OTTAWA — The mayor of Canada's biggest city is stressing the need for more money and stronger laws to fight the scourge of gang-related gun violence.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said Wednesday that while Canada generally has tight controls on firearms, there are "some holes that exist in that system."
Measures should be toughened to ensure authorities are notified when gun traffickers make repeat purchases of firearms that end up being sold to criminals who kill, Tory told a national conference on guns and gangs.
"When people are buying multiple guns in any number at all there should be a red flag."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale convened the meeting of government, police, community and Indigenous representatives against the backdrop of some troubling statistics.
The number of firearm-related homicides in Canada hit 223 in 2016 — up 44 from 2015, and the third consecutive annual increase. There were 141 gang-related homicides in 2016, 45 more than the previous year. Meantime, break-and-enters to steal guns have been rising.
The federal government has earmarked more than $327 million over five years, and $100 million a year thereafter, to address criminal gun and gang activities.
The government is also preparing legislation to strengthen controls on the movement, licensing and tracing of firearms — measures that would repeal some elements of a bill passed by the previous Conservative government.
One of the common messages to emerge from the meeting is the need for a collaborative effort, Goodale told a news conference. "Co-ordination is absolutely essential here."
Rob O'Reilly, interim director of firearms regulatory services at the RCMP, told the meeting about the dark, hidden corners of the internet where high-powered weapons can be purchased anonymously.
Conservative MP Glen Motz, a conference attendee, expressed concern about the trend. "You can go on the web right now, and you can order almost anything you want, and it's delivered to your door."
Tory said he hopes some of the new federal money will find its way to Toronto and other cities to help with "staying ahead of the bad guys on the internet, or even giving us the tools to have a fair fight with them."
He praised a program in suburban Scarborough that's trying to steer kids clear of gangs, but with federal financial support that could run out after August. "There are people in this room from that organization who are uncertain as to whether that funding is going to be continued."
The idea is to get the federal money to where the problems are "most acute," while respecting different regional needs, Goodale said. He also stressed the importance of healthy communities that make vulnerable young people less susceptible to the "insidious lure" of gang activity.
The government must update the law to ensure police have "timely and consistent" access to telecommunications subscriber information as well as the ability to intercept messages and calls in the age of strong encryption, said Mario Harel, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
"This is critical to maintaining the ability of law enforcement to investigate gangs and other criminal organizations."
Goodale indicated such legislation would not come soon, pointing to the complexity of the issue as well as privacy concerns.
A change the federal government has been mulling would allow authorities to more quickly identify people considered unfit to have guns for reasons such as mental instability or violent behaviour, an internal memo shows.
The Liberals are planning to introduce legislation in coming weeks to fulfil platform promises on firearms — including a requirement for "enhanced background checks" for anyone seeking to buy a handgun or other restricted gun.
The federal memo, released under the Access to Information Act, indicates the government could go further, beefing up screening of those who already have guns "by allowing authorities to reassess licence eligibility in a more timely fashion."
Under the current application and renewal process, personal information helps determine whether someone is eligible for a firearms licence. In addition, "continuous eligibility screening" means criminal behaviour can be flagged for the federal chief firearms officer for review and possible investigation.
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Federal statistics show 2,223 firearms licences were revoked in 2016, with mental health concerns figuring in 424 of these cases.
Certain professionals such as doctors, therapists and social workers have discretion to inform police of behaviour indicating that someone might harm themselves or another individual with a gun, notes the federal memo prepared for a May 2017 meeting of the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee, which provides advice to the government.
The memo, intended to generate discussion among committee members, also cites a Quebec law that requires people working at childcare facilities, schools and shooting clubs to report such behaviour to police. "Identifying individuals who are no longer eligible for a firearms licence as quickly as possible and ensuring they can no longer access firearms is an important public safety objective."
The government needs to ensure "the right balance" between privacy rights and public safety, the memo adds.
Some approval from firearms community
The federal plans to crack down on the illicit gun trade and gang violence has won approval from some representatives of the firearms community. But they are wary of measures that would impose new burdens on legitimate owners or merchants.
On background checks, Goodale noted a need to be practical and fair to gun owners.
Firearms organizations are framing the issue in a way that denies any connection between gun control and illegal guns or violent crime, says the group PolySeSouvient, composed of graduates and students of Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique, where 14 women were gunned down in 1989.
"Virtually all the guns used in mass shootings in Canada in recent history were legally owned at the time of the shooting," the group says. "While illegal guns definitely pose a risk to public safety, so do legal guns."