On a sunny Saturday in a shopping plaza parking lot in Atlanta, two Toronto Star reporters bought a handgun from a guy named Bob.
They met Bob online the day before, on armslist.com.
Sellers use the website to post information about their weapons and asking price and would-be buyers make contact. Like Craigslist or the newspaper classifieds.
Near where Bob parked his Grand Prix, Starbucks customers enjoyed the warm afternoon on the patio.
“It’s a good first gun if that’s what you’re looking for,” said Bob, sitting in the driver’s seat of his car. “A .25 is a perfect round to start with. No recoil . . . I think you’ll like it.”
Guns in Canada: By the numbers
Top trace states: Where the guns are coming from
The reporters, posing as Canadians recently moved to Georgia, handed him $270 for a .25-calibre German pistol, a Deutsche Werke that would sell for as much as $2,000 in Toronto. Bob described it as a “poor man’s James Bond” gun.
Cash on delivery. No background check, no identification asked for and none shown, even though federal law requires proof of state residency, such as a driver’s licence, for a private sale. No paper trail.
Cheap American handguns are flooding Toronto streets.
At least 70 per cent of all guns used in Toronto crimes are smuggled from the U.S., mostly from states with lax gun purchase laws that make it easy to buy a pistol in a pawnshop, at a gun show or in a parking lot.
Over the coming weeks, a Toronto Star investigation will take you along the handgun pipeline, from stateside supplier to mule to end user, up Interstate 75 to the porous border to Toronto.
Waiting at the end of the supply chain, where comparatively strict Canadian laws make gun possession difficult, Toronto criminals desperate for firepower — for protection, status, intimidation or worse — are willing to pay top dollar for economy brands of semi-automatics, like the gun the Star bought.
“You can get cheap handguns here in the States, and it doesn’t seem to matter to the end purchasers in Toronto what kind of guns they are. The criminals up there just want a gun. It doesn’t matter if the thing’s 40 years old,” Special Agent Mark Jackson of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the Star.
The Star scoured court cases on both sides of the border; made applications before a judge for exhibits and attended gun shows; interviewed pawnshop owners and police officers; and obtained previously unreleased data that reveal a state-by-state breakdown of where Ontario crime guns originate in the U.S. Half come from states along the I-75.
Within a short period of time The Star's David Bruser and Jayme Poisson are able to buy an undocumented hand gun in Georgia.
The lucrative trade — a gun bought for $200 in Georgia or Michigan can sell for more than 10 times as much in Toronto — involves suppliers out for fast money and border mules hiding guns in gas tanks and behind dashboards, driving their smuggled weapons along Highway 401 to buyers, even renters, many of them kids.
“Without the importing of (handguns) there would be . . . far fewer woundings, killings and charges for possession of them in the hands of the ultimate criminals who use them,” Windsor judge Joseph Donohue said last year before he sentenced a gun smuggler to three years in prison.
Once in Toronto, the guns are stashed, often in shoeboxes hidden in closets, ready to spill into neighbourhoods, malls and apartment buildings.
In the past 12 months, in venues sometimes crowded with innocent bystanders, the bullets have been wayward and indiscriminate.
A shooting in the Eaton Centre food court killed two and injured six, including a 13-year-old boy who was shot in the head while eating lunch with his family.
Two innocent bystanders were killed and 23 others — including a toddler — wounded after rival gang members opened fire at a neighbourhood block party on Danzig St.
Since the beginning of 2013, four 15-year-olds have been shot, three of them killed. Nine-year-old Brampton boy Kesean Williams died after a single bullet entered through his mother’s living room window and hit him in the head.
A woman in her 90s was used as a human shield by a young man before he was shot dead in a Cabbagetown Toronto Community Housing building for the elderly.
Then, just two weeks ago, another shooting at a mall, this time in the parking lot of the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, a 23-year-old man killed execution-style.
Meanwhile, Ontario judges are handing down stiff sentences for gun offences, saying over and again that they want to dampen the allure of these powerful weapons.
It does not seem to be working.
Toronto police seize two to three crime guns per day, increasingly from kids.
And while violent crime rates, such as homicide, have fallen over time, the rate of youth accused of gun crimes rose nearly 50 per cent between 2002 and 2008, according to Department of Justice statistics obtained by the Star.
A crime gun is defined as any gun that is possessed illegally, used or suspected to have been used in a crime, or has an obliterated serial number. While most are never seized, the majority of those taken off the street and traced to the U.S. by law enforcement in 2011 came from one of six states.
Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan all have one thing in common: they are intersected by Interstate 75, which runs north to the Detroit-Windsor border crossing and Highway 401.
In 2011, Michigan ranked first with 69 crime guns traced to that state. It was the fifth year in a row that the state topped the list. Next came Florida with 56, Ohio with 41 and Georgia with 38.
The Star traced guns from numerous criminal cases to these I-75 states, including:
In the case of a Detroit man, who used four women to smuggle guns to Windsor, seven of the handguns were originally bought at a Michigan gun store now out of business.
After police arrested a Mississauga man and found four guns hidden in a shoebox in the spare tire compartment of his trunk, one was traced to an original sale in Kentucky and another to Florida.
A Durham Region man was arrested after police found a fully automatic machine pistol with a silencer and three overcapacity magazines, two pistols and a revolver in the panel of his car door. One of those guns traced back to a sale in Tennessee, another to Georgia.
A gun stolen from the back seat of a Mercedes in a Florida parking lot and later used in a 2008 Toronto schoolyard shooting was originally bought by Joseph Dobos, a Ft. Lauderdale architect. Dobos said he had no idea where his FN Five-seven handgun ended up until called by the Star.
“That’s very strange that it would end up all the way in Canada,” he said. “Well of course I know why: nobody’s allowed to have guns in Canada, which I think is a bad thing.” It is not the first time a gun has been stolen from his car.
A few blocks from the I-75, in Jonesboro, Ga., Arrowhead Pawnshop sits near the end of a strip mall.
At Arrowhead you can buy an iPod or a Bushmaster rifle or one of a large assortment of handguns. A Walther P22 with laser sight sells for $389.99, a Ruger 9-mm for $329 and a Hi-Point 9-mm for $169.
The pawnshop is known as a leading source of out-of-state crime guns, a law enforcement source told the Star.
The Star found guns sold at this store have also made their way to Ontario.
One, a .45-calibre handgun, was found by Windsor border guards hidden behind the in-dash CD player of a Suzuki Sidekick. The other, a Taurus-brand handgun, was linked by police to a 2010 shooting of a person in Scarborough.
Whether these guns were stolen from their original legal owners, whether the initial buyers “straw-purchased” them for others or resold the guns without paperwork in a private sale (as happened when Star reporters bought a gun in an Atlanta parking lot), are unknowns.
Federal law requires sellers like Arrowhead ensure gun buyers are state residents and fill out a background check questionnaire that is then sent to the FBI for approval. It is a law the store says it follows.
“We do everything by the book . . . We follow the law to the letter of the law,” said a store employee who refused to give his name.
Asked why his store has been cited as a leading source of crime guns, he said: “How can I tell you the motives of someone else? If you walk up to my counter and say ‘I want to buy this iPod,’ I’m gonna sell it to you. What’s your motive? I don’t know what it is. As long as I follow the law when I sell it to you there’s no way for me to know what’s in someone’s mind.”
According to a 2010 report from an organization of U.S. city mayors seeking gun law reform, Georgia leads all other states in exported crime guns. The report says it’s because the state has lax gun laws.
The Star went on armslist.com looking for cheap handguns to show how easy it is to purchase a deadly weapon in the U.S. Bob’s ad was the first we responded to.
A reporter, posing as a Canadian now living in Atlanta, emailed Bob, saying he often travelled for work and wanted to buy a gun for his girlfriend so she could protect herself from intruders.
Bob emailed within a couple hours, saying: “This is probably perfect for a lady — it is not tiny and has a great feel. And of course with it being a .25 cal there is little to no recoil to make it scary for her.” Bob also included his phone number.
The reporter talked to Bob the next day and arranged a time and place to meet and possibly buy the gun that afternoon.
Sitting in his car, Bob, a hospitable, talkative man with a salt-and-pepper beard, racked the slide, showing how to operate the gun. He ejected the magazine to show it was unloaded. He demonstrated how the safety mechanism worked.
“The gun is clean. I know the history of it. It was brought back from Germany,” said Bob, who described himself as retired military. “It’s not a weapon that’s been used in a crime. It’s got no American history to it at all.”
The conversation turned to U.S. gun laws, and Bob said stricter gun laws are unnecessary. Criminals won’t buy guns legally, anyhow. “And if a person’s crazy, you can’t stop ’em,” he said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to allow debate on gun legislation, including a controversial proposal to expand background checks to private sales, like those arranged on websites or at one of the more than 4,000 gun shows held every year in the U.S.
Armslist.com hosts over 73,000 ads for firearms, and 94 per cent of them are offered by private sellers not required to conduct background checks, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Several days after the deal with Bob, the Star called and told him he had been secretly videotaped for a story on guns.
Bob said he broke no law.
“Not that I’m aware of,” he said during the phone interview. “I have no problem with what I did. Not at all.
“If you’re a hoodrat or something, I’m certainly not going to sell it to you. You were saying (it was) for your (girlfriend) for her protection. That’s an inalienable right for a person. I think it’s a personal right. I look at you guys and I had no problem with it at all because I don’t think you’re a threat to society. It’s not you or your colleague that scares me. It’s the other guy that scares me.”
After Bob sold the gun and drove away, the Star reporters arranged to have the unloaded gun turned in to the Atlanta Police Department. An officer told the Star he knows “that things in your country and mine are sometimes different” and was looking forward to reading the story.
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