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RCMP labs make more cuts to firearms testing

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The RCMP’s national forensic labs have further reduced the circumstances under which they’ll accept firearms for examination

Surrey RCMP display seized guns during a 2017 investigation. Jason Payne / PNG

The RCMP is further cutting the number of guns used in crimes that will be sent to national forensic labs for analysis, Postmedia has learned.

And that means that in some cases, criminals caught with illegal firearms may not face any charges related to the guns.

Postmedia revealed last week that the RCMP’s ability to test firearms had declined in recent years due to lab cuts, leading to long delays in investigations.

Retired RCMP Asst. Commissioner Wayne Rideout, who heads the B.C. government’s Illegal Firearms Task Force, confirmed last week that the lab cuts are impacting some criminal cases.

A report he released in November 2017 recommended that the provincial government build its own firearms tracing hub, which has not yet been done.

Now, Postmedia has also learned that further limits on forensic testing were imposed just last week.

The new directive at the national RCMP labs means that guns seized by police in the course of an investigation of an unrelated crime — such as a robbery where the gun was not used — won’t be sent to be examined.

Neither will firearms seized by Canada Border Services Agency officers from suspected smugglers, or firearms taken by police during investigations of suicides, attempted suicides or incidents of domestic violence.

And if someone is being investigated for pointing a firearm, that gun will not be sent for forensic examination unless the person has a known association to organized crime or a previous criminal record.

Likewise, if a suspect found with a gun is being investigated for possession of a controlled substance, the gun will not be tested under the new guideline.

If any seized firearm has been discharged during a crime or has an obliterated serial number, it would still be sent to the lab for forensic examination.

But if a loaded firearm is found away from a crime scene by a passerby, it would not be tested, even if it might have been used in a murder somewhere else.

Liberal MLA and former Mountie Mike Morris said that when he was solicitor-general, he was seeking solutions to the lab capacity problem — including the possibility of building a B.C.-owned lab.

“That whole issue is a mess and it all goes back to the deficit-reduction plan of the previous Conservative government and the cutback on federal resources,” Morris said Wednesday.

Cutting the number of seized firearms that are processed is “a step in the wrong direction,” he said.

“Things are falling off the table with the underfunding of the RCMP federally. It’s affecting what we do in this province. We have seen a number of prosecutions that have gone sideways.”

When not enough resources are put into criminal cases, “shortcuts are being taken which compromise the investigation at the end of the day,” Morris said.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Tania Vaughan said in an emailed response from Ottawa that the reduction in lab capacity stems from federal budget cuts in 2014-2015 that led to the National Forensic Laboratory Services going from six facilities down to three — only two of which examine firearms.

“Due to employees choosing not to relocate after the laboratory consolidation within the Firearms and Toolmark Identification (FTI) section, NFLS had to undertake a capacity re-building exercise in FTI over the last several years,” Vaughan said. “Building or re-building capacity is a gradual process.”

She said lab staff work with investigators to determine if a request for examination is “routine” or a “priority.”

In 2017-2018, the average time to complete a routine case was 238 days, she said, while priority cases were completed in an average of 26 days.

The most recent stats available for the first quarter of the 2018-2019 fiscal year show that “the average turnaround time for a routine firearms service request was 158 days,” Vaughan said.

But sources say the numbers are not accurate as some investigators ask for the firearms to be returned before the examination is complete due to the lengthy delays. Those firearms are not included in the statistics.

Vaughan had no specific response about the new directive that reduces the circumstances under which crime guns will be accepted for testing.

kbolan@postmedia.com

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