the US, along with a pound of cocaine, a large quantity of marijuana, $120,000 in cash, and several rifles. The guns were among more than 60 that Andrew Porter of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, smuggled from Maine.

Underground gun trade

One of the Maine guns was used in a grisly crime in June 2007, when a drug deal went bad at an Ottawa motel. According to the Ottawa Police Service, a drug dealer fatally shot a drug buyer and wounded his own partner with the same bullet. The shooter and his wounded friend fled. The weapon, a handgun made in Ohio, was recovered nearby.

Though the serial numbers had been scraped off the weapon, forensics agents traced it back to a gun shop in Brewer, Maine, where a resident bought eight guns for Mr. Porter, but signed a federal form saying the guns were for his own use, according to court documents.

Paula Silsby, the US attorney for the district of Maine, won convictions against Porter and several Maine residents who helped him buy guns.

She says such "straw purchasers" should know that guns can be tracked. "I don't think that they appreciate, should the gun that they are buying for somebody else … be used and tossed at a crime scene, that it will trace back to them."

Another of the guns smuggled from Maine, a semiautomatic handgun, was recovered from a Toronto gang member who flashed it at a nightclub. The Maine guns were one trickle in what some say is a river of US guns flooding into Canada.

Damming the river?

Toronto Mayor Miller is pushing for a complete ban on handguns in Canada, and says he would also like to see more stringent gun laws in the US.