Tuesday, December 13, 2016

An unlikely buyer's arsenal of restricted weapons, and their journey to criminals' hands

My piece from The Tyee


Canada is supposed to have tough gun laws. So how did a struggling Courtenay man with affiliations to organized crime legally accumulate 49 restricted firearms?
And how did some of his weapons end up in the hands of criminals?
Bryce McDonald was sent to jail for three years and four months in November. The sentencing decisionwas posted on the BC Supreme Court website this month.
And Justice Robin Baird was puzzled by McDonald’s ability to get permits to buy so many weapons that are supposedly tightly controlled.
Especially as McDonald had first applied for a permit to buy a restricted weapon in 2006 and the federal firearms officer repeatedly rejected his applications over the next three years.
Not too surprisingly. McDonald was 24 then. He had been hit by a car when he was 19, and badly injured — fractured skull, broken bones. When he came to in hospital he remembered nothing about his life. He had to learn everything again — how to walk, talk, eat, care for himself. He suffered from chronic pain and the effects of his head injury, and lived on a “modest disability pension.” He had a dated conviction for uttering threats. And the firearms officer was troubled that McDonald had a medical marijuana grow licence. Restricted weapons and a grow op, even a legal one, were a bad combination, he thought.
But “for reasons which I have yet to grasp,” Baird said, in late 2009 the firearms officer changed his mind. He accepted McDonald’s argument that he was keen on the challenge of learning how to shoot a variety of guns on a range. McDonald got permission to buy restricted weapons, but was required to store them somewhere other than his home.
Restricted weapons are supposed to be hard to get. But McDonald, an unlikely candidate, seemed to have no problem building a formidable arsenal.
Canada has three classes of firearms. Non-restricted are the basic rifles and shotguns used for hunting or target practice or killing sick livestock on a farm. They are easy to get — a little safety training, a background check and four-week waiting period and you’re good to go.
Prohibited are automatic weapons, sawed off shotguns and easily concealed handguns, the kind of weapons criminals want. You can’t legally acquire them, though many owners were allowed to keep them under “grandfathering” provisions that covered existing weapons when gun laws were tightened in 1998.
And restricted weapons — most handguns, semi-automatic rifles, short-barrel shotguns, assault-style weapons — fall in between. You need a special permit to own them, and a reason — target shooting, gun collecting, your job or, rarely, protection. You have to take a course and undergo a more detailed background check, and there are rules about where you can store the weapons. McDonald was barred from keeping them in his home; he had to store them at a separate location.
But McDonald somehow passed all those hurdles. In 2009, according to evidence at his trial, he bought his first restricted weapon, a Springfield Armory XD45 Tactical Semi-Auto Pistol described in ads as “meant for law enforcement, home defence, field carry and tactical deployments.”
In 2010, he added three new guns to his collection, including a , described as “ideal for law enforcement, home defence or concealed carry.” It comes with a laser sight; just tag your target with the red dot and squeeze the trigger.
He bought nine more restricted weapons in 2011 and five in 2012. And in 2013, he bought 31 — 19 in three months, five handguns in one day on Sept. 9, 2013. No one checked to see why he was stockpiling so many guns, or if he still had them. (McDonald had said he wanted the restricted weapons because he liked the challenge of mastering different guns on the shooting range. The judge noted that the purchase of 10 Glock handguns — many the same or similar — hardly seemed consistent with that claim.)
Eight days after the five-gun purchase, things started to unravel. A Lower Mainland homicide squad got a tip about a bag of guns dumped in Surrey. A rifle turned out to be one of McDonald’s restricted weapons; he had never reported it missing, as required under the law.
Three months later — a period in which McDonald bought 13 more restricted weapons — police finally arrested him. They searched the designated storage location, and there were no guns. In his house, police found seven weapons. The other 42 weapons were missing — a “curious and sobering thing,” Justice Baird said. (In fact, the Canadian Firearms Centre had concerns about McDonald as early as March; their only response was to call him and accept his assurances that he was following the rules.)
McDonald suggested police must have taken them, or didn’t see them when they searched and left the doors of his house open and someone else stole them.
Then the guns started turning up at crime scenes — “more or less inevitably,” Baird noted.
On June 16, 2014, RCMP responded to a Burnaby home invasion. The suspects fled, but police found their vehicle — and a loaded Sturm Ruger semi-automatic handgun registered to McDonald. On June 21, the RCMP responded to shooting at Brentwood Mall in Burnaby. Weeks later a suspect turned himself in and handed over the gun he had used, another handgun from McDonald’s armoury.
In January 2015, Vancouver police arrested a man for shoplifting and found he was packing three Glocks, two from McDonald’s arsenal. In June a man was arrested driving a stolen vehicle in Vancouver. The suspect had two Glocks in a bag. They weren’t McDonald’s, but a search of the suspect’s home found a Beretta 96A1 handgun — offering “Ultimate Tactical Power,”according to the company — that he had purchased.
And in February this year, Calgary police investigating a violent home invasion found the suspects had another Glock from McDonald’s Courtenay collection.
All of which raises the question of just how restricted these weapons are if someone like McDonald can buy several dozens of them, ignore his permit requirements and come up with no explanation when they started showing up at crime scenes.
There are a lot of them out there. There were 796,000 restricted weapons in Canadian communities in 2015, according to the RCMP, 145,000 in British Columbia. (Plus 183,000 prohibited weapons.)
And the number of restricted weapons has increased dramatically — doubling from 399,000 in 2005. (There were 7.7 million legal guns in Canada in 2010.)
People who think it’s a bad thing to have twice as many restricted weapons in their neighbourhoods — whether in the hands of McDonald or some more responsible gun buff — tend to blame Stephen Harper. And the Conservative government did make it easier to own guns, including restricted weapons. It killed the long gun registry in 2012, and Bill C-42, passed in 2015, reduced the regulations on owning and transporting restricted weapons and reduced the ability of provincial firearms officers to control access.
And the Liberals so far have failed to deliver on their 2015 campaign promise to “take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets.” They pledged to repeal sections of C-42 that reduced regulations around transporting restricted and prohibited weapons, require enhanced background checks for people buying restricted weapons and implement regulations requiring dealers to mark guns so they were easier to trace.
So far, none of that has happened.
McDonald was sentenced to 40 months in penitentiary for failing to store his weapons properly. (He also was convicted for possessing brass knuckles and cocaine possession.)

But his guns are still out there. And so, presumably, are other people stockpiling arsenals of weapons that are supposed to be hard to get.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

OK everybody, that sucked. Now, back to work

I confess to despair watching the U.S. election results last night. I turned off the television before 9:30 p.m., knowing Donald Trump would win but thinking I'd sleep better if there was the faint hope of a different outcome. (I didn't.) My partner refused to watch any of the coverage, choosing to work and play accordion while instructing me not to share any information.

I'm not usually deeply invested in election results, beyond a desire to see governments punished for bad, corrupt or insulting behaviour. There are important differences between parties but, broadly, the country or province won't generally be dramatically transformed in four years no matter who governs.

The U.S. election was different. And the results were profoundly troubling. Especially as I've spent a long time working as a journalist based on the belief that people, given good information, would make good decisions. That didn't happen.

I reflect on all that in my Tyee piece here.


Thursday, November 03, 2016

Sorry, have we met? Adventures in face blindness

Have we met? You look familiar
The New Yorker ran a fascinating story about “super-recognizers,” focusing on a small Scotland Yard team whose skills let them identify suspects among hundreds of faces in the murkiest surveillance videos.

And it included a link to the Cambridge Face Memory Test, one of the tools used to assess officers’ ability to recognize faces. 

The test is about 20 minutes. At the end, you get your result, and this message. “The average score on this test is around 80 per cent correct responses for adult participants. A score of 60 per cent or below may indicate face blindness."

I scored 57 per cent. 

That’s hardly a surprise. I once spotted an acquaintance, a movie reviewer, at a repertory cinema. “Surprising to find you here in the evening, when it’s so similar to your work.” I said. “At least you won’t have to write about it.” I asked about the movie, him being an expert and all, and the entire conversation was based on his work and knowledge of film.

Except he wasn’t the movie critic, but one of his co-workers who looked vaguely like him and and must have struggled tremendously to follow my misdirected comments.

Bumping into another acquaintance at an art opening, I exchanged pleasantries while wondering why he seemed to be cowering in fear. My partner reminded me that I had berated him — with uncharacteristic venom — for an ethical failing a few months earlier. 

And too many times, in my corporate days, I introduced myself to someone at a schmoozing event, only to have him say “yes, I know, you introduced yourself to me 10 minutes ago.”

And those ignore the countless social blunders I never even recognized, and the ones too embarrassing to share.

I was relieved to learn six years ago that I wasn’t just inattentive or indifferent to others when Oliver Sacks wrote about his much more extreme case of prosopagnosia, as it is called, also in the New Yorker.

And it was useful to know that my earlier efforts to learn how to become better at remembering people’s names were doomed. If you don’t remember faces, you certainly can’t put names to them.

I can recognize people if they are part of my life, of course. Context helps tremendously, and so does distinctive appearance or clues like clothing or voices.

And name tags. I wish everyone had to wear name tags, or even better have their names tattooed on their foreheads. That would be a double win, as I could pretend to make eye contact while figuring out who they are.

On the positive side, I’m friendly. When introduced to someone with the common “Do you two know each other?,” I always nod enthusiastically, just in case. I smile at strangers, because they generally look vaguely familiar and might be someone I know. (And because I do believe greeting everyone cheerfully - common in Central America - is preferable to Victorians’ fierce determination to avoid all contact with anyone they encounter. My cheery greetings while walking just seem to alarm people here.)

Some cases of prosopagnosia, following a brain injury or stroke, are fairly easily understood. But the much more common developmental form continues to be mostly a mystery.

It’s hardly a giant disability, especially if you can develop skills to cope.

But our world does value social relationships, those networks of acquaintances and business associates and friends that ease the way through life. And people who can’t recognize people have a much harder time maintaining those loose relationships. And their - our - inability to recognize an acquaintance can seem rude or arrogant.

Sacks notes that up to 10 per cent of people are affected to some degree by face blindness, a rate similar to dyslexia. But, he adds, while we’re aware of the challenges facing dyslexic children, and their strengths, and providing supports, the problems of people with prosopagnosia are ignored.  

It’s not that a big deal for me. (Though, as the researchers note, I have no idea how other people see faces, so maybe it is and I just don't know it.) 

But I’m pretty smart and educated. I had the chance to develop all sorts of coping skills. I’ve figured out how to pretend I recognize people who seem entirely unfamiliar, and decipher identity clues. 

What about people without those advantages? Are they just bewildered and weirdly awkward, with all of the consequences that brings?

Maybe we can talk about this when next we meet. If I recognize you.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Postmedia's strange $50-million bet on Mogo

I wrote about information inequality for The Tyee this week, looking at what's happening as traditional news media fade to black and new business models emerge based on providing high-value information to people and organizations that can pay high prices.

You can read it here.

As part of the research I went through Postmedia's financial report on the last fiscal year, released last week.

It was grim, which is unsurprising given Postmedia's five years of failure to find a solution to the collapse of its business. Revenue down, no positive news and a strategy based on "aggressive and accelerated cost-cutting" and transforming the business model from "selling audience to selling performance marketing solutions and outcomes."

Which could apply to thousands of businesses, from one-person marketing firms to giant media companies, in all sorts of fields.

Postmedia's deal this year with Mogo Finance Technology represents an early attempt to sell "outcomes." In January, Postmedia announced it would provide $50 million worth of "media value" to Mogo over three years — $15 million this year. That's a big boost for a company that spent less than $11 million on marketing last year, but has dreams of becoming the Uber of consumer loans and personal finance.

If the ads and marketing works, Postmedia hopes to benefit from a revenue-sharing deal and a chance to buy Mogo shares at a fixed price.

But the revenue sharing, based on the information available, is likely to provide about $3.5 million to Postmedia this year — less than one-quarter of the value of the services it's providing to Mogo.

And any chance to cash in on an increase in the value of Mogo shares looks remote. Postmedia negotiated a deal that gave it the right to purchase 1.2 million Mogo shares at a price of $2.96, their value at the time of the deal.

Since then, Mogo's share price has fallen by more than 50 per cent, to $1.36. Postmedia's share options are worthless.

On one hand, at least Postmedia is trying something new.

But it is a little puzzling that a company that couldn't figure out its own business has decided it has the expertise to pick winners in entirely unrelated fields.

And while there is no cash at risk, Postmedia's commitment of $50 million in ads and services does involve both real costs and its reputation.

Combine Mogo's ad budget and the contribution from Postmedia and the small company has a marketing budget equal to BC Lotteries, which spent $26 million on advertising and marketing last year. That was enough to encourage British Columbians to lose $2.4 billion - $6.6 million a day - gambling.

If Postmedia's giant marketing contribution doesn't produce results — if you haven't heard of Mogo by now, for example — that undermines the corporation's claims of effectiveness.

Postmedia has already been slashing print advertising rates, down 16 per cent in the last two years, reflecting both its falling circulation and fierce competition from giants like Facebook and Google. If the $50-million boost for Mogo doesn't produce real results, it will be even harder to convince other companies Postmedia should be part of their marketing budget.

But what do I know? Postmedia's board extended CEO Paul Godfrey's contract Tuesday. It was to expire in 2018; now he's to stay on to the end of 2020. Despite five years of decline, an inability to deliver on plans to revitalize the business and massive losses in shareholder value, somebody thinks Godfrey remains the person to lead Postmedia into what is likely its brief future.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Coca in Peru and Colombia, and the stupidity of the war on drugs



"Why are Peru, Colombia Coca Numbers Going in Opposite Directions?"
That was the headline on a recent Insight Crime report. I am a fan of the site, which focuses on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, offering valuable reporting and analysis.
But the answer to the question posed in that headline seems obvious.
Cocaine demand isn't going down. Market forces mean suppliers will find ways to meet the demand.
So if Peru is producing less coca, the leaves that end up as cocaine, Colombia or some other country will be producing more.
And Peru is producing less, thanks to government eradication campaigns. "Peru has reduced coca cultivation by almost one-third in the last five years, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and in 2015 the country registered the lowest amount of coca sown in the last 15 years," the website reports.
But across the border in Colombia, things are different. Colombia went through its own eradication campaigns, cutting coca cultivation in half between 2007 and 2012.
The graph with the article shows the result. As Peru's cultivation went down, Colombia's increased to help meet the global demand for cocaine.
In 2011, the two countries had about the same number of hectares under coca cultivation, for a combined total of 126,200.
Last year, Peru's cultivation had been reduced by about 22,000 hectares and Colombia's had increased by 32,000 hectares. The combined total was 136,300.
The article offers some explanations for the trends, including community resistance to eradication efforts in Colombia and the involvement of FARC's left-wing guerrillas in production.
But the underlying reality has been established through almost a century of failed, wildly expensive efforts to deal with drug issues by limiting supply.
Cut production in one area, and another country will increase production to fill the gap. Make it harder to get heroin, and users will turn to prescription opiates. Crack down on the availability of those drugs, and fentanyl emerges as a more deadly alternative.
Attacking the supply side of the drug equation didn't work when the U.S. introduced Prohibition to end alcohol sales in 1920. It hasn't worked in the 45 years since U.S. president Richard Nixon announced a war on drugs.
Yet governments, including Canada, continue the costly, futile and ultimately destructive efforts, ignoring the obvious evidence of their failure, and the terrible damage that has been done.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The sad story of the little railway that couldn't

I wrote about the Island Corridor Foundation and the E&N rail line for The Tyee.
You can read the piece here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letter from Managua: The working life

Our house has a room for a servant.
Well, not a room really. More like a cell. Nine feet long, less than six feet wide. There’s a single bed and sink, toilet and shower. A small window high up on one wall, three hooks to hang clothes.
We don’t have a ‘chica,’ the term generally used for the woman - usually young - who cleans the house, cooks meals and looks after the children.
Better a bad job than no job
In Honduras, Rosa came once a week to clean. Often, she brought her children. On cleaning days, I tidied the house before they got there and then went to buy soft drinks for her and any children who showed up. (I’m not using her real name.)
We didn’t need anyone to clean our small house. But Rosa was a single mom. Her husband, her charming nine-year-old daughter told me soon after we met, drank too many beers, dove into the river near their tiny house, hit his head on a rock and died. We visited their house just before we left - two rooms, dirt floor, concrete block walls, wood cooking fire, water from a tap just down the hill, broken treadle sewing machine out the back. Rosa had taken a sewing course and invited us to her graduation, where she wore a pale blue satin dress she had made. 
Here in Nicaragua, house cleaners are entitled to a minimum wage of $235 a month Canadian. That’s for a six-day work week, 12 hours a day. About 75 cents an hour. And employers can deduct up to 50 per cent for room and board.
We don’t need, or want a cleaner. I’d feel guilty about paying too little, foolish paying too much for a service I didn’t even want and hate the idea of sharing our house. But I know the job, poorly paid or not, would have been welcomed by someone.
A Cuso International placement plunks you into the middle of life in another country. You move beyond the statistics about GDP per capita ($42,000 in Canada and $4,500 here) and begin to understand what it means to live in a poor country. 
The Nicaraguan government sets minimum wages for different types of jobs. They increased eight or nine per cent this year, a jump that met the business community’s desire to avoid double-digit raises, but reflected the need to increase incomes, a six-per-cent inflation rate and the fact this is an election year.
The highest paid category - people who work in construction or financial institutions - has a minimum salary of $335 a month. Agricultural workers have a minimum wage of $150, government workers about $190. 
Some people are paid above the minimum wage, of course. But most are paid less. About 70 per cent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economy and minimum wages and other labour rules don’t apply. 
It’s a poor country. Second poorest in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank, ahead of perpetually lowest-ranked Haiti. And I have seen really poor people, living in houses of sticks and mud, sometimes worse.
But there are people with money here. We can walk to a mall and see a movie in a theatre nicer than any in Victoria. People line up for $4 lattes, and restaurants with prices in American dollars do well. Another mall has just completed a $36 million expansion with some flashy clothes stores. I’m going to buy a few shirts from Pull and Bear before we head to Canada. 
Partly, the issue is inequality. In Canada, the people in the top 20 per cent have an average income about six times as great as the people in the bottom 20 per cent. In Nicaragua, they have an average income 11 times higher. 
All of which makes development work interesting. A focus on getting people into the labour market isn’t necessarily productive, given low wages and limited opportunity. CATIE, my organization, is working on increasing incomes and food security for rural agricultural families. That makes sense.
More than one-third of Nicaraguans have a different solution in mind. A survey last month found 36 per cent of Nicaraguans were interested in emigrating. (Down from 52 per cent a year ago.) But they don’t want to stay away - more than 60 per cent of those interested in emigrating saw it as a way to make enough money to come home and start a business (38 per cent), pay debts or buy a house, or as an opportunity to study and improve their skills before returning to Nicaragua.
Which suggests Canada’s biggest development contribution could be opening the door a bit wider for people just looking for a chance to get ahead.