HOULTON, Maine — Gabriel Wortman crossed the border from Woodstock, New Brunswick, into Houlton, Maine, on April 25, 2019. Several days later, he returned into Canada, having managed to smuggle a semi-automatic Colt AR-15-style gun with him. A year later, he would use it and other guns to commit the worst mass-shooting in Canadian history.
The 2020 Nova Scotia attacks, which started in the small town of Portapique, Nova Scotia, before moving to several other towns in the province, ended in the deaths of 23 people, including 51-year-old Wortman.
The gunman impersonated a police officer during his killing spree. He drove a vehicle made to resemble a Royal Canadian Mounted Police car through towns picking off his victims before being killed by RCMP officers at an Irving Big Stop in Enfield, 50 miles south of Portapique.
While Wortman used a variety of guns to commit the mass shooting, including some obtained illegally in Canada, three of the guns used, including the AR-15-style gun, were acquired by Wortman while visiting Maine. Recently unsealed court documents from Nova Scotia show how Wortman had strong ties to Houlton, and made frequent trips to the area prior to the closure of the border due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The relative ease with which Wortman acquired the weapons and smuggled them into Canada shows a stark contrast between gun laws in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the differences in border security between the two nations.
Wortman had obtained the AR-15-style gun from a gun show during a seven-day stay in the United States in April 2019, according to the court documents, which were partially redacted due to ongoing investigations by the RCMP. While the documents do not explicitly say at which show he acquired it, the dates match up the gun show held at the John Millar Civic Center in Houlton by the Houlton Rifle and Gun Club, which took place April 27-28, 2019.
A report from the RCMP investigation shows that Wortman and his common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, entered Houlton from the Woodstock border crossing. On April 27, the first day of the gun show, Wortman re-entered Canada, only to return to Houlton approximately 13 minutes later. On May 2, 2019, Wortman then returned to Canada.
Banfield told the RCMP that Wortman possessed a Nexus card, which allows pre-screened travelers who are considered low risk quicker entry when crossing the border between the United States and Canada. Banfield also said that Wortman once complained to Canadian customs about having to be searched. He received an apology and was not bothered after that, she said, according to court documents. It’s not clear when Wortman was issued the Nexus card.
Nexus card holders are subject to background checks by law enforcement agencies of both countries as part of the application process, and can be denied if either country finds grounds for disqualification, such as prior conviction of criminal offenses or outstanding warrants.
“It’s certainly an expedited process for sure, but I would argue it’s not less scrutiny because a Nexus card holder has undergone a thorough background check,” said Michael McCarthy, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “They’ve submitted fingerprints [and] biometric information to the U.S. government so they can undergo recurrent, continuous vetting against criminal history records.”
Gun shows are often criticized by gun control advocates, who say the shows provide opportunity for people to acquire guns without a background check. Paul Harrison, the gun club’s secretary-treasurer, said that contrary to popular belief, anyone who purchased a gun at the 2019 gun show would have been required to have an FBI background check.
“You hear about the ‘gun show loophole’, but that’s a misnomer. There is no gun show loophole,” Harrison said. “Every gun that I know of at the gun show that is purchased from a dealer has to do the FBI background check, just like they would if they were at their store.”
But witness accounts from the court documents indicated that the purchase of the gun was done as a private sale, and there was no paperwork involved in the transaction. The gun was purchased by a third party, and later given to Wortman.
The witness, whose name is redacted, described the sale of the gun as “quick and dirty.”
Harrison said that it could be possible to purchase a gun in this manner at the gun show.
“The only loophole might be if you went to this show with a gun that you wanted to sell, and you met your buddy at the gun show and he said ‘I’ll buy it from you’,” he said. “That could happen maybe.”
Two other pistols, a Glock 23 and Ruger P89, that Wortman used in the shooting also appear to have been acquired in Houlton. Wortman acquired the Ruger from a Houlton man at whose house he did odd jobs, according to FBI interviews included in the court documents. The Glock appears to have been taken from another man’s house in Houlton, who told the FBI the gun was missing, but later said that Wortman had taken the gun two to three years ago.
Canada, in contrast to its American neighbor, has much stricter laws regarding gun ownership. The Nova Scotia attacks led to even further restrictions, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enacting bans of more than 1,500 military-style assault-style weapons, such as the Colt carbine Wortman acquired in Houlton. The move also fulfilled a campaign promise by Trudeau’s Liberal Party to ban such weapons.
With the United States having some of the most relaxed gun laws in the world, smuggling of weapons from the United States across both Mexican and Canadian borders remains a problem for border security officials. The documents also show that the AR-15 wasn’t Wortman’s first foray into smuggling guns across the border — one witness said he had been smuggling drugs and guns across the border for years. He also smuggled items such as alcohol and cigarettes across the border in order to pay for his university education.
Ronald Vitiello, who served as acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol under President Barack Obama and chief under President Donald Trump until 2018, said that agencies on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border often work in close coordination on issues such as cross-border smuggling of weapons. Agencies such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also have offices in Canada to assist with issues of smuggled goods from the United States.
“I think there’s a good understanding in Canada from the law enforcement community that we have a Second Amendment, and there’s only so much authorities can do as it relates to regulation,” Vitiello said. “But clearly the border is a place for maximum collaboration, because both countries exercise direct authority over what comes across the border.”
While the pandemic has effectively halted the majority of border crossings, minimizing concerns regarding smuggling, Vitiello said the lack of face-to-face interaction between agencies could prove to be a challenge in international collaboration between U.S. and Canadian authorities.
“The established trust and the established relationships are going to have to outlast this,” Vitiello said of the pandemic. “We all hope eventually things will get back to normal and they can collaborate and do what’s required to secure the border and keep communities on both sides safe.”