On Street Gangs and Guns

By January 11, 2006 No Comments


The gang ‘crisis’ in several major Canadian cities is real enough – and it is becoming a growing problem. There are examples from many other countries of just how bad a gang problem can become if left unchecked. However, in a hysterical rush to action by politicians who should have been paying attention to a growing trend for, lo, these past 15 years, it is clear that very little is understood about the phenomenon. As one citizen observed to the author, “If Johnny Lunchpail can figure out what’s going on by watching the 6:00 news, how come the politicians can’t?” Indeed.

To begin with, since much in this exposition could be dismissed by the usual suspects as being ‘inappropriate’ (i.e. politically incorrect), a piece of my family history might be entirely appropriate. One of my grandfathers and a granduncle grew up in the Irish slums on lower Manhattan at the close of the 19th Century. Their father had died earlier (after inhaling live steam in an industrial accident); and as there was no social welfare system to pick up the slack, their mother turned to brewing bootleg whiskey to make a living – tantamount in those days and that setting to dealing in drugs now. The neighborhood was desperately poor, crime-ridden and the authorities were scarce on the ground.

Consequently, both boys were at considerable risk of being drawn into one of the many criminal gangs in the area. My granduncle did, and ended up as a thief, extortionist, fraud artist (he rigged minor sporting events for the punters) and gunman before his career choice killed him in 1917. My grandfather foreswore alcohol, worked hard, stayed law-abiding, and made his own way out of the slums. His three children and ward all made good, even despite the vicissitudes of the Great Depression and the Second World War during their own young lives.

There are three points to draw from this:

  1. Any community can generate criminal gangs under the right circumstances;
  2. Any community where principled individuals take action for themselves, can free itself from this problem, and;
  3. There is always choice involved. Fundamentally every member of a gang has chosen to be one.

This also means that a community with a gang problem has let it either develop or worsen through its own inactivity and that – while circumstances of society and community often will contribute to a gang problem – nobody in the Crips, Bloods, AK Kanon, the Indian Posse or whatever, can claim environment and upbringing as a defence for his conduct.

In one of the many episodes of ‘The Simpsons’, the town of Springfield is menaced by an impending comet strike. Predictably, much panic ensues until the event actually happens and turns out not to have been doomsday after all; whereupon a number of the citizens decide “Let’s burn down the observatory to make sure this never happens again!”

In the aftermath of a startling year of gang violence in Toronto – not to mention growing problems in Edmonton, Vancouver and Winnipeg – the issue has finally become important. However, gang violence is not a simple problem with a simple solution. It represents numerous failures in our immigration, welfare, education, judicial and aboriginal policies; and tackling the gangs will not be easy. Human nature being what it is, ad hoc responses from some politicians (notably Paul Martin and Toronto Mayor David Miller) tried to blame the Americans and Canadian handgun owners for the problem. These two could feel right at home in the fictional cartoon town of Springfield.

Yes, it is true that the street gangs in much of Canada are armed, and that their indiscriminate gunplay have been killing and wounded citizens all over our streets. In Toronto in 2005 there were 78 homicides (a record for the city – but still a much lower murder rate than many other North American cities experience). Toronto’s 2005 homicides could be broken down – loosely – in the following manner.

Manner of Homicide

[table id=9 /]

Caution: Both categories are simplifications; ‘Domestic’ extends to situations where the deceased was murdered by a tenant, room-mate, spouse, parent, child, neighbor, or ex-lover. The deceased in the second category are presumed to have been killed by criminals or gang members, and often seemed to have no relationship of any kind with their killers.

Apparent Identity of Victims

[table id=10 /]

The South Asian category includes Middle Easterners, and “White” was a catch-all for some victims who didn’t have a photo published and whose rough identity could not be determined from their name or appearance.

Male/Female Victims by Age

[table id=11 /]

Strangling and stabbing remain constant favorites for those with the urge to murder their spouses, irritating room-mates or inconvenient relatives. The gangs don’t seem to go in for these approaches all that often and their favorite weapons are handguns, which have been heavily controlled in Canada since the 1930s, so it seems reasonable to ask where are they coming from?

Legal Owners?

Toronto’s Mayor Miller has made much of what he keeps calling “so-called legitimate” owners of firearms as the source of the City’s gun violence. The so-called legitimate mayor of the city might want to educate himself on a few facts first.

For those Canadians who would like to purchase a legal handgun in Canada, they should find a qualified and licensed firearms instructor and take both of the training courses to handle non-restricted (i.e. hunting arms) and restricted (i.e. handguns) firearms. Attention must be paid to the courses, there are both written and practical exams for all would be gun-owners with a mandatory passing grade of 80%. Then they must apply for a Federal ‘Possession and Acquisition License’ (PAL) and wait a couple of months for this – while a background check is conducted.

The next step is to join a licensed gun club and pass their scrutiny. As no club is interested in accepting potential murders who have made it this far, they will want to do their own assessments, usually by allowing only a probationary membership while they size candidates up and run their own tests of a new member’s safe-handling standards. Once content with that, one can go to a gun store (now increasingly rare) and purchase a hand-gun… but the buyer can’t carry it home just yet.

The store (or gun owner if this is a private transaction) must then transfer the ownership of the gun to the new owner through the Federal firearms registry and who must then get an ATT – Authority to Transport – allowing them to carry it home provided the safe transport requirements are met. As all owners must have passed their exams to get a PAL, they have no excuse for remaining ignorant of these requirements. Each handgun must have a locking mechanism on the gun itself, be transported in a locked container, and any ammunition must be carried in a separate locked container. Storage requirements at home are identical, although a good safe or vault will meet the needs of the law too.

As nobody can long retain a legal handgun in their ownership without belonging to a recognized pistol club, a new shooter needs to contact his Club’s secretary. He or she will then write to the appropriate provincial firearms officer, requesting another ATT which allows the shooter to carry it (again, with the same transport requirements being observed) to and from officially recognized ranges only. Firing it anywhere else is an offense.

As a Canadian’s choice of handgun and ammunition is much limited by law, the chance of being able to purchase a snub-nosed pistol with a 20 round magazine full of black-talon ammunition (a particularly nasty variant of hollow-point bullets, which police can carry, but citizens may not) would be nil. A few people, mostly ‘grandfathered’ under existing legislation, can legally acquire shorter barreled handguns of specific prohibited calibers; a new owner can’t — unless they were left Dad’s old war souvenir Walther PP in his will. In which case, they can jump through all the same hoops to get this specific prohibited gun only.

So you want to be a Crip or Blood gangstah with a Glock tucked in your belt? Well, your magazines cannot hold more than ten rounds (and no store will sell you a high capacity clip). Toting around the two lock boxes is inconvenient – for a start they really don’t look like ‘bling’; and legal owner or not, woe betide your gun collection if you ever fire your pistol anywhere except at a licensed range.

Now suppose a gang member does take all these steps and now illegally carries around his legally-owned firearm. Gang members do get arrested from time to time, and police continually develop intelligence on members… surely the database of owners and the registration system would be routinely consulted against the membership rolls of the Crips, Bloods, Posses, etcetera. Otherwise, what has all the expense of the registration system been for?

Stolen Guns and Pistols from America

Are gangs stealing legally owned guns? Yes, it does happen from time to time – although not nearly as often as Mayor Miller or Paul Martin believe. Both have cited a figure from some police sources that claims 50% of the guns they recover in Canada were legally owned. The source (whatever it was) wasn’t being entirely accurate.

Police ‘recover’ a lot of guns in Canada. When a widow brings in the pistols her late husband brought back from WW-II, even if legally owned and registered, they are now ‘recovered’ firearms. A duck hunter involved in an acrimonious divorce might have to surrender his shotguns for a while, based on an allegation from his wife that he threatened her. These become recovered weapons even though they may well be returned later. Likewise, a gun collector with legally owned prohibited weapons whose home caught fire may hand over her firearms to police for temporary safe storage– and these too are ‘recovered’.

If there is a recent report on the status – legal or black market – of all guns seized as the result of street arrests or police investigations into gangs, it doesn’t seem to be publicly available. However, in 1992-93, Operation Gunrunner (a police intelligence project in Southern Ontario) resulted in the purchase of 17 black market handguns – 16 of which had been diverted to the underground from within the United States.

Later, in 1994 at the trial of a Vermont gun-dealer who was diverting firearms into the Canadian black market (via the Mohawk Warriors) details were provided from Canadian police about 102 handguns – out of something ranging from 700 to 2,000 pistols which were smuggled into Canada. The Canadian police who recovered these weapons in arrests all across the country also retrieved 45 other weapons at the time; at least seven of which had also been smuggled into Canada from the US.

For those who cannot do the arithmetic, 16 out of 17 equates to 94 percent, not 50%. And 107 (at least) out of 145 comes to 74 percent. The usual estimate of street cops is that at least 80% of the pistols in the hands of Canadian criminals come from American sources. Anecdotal evidence from street cops and coroners in 2004-5 across Canada suggest this trend is holding.

So what is new about this? Actually there is a lot of good news from the last decade.

Black Market Dynamics

Besides irrationally blaming Canadian firearms owners for the violence in Toronto, both Paul Martin and Toronto mayor David Miller sounded on the Americans – blaming them for the “export of their gun violence.” This criticism wasn’t fair either. The Americans have done a lot to choke off the supply of black market handguns in the last decade.

Economics 101 – the laws of supply and demand – work as much for black markets as they do for legal ones. If the demand for a commodity outstrips the supply, the price goes up. The price for black market handguns on Canada’s streets seems to have doubled in the last decade, but the driving force behind what may be sometimes as much as a 400% markup from legal American prices has little or nothing to do with our own gun laws.

To be sure, this price mark-up is not universal. It’s hard to get that gang swagger going if you only have an itty-bitty .22 target pistol tucked in your waistband, so a .22 caliber pistol might only get a 200% markup from its US over-the counter price. The cheap ‘Saturday Night Special’ .25 and .32 calibre automatics (such as the Bryco and Sundance Models) which are smaller than a pack of cigarettes appear to get a 300% markup. The full 400% markup is reserved for 9mm, .40 or .45 calibre semi-automatics like the Glock or Tec-9, especially for ‘prestige’ guns (meaning they look cool and often appear in movies and videos).

In the past decade, the number of licensed gun dealers in the United States has shrunk by about two thirds. Essentially, new regulations enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) closed down dealers who operated without licensed and inspected business premises – the “kitchen table dealers” or characters who would sell from their cars. Paperwork is inspected more often than it used to be and tougher regulations govern the export (and import) of firearms.

The BATF also maintains liaison officers in several jurisdictions outside of the US, including Canada, to facilitate the tracing of US made firearms which surface in the Black Market. The US government and most American gun manufacturers are eager to shut down those who divert firearms into the underground supply. It is these American actions and not our failed 1994 gun control law that escalated gun prices on Canada’s streets.

In 2004, the Israelis were making a tremendous effort to choke off the supply of weapons going to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Their effort enjoyed mixed success. According to some media sources (and notes the author made in a May 2004 interview with the then-head of counter-terrorism with the Israeli National Police), the price of an AK-47 assault rifle in Gaza had risen to some $2,500 US and bullets were going for a dollar apiece. There are places in the world where AK-47s normally go for less than $200 with a bonus box of cartridges thrown in.

However, it said much that there was no shortage of AK-47s in Gaza, and that Palestinians would give up buying a taxicab or opening a shop just so they could get an assault rifle (which explains much about the Palestinian state of mind and economy). Again, a high demand and restricted supply had no other effect than to inflate the price.

The ultimate folly – almost as bizarre as burning down observatories to prevent comet impacts – is to work towards a stronger abolition of privately owned firearms. The British went this route after the 1996 Dunblaine Massacre of schoolchildren by a disappointed near pedophile and found that their violent crime rate has shot up enormously. Criminal gangs (of which the UK has no shortage) are still quite able to procure firearms even though legal ownership of everything but some basic sporting shotguns has been banned.

When faced with supply problems, the black market can be innovative too – on Toronto’s streets many aspiring gangstahs cannot now afford a gun; so they rent one for a while from an underground dealer. So they can flash the gun, get the swagger, bust caps at a rival (in their inimitable let’s-shoot-up-the- neighborhood style that hits everybody but their target), and then return the gun later. Of course, there is a lottery of sorts with this practice. Eventually, some kid gets caught holding the gun that’s wanted in a half a dozen shooting episodes and the police get to tell their wannabe thug just who is going to be holding the bag for all these other offenses.

British police have already seen similar practices, plus a wide variety of home-made guns, drilled-out starter pistols and other improvised firearms. Sawed off rifles and shotguns are common in the UK and not unknown in Canada either (Kids! Only very, very, very silly people saw off rifles and shotguns and use them as pistols. Yes, it looks cool in the movies, but you won’t hit a thing beyond arm’s reach, the gun will eventually blow up in your face and/or break your arm, and you have just turned a perfectly acceptable non-restricted sporting firearm into a useless prohibited weapon.)

Gangs that are involved in narcotics don’t have to bother with these improvisations. Cash flow is no problem and they already have a clandestine pipeline for their product. It is not that difficult to move handguns into the pipeline and to pay for them. Moreover, in contrast to legally manufactured handguns from legitimate European and US suppliers, a plentiful supply of high quality weapons for the gangs of the world is starting to emerge. The Glock-17 that came off a production line in Austria has a serial number stamped on it and a documented history. The cloned copy from some unknown manufacturer in Eastern Europe, South Asia, Latin America or from China might be just as good, and it is thoroughly untraceable and much cheaper. These are already emerging throughout Europe and are now appearing in North America’s cities.

If Paul Martin and David Miller actually “burn down the observatory to make sure this never happens again”, be sure that the abolition of legal handgun ownership will have no effect whatsoever on gang violence on Canada’s streets.