When Justin Shipowich was sentenced on firearms trafficking charges in May 2018, Sgt. Eric Stewart was watching intently to see what kind of message would be sent.
Stewart heads up ALERT’s Guns and Gangs team, based in Edmonton, which investigated Shipowich’s straw purchasing case and arrested him in September 2018. Straw purchasing is the practice of buyers legally obtaining firearms and then reselling them to criminal markets.
Shipowich’s case was the first one involving straw purchasing to make its way through Alberta courts. He eventually received an eight-year prison sentence — one Stewart says is a significant message to others contemplating doing the same thing.
“We want the sentences to be hefty and high,” he said. “Once you’ve taken that step to purchase a gun and then sell it illegally, you’ve now put a gun on the street that could cause a lot of damage. You are responsible for that, and I think the sentences should be high to demonstrate that.”
In October 2018, shortly after Shipowich’s sentence was handed down, the Guns and Gangs team made an arrest in another straw purchasing case. Philip Edward Sarrasin, 26, was arrested in Calgary after handguns he allegedly bought in Calgary turned up in criminal cases as far away as Toronto.
“We’ve seen a trend lately of more straw purchasing investigations in Edmonton and northern Alberta,” Stewart said. “Why that is, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s any easier to purchase guns here than it is in B.C. or wherever. But, talking to outside agencies and other police officers, the trend has been that people come to Edmonton to purchase guns.”
Straw purchasing has been around a long time in Alberta, but activity — and thus enforcement — has picked up over the past 10 to 15 years due to a few different factors, including the increased gap in values between the Canadian and the U.S. dollar, as well as greater awareness of the practice among organized crime groups.
“From our experience, people who become straw purchasers are people that, at one point, had legitimate jobs and, in some cases, fell on hard times. They had a firearms license already, and they were exploited or identified – or maybe they reached out themselves,” Stewart said.
The guns that Stewart and his team deal with are those defined as “restricted” or “prohibited” under the Criminal Code of Canada, including all handguns, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, sawed-off shotguns, and certain types of rifles. He says they see a wide variety of those guns in their investigations.
Being the only ALERT unit specifically addressing firearms in Alberta, the Guns and Gangs team typically only takes on one straw purchasing file at a time. Stewart said these investigations are complex — more complex than drug investigations he worked on earlier in his career — with multiple search warrants and judicial authorizations needed.
But that’s where they can engage partners such as the Alberta Chief Firearms Officer’s office, the RCMP’s National Weapons Enforcement Support Team, other ALERT teams and municipal police forces. And the team has a great relationship with the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, with whom they work closely to ensure straw purchasers are brought to justice.
“Three years ago, when we rolled out the Guns and Gangs mandate, we identified that we had to establish a good relationship with the Crown prosecution,” Stewart said. “Those guys work their tails off to push these through the courts and seek those high sentences for us.”
There’s no blueprint to these firearms investigations, Stewart said – some exist on their own, while others get tangled up in drug trafficking and other crimes. “We initiate the investigation on the firearms offences, but as it unravels and continues, you might identify other offences.”
While Stewart doesn’t think straw purchasing will be eradicated anytime soon, he says law enforcement agencies are willing to learn from each other to help curb the practice, and he hopes they’ll be able to share data more efficiently in the future to work toward their goals. “It’s a privilege to own a gun, not a right,” he said.