How guns from Maine fueled Canada's deadliest mass shooting
Two years ago, Canada experienced the deadliest mass shooting in its history when a gunman killed 22 people across rural Nova Scotia.
Over the course of several hours, the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, posed as a police officer, shot and killed several people, and lit multiple houses on fire before dying in a shootout with police.
According to documents and interviews collected by a special commission conducting an inquiry into the shootings, it appears Wortman acquired some of the guns he used just over the border in Houlton, Maine — which may have broken federal law here in the United States.
For more details on the case, Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg spoke with Elizabeth McMillan, a reporter with CBC News based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
FEINBERG: Elizabeth, to begin, can you just walk us through some of the basic details of what actually happened in this case?
MCMILLAN: This man was a denturist, he was a fairly successful man. He was celebrating his 19th anniversary with his partner. And they got in an argument and he attacked her. And at the time, it was at the very beginning of COVID. They were staying at their cottage. She managed to escape. What he did was he set on fire their cottage, as well as another garage property he had. And then he proceeded to attack their neighbors. So he killed 13 people in this tiny subdivision. He lit several other homes on fire. And he drove away.
And that night he was driving this vehicle that he had adapted to look exactly like a local law enforcement vehicle. So he'd bought this decommissioned cruiser. And he had ordered the gear online so that there was a light bar, flashing lights. It looked exactly like a police vehicle. And that's what he was driving that evening. He managed to get out of the subdivision. He hid overnight, and then the next morning, his shooting rampage continued. So he targeted some acquaintances as well as strangers. And he killed nine more people. So a total of 22 people, including an RCMP officer and a pregnant woman.
And how was he eventually caught?
The gunman was shot and killed by police at the end of this rampage. They recognized him at a gas station. And they stopped him. And when they searched his vehicle, they found five weapons. So when they launched an investigation to see if anyone helped him or was involved, they found he was the lone gunman. But they also determined that three of the guns he was carrying, he had smuggled in, and he had obtained them in in Maine.
One of the big questions you've been reporting on is the connection between those guns and how they ultimately ended up crossing the border from Maine into Canada. What do we know about the origin of these guns?
One of them was a gift from his friend, Sean Conlogue. Often, Wortman, when he was visiting, he would do a lot of odd jobs around the property. So Conlogue said that one day, they were fixing a screen door. And as a sign of gratitude, he decided to gift his friend this gun. This was a number of years ago, this is what he told police.
He also had some Glock handguns in his home that they used, they would go to camp, they would do target practice, that kind of thing. And he told police that the shooter took them from his home. One of those Glocks was one of the weapons he used in the shooting rampage.
And then there was a third gun, kind of an AR style, a Colt Carbine, high-powered rifle, and it was purchased at a gun show in Houlton. So the annual gun show was held, and Wortman was visiting his friend at the time, staying with Sean Conlogue. And it seems he went to that show. And he also went with another man from Maine who did a private sale, a private purchase of that rifle, that Wortman had admired. And he told investigators that he thought he was buying the gun for Conlogue. And that it was Conlogue who gave him the cash, about $1,200, to buy this rifle. But he also went there with a gun, to the gun show with Wartman, who admired the gun. And as far as we can tell, no one has been charged, even though it is illegal under federal law in the U.S. for an American to give a non-resident — so, a Canadian visitor — a firearm, to either give or sell to them.
That was a big part of your reporting, that supplying these guns to Canadians is illegal. But no one has actually been charged with that in this case yet. You spoke with this retired prosecutor, Margaret Groban, who referred to Maine as this "source state" where it's easier to get guns. What did you hear from experts on what can actually be done here to limit these kinds of situations?
I spoke with the Giffords Law Center, which advocates for tougher gun legislation. And they were saying one of the concerns they have with Maine specifically is that private sales, there's not a lot of oversight.
So going back to this case, the Nova Scotia case: Wortman, the shooter, he was able to buy a gun after going to this gun show. And when we spoke with one of the organizers in Houlton, he was saying, well, all the dealers at this gun show have to go through FBI background checks. They have to do the paperwork, they have to keep the paperwork for years. But there's also, private sales are possible.
So in this case, what happened was someone had brought a gun to the gun show, who had a booth. The person at the booth next to him kind of sold this gun, the Colt Carbine, as a favor to this other guy, in a private sale. So it did happen in the arena. But it didn't go through those official channels. So what I've heard from from the prosecutor, as well as Giffords, is that they'd like to see more oversight of private sales. And that everything should go through, say, a registered dealer, so that there is less likelihood of people who aren't authorized to have guns, whether it be people with a record in the U.S., or non-residents. And then there'd be fewer so-called "straw man purchases" where someone may lie on the official paperwork, and then hand it off to someone else.
Elizabeth McMillan is a reporter with CBC News based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To learn more about the case, and the just-released report from the special commission, you can read some of McMillan's work at CBC.ca.