The border crossing between the U.S. and Canada in Houlton. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Almost 10 months after Canada’s worst mass shooting, the United States and Canada are trying to address weaknesses on the border that allowed a Nova Scotia man to smuggle multiple guns from Houlton into New Brunswick.

During the attacks, 51-year-old gunman Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people and set several fires in Canada’s deadliest rampage on record before police killed him. Wortman, who was a denturist in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, illegally acquired several of the guns, including an AR-15 assault-style rifle, in Houlton, which he then smuggled successfully into Canada.

While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection targets outbound smuggling — which is smuggling from the U.S. to another country — the responsibility of preventing contraband items from entering Canada largely falls on the Canadian Border Services Agency.

Wortman, who reportedly had a Nexus card — issued to lower risk border crossers that allows them less stringent searches — had complained to CBSA agents about having to be constantly searched. He received an apology, according to the court records.

More funding has been given to the Canadian agency in recent years to help combat gun smuggling, Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage, a spokesperson for the CBSA, said.

“As smugglers are increasingly utilizing more sophisticated concealment methods in smuggling attempts, the CBSA employs a number of tools and tradecraft to stem the flow of illegal and prohibited materials into Canada,” he said. “Guided by intelligence, our officers are also assisted by contraband detection tools such as handheld devices, small scale and large-scale X-ray machines, detector dogs, and many other resources.”

The CBSA was granted $92.9 million in funding for a program known as the Initiative to Take Action Against Gun and Gang Violence, beginning in the 2018-19 fiscal year, Brissette Lesage said. The border agency used the funding for additional detector dog service teams at various ports of entry, and a specialized course to heighten officer training on searching vehicles.

The number of firearms seized at the border remained consistent from prior to the funding for the initiative, according to CBSA data. For the 2017-18 year, CBSA seized 751 illegal firearms at the U.S.-Canada border. That number dropped to 696 the next year, the first year of the initiative, before rising again to 753. The CBSA also seized 166 firearms for the first quarter of the 2020-21 fiscal year, before the border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Customs and Border Patrol also has worked in investigations regarding outbound smuggling into Canada. In 2017, a Canadian man was taken into U.S. custody after previously smuggling weapons via a library that rests on the border between Vermont and Quebec, according to CBP spokesperson Mike McCarthy.

“Most of the time, how outbound operations are structured is either based on intelligence or an ongoing investigation,” McCarthy said.

He also said they participate in outbound investigations when they think the risk for smuggling is higher or they have had a higher volume of smuggling.

Wortman’s common-law spouse Lisa Banfield had told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that Wortman possessed a NEXUS card, which allows pre-screened travelers quicker entry when crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada, according to court documents. In order to obtain a Nexus card, background checks must be completed by agencies on both sides of the border, and either side may disqualify a candidate if they find anything suspicious, such as falsified information or prior criminal history.

Both McCarthy and Brissette Lesage said that holding a NEXUS card would not have made Wortman less susceptible to being searched upon entry to either the United States or Canada.

“As a member of Nexus, travelers have the responsibility to declare any controlled or restricted items as well as any goods that exceed personal exemptions or allowances,” Brissette Lesage said. “Nexus members are subject to the same reporting requirements for goods as non-Nexus travelers.”