The research report says "an important segment" of those who buy illicit firearms are so-called "law-abiding citizens" such as collectors.
The study of the illicit gun trade, commissioned by the Public Safety Department, was completed in September 2010 but only recently released under the Access to Information Act.
The researchers interviewed 20 men about their experiences buying illegal guns in Quebec.
Thirteen of the men were locked up in federal penitentiaries — both younger and older offenders from rural and urban backgrounds who had been incarcerated for a variety of crimes.
The other seven, not in jail, were firearm aficionados and collectors who had trouble finding what they wanted on the legitimate market.
"They were free and passionate firearm collectors who were ready to acquire through illegal channels if it meant getting a gun that was difficult or impossible to obtain through legal means," says the study.
"Focusing on illegal firearm acquirers who were not incarcerated revealed an important segment of this market: the 'law-abiding' illegal firearm acquirer. This segment is indeed worth exploring further and it would be useful to determine how broad this sort of law defiance is among otherwise law-abiding persons."
However, even some of the participants who were behind bars for gun crimes "were not offenders before acquiring these illegal firearms," notes the study.
Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment.
Legislation now before Parliament would end registration of common rifles and shotguns and permanently delete more than seven million files on gun ownership.
The study notes there is little research on illegal firearms in Canada and purchasing patterns within this market.
It says that although the latest findings are "instructive," the small, non-representative sample means no definitive conclusions can be drawn. The authors call for more extensive research.
However, their inquiries suggest the illicit gun trade in Canada involves small, informal networks that present spontaneous, unplanned opportunities to buy such firearms. "Opportunistic transactions" were common.
"When you're part of the milieu, you receive offers like this once or twice a week," said one interviewee with a criminal history.
Collectors also relied on associates and inside knowledge to make purchases. One enthusiast told of acquiring a Royal Blue Python .357 magnum after hearing through an Internet chat group that one was for sale.
A close friend told the buyer he had met the seller at gun shows and that he could arrange a meeting. A cryptic email exchange ensued, and the supplier and interested party met at a shooting range. A follow-up meeting was then arranged at the seller's house, leading to a sale.
In general, the interviewees said there were many suppliers and intermediaries to help broker deals. "This suggests that the market is largely decentralized around informal contacts and not centralized around key dealers."
The study says native reserves are currently one of the few central purchasing points for shadowy firearms. But the availability of illicit guns in cyberspace may make reserve sales obsolete, it adds.
Overall, the diffuse nature of the illegal gun market means police have a tough time zeroing in on suppliers.
As a result, the study suggests more firearms amnesties in which owners can drop off illegal guns in full anonymity with no questions asked.
"Such an approach will clearly not increase the number of arrests in the market, but it will definitely reduce the pool of illegal firearms considerably."
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