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Canada can change its gun laws, but can't stop the smuggling of guns from the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A bill before Canada's parliament would freeze the sale, import and transfer of handguns. It would also increase penalties for smuggling firearms. As Emma Jacobs reports, one of the most difficult challenges for Canada is not necessarily the guns at home but the guns being smuggled across its border with the United States.

SKY STARR: Just go up on my desk. You want to see, please?

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Reverend Sky Starr asked her son to grab a printout from her desk - the latest gun violence figures released by Toronto Police. Starr counsels families of victims of gun violence.

STARR: Thanks a lot - appreciate it.

JACOBS: Canada's rate of gun homicides is still about a 10th of the United States', but shootings have been trending upwards.

STARR: Gun homicides are even worse. It's a 66.7% increase.

JACOBS: And as of the beginning of June, she reads, homicides, mostly committed with handguns, had risen sharply in the past year. Just a few weeks ago, Starr says she led a funeral for a 24-year-old who had been shot.

STARR: When I saw this youth was kneeling at the casket, and he was praying.

JACOBS: The next morning, she says, she learned he'd been shot and killed overnight.

STARR: Even for me, knowing that this could happen at any time, I couldn't even fathom that.

JACOBS: Canada's latest proposed gun control bill would cap the domestic handgun supply, freezing new sales and transfers. But it also notably raises penalties for smuggling guns.

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MYRON DEMKIW: Our problem in Toronto are handguns from the United States.

JACOBS: Toronto Police Service Deputy Chief Myron Demkiw spoke during parliamentary hearings on gun violence in February. For Toronto and other police forces, one of the biggest priorities is more effective controls at the border.

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DEMKIW: In 2021, 86% of crime handguns that could be sourced were from the United States.

JACOBS: Gun violence doesn't look the same across Canada. In rural areas, shootings most often involve shotguns or rifles. Jooyoung Lee is an American sociologist who studies gun violence, now a professor at the University of Toronto.

JOOYOUNG LEE: The laws in many states very near the border are quite porous and easy to circumvent if you want to possess a gun and then reroute it into the illicit market.

JACOBS: He says the other priority should be prevention, especially in the areas where handgun violence occurs most.

LEE: Racially marginalized, underserved communities. And so that would mean investing in those places, supporting young people - it tends to be young men who are at the greatest risk of being an offender or a victim in a shooting - so that they don't go down that path.

JACOBS: These were precisely the sorts of programs disrupted by the pandemic, says Audette Shephard, who became an anti-violence advocate after her own son, Justin, was shot in 2001.

AUDETTE SHEPHARD: A lot of young people basically were kind of just left on their own. By the time somebody gets caught breaking those legislations, somebody's child is already dead. So I am still on the fence.

JACOBS: Another parent-turned-activist is Ken Price. His daughter Samantha was one of 15 people shot in the busy Danforth neighborhood of Toronto in July of 2018. She survived, but two victims died. The gunman's handgun turned out to have been stolen from a shop in another province.

KEN PRICE: Guns are coming across the border illegally from the United States, but taking the handguns out of the domestic supply will definitely help in Canada. It's just that simple.

JACOBS: And he hopes it will be preventative to keep Canada from ever approaching the number of mass shootings in the United States.

PRICE: Which was already offensive and shocking and frightening, quite frankly, as a permanent state in society.

JACOBS: Canada can't control America's gun laws. It can change its own. But as long as there's a thriving gun market in the United States, the challenge will be enormous. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.