CBSA: Americans' personal guns account for vast majority of border seizures

VANCOUVER — Americans cherish their constitutional right to keep and bear arms, even when they come to Canada.

Canada Border Services Agency officers regularly discover smuggled guns destined for the Canadian criminal underworld, but most firearms they turn up belong to otherwise law-abiding Americans, according agency intelligence summaries.

"Most of the firearms seized by CBSA at the land ports of entry are the personal firearms of legitimate U.S. travellers who neglected - intentionally or not - to declare their personal firearms," says the agency's strategic intelligence analysis division in an undated report covering the period 2004-06.

The report, along with other previously classified monthly intelligence summaries dating back to January 2007, were obtained by The Canadian Press under federal Access to Information legislation.

Crossings into British Columbia account for the largest percentage of all gun seizures, and about a third of all handguns, the agency says. A high percentage are in transit to Alaska and not intended for the illicit firearms market, the report says.

Americans travelling through Canada between Alaska and the Lower 48 states, often doing seasonal work, can take their guns if they declare them.

"I can tell you right now that many people that go to Alaska and legally declare their guns declare as many as 10 or more guns," says Dan Liebel, who speaks for the Customs and Excise Union. "Now, how many don't declare them?"

The border services agency's August 2007 intelligence summary highlights an incident where officers at the Coutts, Alta., stopped a U.S. military officer transferring to Alaska. He had declared seven long guns (shotguns or rifles) but a search turned up seven restricted handguns.

Liebel, who works at a small B.C. Interior border crossing, also says no records are kept on whether declared guns actually make it out of Canada.

Border services officials declined to be interviewed by The Canadian Press for its investigation into the extent of gun-smuggling from the United States into Canada.

It says only that Canada Border Services Agency seized 662 guns last year, three-quarters of them handguns. Between 2004 and 2007 it confiscated 2,289 guns.

"While uncommon, we have seized handguns that are linked to (the) illicit firearms market with an organized-crime connection," the agency intelligence report says.

Firearms seizures at border points have declined steadily since 2001, says a 2006 briefing note prepared for agency president Alain Joliceur after Toronto police seized 20 U.S.-sourced guns in raids targeting the Jamestown Crew gang.

The exception was 2003, when the totals spiked because customs officers in Montreal seized almost 500 rifles from a commercial shipment.

The agency considers any seizure of two or more firearms significant, according to the briefing note.

"That, however, does not directly relate to an intent of trafficking the firearms," it says.

"A significant difference exists between firearms that are brought across the border by individuals with no illicit intent and deliberate attempts to smuggle firearms for the purpose of trafficking, usually to the criminal element ...

"While it is a straightforward matter to determine a significant firearms seizure, it is more complex to determine or identify seizures which involve potential crime guns."

The agency intelligence summary makes the obvious point that seizure statistics only record the successful interdiction of firearms, "and so it would be difficult to estimate quantities not being intercepted."

Liebel points out customs officers only inspect between one and 10 per cent of vehicles coming across the Canada-U.S. border.

"I've heard estimates in the range of we get one to three per cent of what actually is getting through, but that's just rumour," he says.

Besides B.C. border points, the agency's monthly intelligence summaries show the Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, Ont., crossings ro utinely turn up a significant percentage undeclared and smuggled firearms.

Quebec, Maritime and Prairie entry portals aren't as busy, though all have registered major gun seizures in the last couple of years.

The rate of seizures normally peaks in the summer tourist months of June, July and August, the agency says in its 2007 year-end intelligence summary.

In an outlook for 2008 in the same document, the agency says overall trends are expected to continue this year.

"The United States will continue to be the primary source of firearm seizures because of its close proximity to Canada and the availability of firearms due to regulations that are more permissive and conducive to gun ownership," the report says.

Women feature in a number of significant gun seizures reported in the monthly intelligence summaries.

In February 2007, a search dog at the Niagara/Fort Erie crossing found three handguns, ammunition and pistol magazines wrapped in plastic bags and duct tape concealed in the spare tire of a car driven by an 18-year-old Pennsylvania woman.

An American woman and her daughter came through the Windsor, Ont., border crossing from Detroit in November 2007 claiming to be on an extended vacation. A search turned up four handguns and a shotgun and the woman was fined $5,000 after pleading guilty to not reporting the weapons.

In May 2007, officers made three major seizures, including 15 restricted firearms at Edmundston, N.B., smuggled by a 64-year-old American who claimed to be on a one-day shopping trip.

Intelligence apparently led to the interception of a Canadian couple at Fort Erie who were caught with seven handguns, one of them loaded.

And at the Douglas, B.C., crossing south of Vancouver, officers arrested a Washington-state man with a 12-gauge shotgun in his car, as well as ropes, tape, several pairs of gloves and a balaclava.

A similar incident happened at the same crossing last August, when a Washington state man was found with a shotgun, loaded semi-automatic pistol, ammunition bags, SWAT-type balaclava, black tactical vest and dark clothing.

Not all illegal guns come by land. In April 2007 customs officers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport seized a fully automatic AK-47 assault rifle from a Canadian returning from Ukraine who claimed it was a non-working replica.