Arms trafficking is an insider job

"If I want a Smith and Wesson, a knock-off just won't do," says a seasoned arms dealer in prison to criminologist Carlo Morselli, who seeks to shed light on how the criminal underworld acquires prohibited guns and riflesillegal firearms are circulated in Quebec. The comment is taken from one of the 220 interviews Morselli and his team at the Université de Montréal conducted between 2010 and 2012 in federal institutions with prisoners convicted of serious crimes. A third of respondents (78) reported at least one illegal transaction to obtain a firearm. A total of 606 weapons were exchanged during 477 transactions. “Is it true that arms trafficking passes through Aboriginal communities or organized crime? If not, how is it organized? These are questions we wanted to explore with first-line clientele,” says the Associate Director of the International Centre for Comparative Criminology (ICCC) at the Université de Montréal, who made public part of his research at the UdeM's School of Criminology on December 3.


Those who think that guns are generally traded through organized networks, somewhat like drugs, will be surprised to know that this is not the most common procedure, says the specialist. “Arms trafficking is more often a question of informal personal networks,” he says.

Acquiring a gun is a difficult task, even if one is willing to pay the price. One respondent said that the process lasted two years in his case. “You can't just call someone up and say ‘Hey, can you sell me a gun?' You have to get in touch with people you've known for a long time, and even they may be suspicious. They could get angry that you're asking them to sell you a gun,” he says.

In other words, the best way to get a gun is to know someone who knows someone. Criminals are therefore better off calling an old friend who has committed armed robbery than knocking on the door of an organized crime boss, who may not be too happy about hearing such a request.

That being said, the transaction can go faster if you know the right people. For example, one criminal whose business was running smoothly felt he needed a handgun for protection. “My cousin went to see one of his biker friends and brought me back a gun about a week later.”

It seems that money is not the main issue. In fact, payments are more often made through barter. The choice of weapons, on the other hand, is limitless. “You can find anything on the illegal market, from submachine guns to Berrettas to Russian AK-47s,” notes Morselli.

Closed networks limit circulation

Although the survey did inquire into this matter, For the interviews, Morselli's principal interest was not interested in knowing if the guns were used or for which reasons. The purpose of the survey was not about weapons use, although the study did shed some light on the matter. Previous studies, however, have shown that gun owners are often in close proximity to each othercorrespond to a particular type of person.: “Armed criminals are surrounded by armed people. It is part of the group culture. Most often, though, guns are instrumental. They are used to intimidate and control members without a shot being fired. In many cases, guns are said to be needed for protection. Criminals want them, even if they don't intend to use them."

Morselli, who in 2011 won an award from the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime for his book Inside Criminal Networks (Springer), approaches the criminal world in an original way. How does one get prisoners to speak freely about such a delicate topic? “We try to create a climate of mutual trust,” replies the criminologist. Interviews are not recorded and the subjects freely consent to participate. The interviewer is not there to approve or disapprove of the phenomenon but to listen. Some interviews were stretched over two hours.

The investigation into illegal arms traffickinggun circulation continues with other, unimprisoned consumers in this particular market, armed criminals. Professor Morselli is not new to the subject. His master's thesis, submitted in 1996, dealt with firearms control and illegal firearms markets.

Appropriate legislation

Findings indicate that people generally acquire Data collection revealed this aspect oftheir illegal firearms througharms trafficking based on a networks of closed cliques and insiders. “This is probably the biggest surprise of my investigation,” says the researcher.

This aspect of trafficking (existence of a closed and not open network) no doubt limits the number of gun-related incidents. Indeed, the scientific literature indicates that although open or competitive networks lead to greater gains, they also lead to a larger number of guns in circulation. Closed networks should have the opposite trend bBecause it is more difficult to obtain a gun, and because trust between people is more important than getting a good deal – thus,, the number of guns remains low.

The good news is that legislation does not seem inappropriate in light of this information gathered by the criminologists. “The laws seem quite effective in my eyes. The system is not free of prohibited weapons, but since they do not leave the network, a form of self-regulation is created in the milieu.”

This article is a translation of a document originally published in French by Mathieu-Robert Sauvé

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