ERIC WALKER, a Connecticut prison-guard-turned-gun-smuggler, looked to Canada in 1993 and saw dollar signs.
His firepower commanded high prices from Canada's black-market gun buyers, who face tougher gun laws here than in the US. Canadian and US authorities who followed Mr. Walker's trail say he smuggled at least 50 guns -- possibly as many as 200 -- into Canada, with many ending up in the hands of gangs in Montreal and Toronto. So far, 11 guns sold by Walker have been linked to crimes, police say.
The Walker case is just part of a growing river of ''Saturday Night Special'' handguns and semiautomatic pistols flowing northward to Canada, say law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. Fearing their country is turning into a clone of the violence-prone US, Canadians are clamoring for a crackdown.
''We know Canada is a prime market for guns from the US because of our proximity to the States and our large, unguarded border,'' says Geoffrey Francis, who traces guns for the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario.
He and other law-enforcement officials say the number of guns smuggled up from the US is probably in the thousands annually. Operation Gun Runner, a nine-month Canadian undercover investigation conducted last year, found that 16 of 17 guns purchased on the black market were smuggled into Canada -- most from the US. A total of 243 weapons were seized and 17 people charged.
''As the [gun] laws up here get tighter, the flow of guns into this country is growing enormously -- along with the smugglers' ingenuity,'' says Constable Francis. Some of the guns have had their serial numbers drilled out, making them harder, sometimes impossible, to trace.
Still, gun smugglers don't have to be particularly bright, police say. All they usually have to do is drive up and merge with a long line of cars waiting to cross the Canada-US border. That's what Walker did.
On Nov. 9, 1993, Walker had just completed his third successful shipment to Canada, selling 20 to 25 pistols over a long weekend in Toronto for an estimated 300 percent profit. He was returning to the US about $5,000 richer when he was arrested at the Canada-US border.
Crossing goes awry
Walker may have felt a twinge of anxiety as he approached the Lewiston-Queenston bridge just north of Niagara Falls that morning. Yet as he well knew, the busy border crossing handled thousands of cars daily -- only a few of them searched.
According to an agent from the Washington-based Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Walker eased his black 1988 Lincoln Continental up to the US customs booth, ready for the routine questions, ''What's your nationality? Where do you live?''
Then things began to go awry. The customs agent wanted to inspect the car. To a questionnaire asking if he had firearms in the car, Walker answered ''no.'' But in only minutes an inspector discovered a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol hidden in the wheel well of the trunk. Loose .22 ammunition was rolling around inside the car. Littering the interior were scores of receipts for guns purchased at US gun stores.
Walker presented his corrections-officer card and badge and claimed he had a valid pistol permit. But when a customs inspector slammed the passenger door, another pistol clunked onto the floorboard from behind a hidden compartment.
Walker was sentenced last December to four years in prison for transporting firearms across state and country borders and dealing in firearms without a license.
Canadian authorities, however, contend that the bulk of smuggling from the US is not by over-the-counter gun buyers like Walker. Rather, they say smuggling is facilitated by a few ''bad apples'' among the more than 200,000 individuals who hold US federal firearms dealer's licenses (FFLs). A FFL holder can buy guns in quantity direct from US manufacturers.
Walker did not have an FFL -- his purchasing patterns from United States gun shops were noticed by the ATF. FFL holders can do business much more privately, keeping their own records with little oversight. ATF has only a few hundred inspectors to check on FFLs. If an FFL holder decides to sell to buyers with a wink and a nod, not much can stop him.
Wayne Reed of North Burlington, Vt., sold weapons privately from his home using an FFL. Beginning in 1991, Mr. Reed sold about 900 guns, mostly semiautomatic pistols, that ended up in Canada. Many were sold to Mohawks from Quebec who posed as Americans, according to Canadian news accounts. The natives smuggled the weapons across the St. Lawrence River into Canada and resold them.
US and Canadian authorities have linked guns legally sold by Mr. Reed to crimes in Canada, including five murders, 11 robberies, suicides, extortion, and death threats, according to the news reports.
Report sounds an alarm
Canada's auditor-general sounded the warning about an incoming flood of US weapons in a January 1994 report. With only 7 million guns in Canada, but more than 220 million in the US, Canada had become a hot market for cheap US guns.
Since the report, federal and provincial governments have poured in resources to combat the problem. Both Ontario and Quebec recently organized provincial antigun-smuggling units. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been charged with coordinating a national antigun- smuggling effort.
Last month, Justice Minister Allan Rock introduced legislation that would register all of Canada's guns and outlaw the import and sale of most handguns and assault rifles -- a move that would be anathema in the US.
''Until you have full registration, you're only working with the 1 in 7 guns that are currently registered,'' says James Hayes, coordinator of the Firearms Control Task Group of the Department of Justice, which will advise Mr. Rock in a report due within weeks.
Right now, however, Canada's antigun-smuggling hinges largely on help from Washington. All Canadian gun traces currently go through the ATF. An ATF liaison officer has been in Ottawa since October, assisting Canadian authorities.
After Walker's arrest, for example, ATF agents supplied information on his contacts in Canada to Metro Toronto Police, who charged his accomplice. Sources say Ontario will have a computer link to the ATF database in six months.
Still, most Canadian gun-smuggling investigations are so new their results remain secret. Mr. Hayes speaks vaguely of a sharp rise in the number of ''takedowns'' of gun-smuggling rings in the past eight months.
Some details are known. Ontario police working with the ATF have in the past two years uncovered two other rings, besides Walker's and Reed's, estimated to have smuggled 500 more guns into Canada. While such successes are gratifying, they also point to the disquieting appetite for guns in Canada -- even among youths.
''In the long run, our biggest problem is that guns are becoming part of the social environment,'' says Rudy Kolaczek, an undercover officer with Ontario's new Weapons Enforcement Unit. ''Kids used to want to see which one had the coolest knife. Now they want to see who has the best gun.''