Gun crime spikes as firearms become easier to get, Winnipeg police chief says

Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said the emergence of so-called “straw purchases,” or licensed gun owners buying firearms and selling them to people who wouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun themselves, has been one of the most recent driving factors behind the increase in gun violence in the city. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Crimes involving guns are on the rise in Winnipeg, according to numbers released by Winnipeg police Friday.

In the last four years, crimes where a firearm was involved increased by 66 per cent — up from 192 in 2014 to 319 in 2018. Of these incidents, three-quarters were robberies and just over one-fifth were shootings.

Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said the emergence of so-called “straw purchases,” or licensed gun owners buying firearms and selling them to people who wouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun themselves, has been one of the most recent driving factors behind the increase in gun violence in the city.

He said the proliferation of homemade firearms is another recent development police have been dealing with.

“That was new,” Smyth said of the improvised weapons, often called zip guns. “None of us could ever recall that before.”

During the same four-year period, there was also a 114 per cent increase in shootings — a jump from 44 in 2014 to 94 in 2018. Data on shootings in 2019 is incomplete since the year is not over, but police said shootings this year are expected to meet or surpass last year’s number.

Smyth said by tracking and analyzing data through the guns and gangs unit, which was formed earlier this year, police have been able to quantify these types of trends in crime.

Winnipeg police seized 11 improvised firearms from a West End house in May, and said it was the largest number of homemade guns they had ever found in one location. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

“[It’s] a dynamic that we haven’t really been able to comment before on beyond anecdotal [evidence], and now we actually have evidence,” he said. “We’re just in a better position now.”

There has also been a marked increase in gun seizures, according to the numbers released by the police: from 825 seizures in 2016 and 1,195 in 2017, to 1,771 in 2018. So far in 2019, there have been 916 gun seizures in Winnipeg, and police said they expect this number to meet or surpass the 1,771 guns seized last year.

Smyth said the formation of the force’s firearms investigation and enforcement unit has helped tackle the city’s illicit gun trade by reducing the backlog of firearms waiting to be examined from 800 to 581.

He said Manitoba’s recent provincial election kept some community safety issues, like the impacts of methamphetamine, in the public eye. Now that the province’s new legislature has been elected, he said he hopes to see some action.

“I think every party that was running made that part of their platform. The results are [in], now it’s time to get to work,” said Smyth. “I look forward to some of those things being executed.”

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