The toxic nature of gun control
by Jeff Davis
As Solomon Friedman sees it, the history of Canadian gun-control laws amounts to “a slow, creeping process of criminalizing law-abiding members of the public.”
Rather than cracking down on criminals, police have laid firearms charges most often against who those have not really committed crimes at all, says Mr. Friedman, an Ottawa based lawyer specializing in firearms law.
On Tuesday, the federal government will reportedly unveil legislation to kill the long-gun registry. Since it came into force in 1998, lawful gun users say they have lived with intense surveillance, and sometimes harassment and prosecution by police. After years of complaining about being treated as presumptive criminals, they hope the legal noose that has been tightening around their necks will at last loosen.
“I feel like I have no rights,” said Lawrence Manzer of New Brunswick, who was charged criminally after taking an unloaded shotgun to help a neighbour during a disturbance. “They should be punishing criminals with smuggled, illegal guns and leaving us alone.”
The biggest problem, Mr. Friedman said, is that all laws relating to guns are in the Criminal Code, and can only result in criminal charges. In effect, he said, Canada does not have a regulatory framework for firearms, only a criminal one.
“If you forget to file your paperwork, it’s not a ticket, it’s a criminal record,” he says. “The first thing that happens is you’re taken in handcuffs to the station, booked and you’re looking at custody and incarceration as a penalty.”
Mr. Friedman said police are often unclear on the particulars of firearms law, and take a “charge first, ask questions later” approach. As a result, he said, charges against lawful gun owners routinely fail.
Take the case of 59-year-old gun collector Peter Sedge.
One night in May 2008, Mr. Sedge answered a knock on the door of his apartment to find a Toronto police tactical unit from the Guns and Gangs task force waiting. As they pointed guns at him, he was marched into the street in his underwear. Hours earlier, police had received a tip from a man who had toured the apartment building as a prospective buyer, and had seen Mr. Sedge’s gun collection.
Mr. Sedge had 120 properly licensed firearms and a quantity of ammunition.
Police seized the collection and charged him with 14 firearms-related criminal offences. All charges were dropped 10 months after the raid. In August 2011, Mr. Sedge launched a lawsuit against the Toronto Police Services Board and 19 police officers from 55 Division and the Guns and Gangs task force. He alleges the investigators – who did not contact him before the raid – were negligent, and caused him humiliation, mental anguish and economic loss.
Mr. Manzer’s troubles began when he heard a bump in the Burton, N.B., night. For months, Burton had suffered a spate of break-and-enters and robberies. So when he heard a disturbance near his neighbour’s house in March 2010, the 46-year-old military veteran unlocked his legally stored, legally registered, legally owned 12-gauge shotgun.
The gun was unloaded when Mr. Manzer made a citizen’s arrest, holding three drunken teenage culprits until police arrived to give them $175 fines for drinking in public. But not long afterward, a squad of RCMP officers arrived at Mr. Manzer’s house. They arrested him, seized his guns, threw him in jail and charged him with pointing a firearm and “possessing a weapon for a purpose dangerous to the public peace.”
“When I went out there that night, I didn’t pull out the 918-page Criminal Code to check what are my rights,” Mr. Manzer told Postmedia News. “I’m not a fighter … but I needed to protect my neighbour’s property and protect my life.”
Eventually, however, the charges were dropped. And Mr. Manzer says he felt triumphant a few weeks ago as he picked up his rifles and shotguns, which had spent 18 months in police impound.
“My three boys are really happy,” he said. “Now we can do some hunting together this fall as a family.”
Mr. Friedman says he has represented many gun owners who have been charged with unsafe storage or transport, and says that even if the accused is vindicated, he or she is saddled with large legal fees. He says a preferred tactic of the police and courts is to offer to drop unsafe storage charges if the accused surrenders their guns and accepts a 10-year or lifetime weapons ban.
Safe storage requirements for non-restricted firearms force owners to keep their guns unloaded and fitted with a trigger lock, or locked in a safe, a secure room or a car trunk. Restricted and prohibited firearms must be unloaded, fitted with trigger locks and locked away, or put in a safe with or without a trigger lock. Restricted and prohibited firearms require an Authorization to Transport permit to move, while non-restricted firearms do not.
Since the long-gun registry came into force, lawful gun owners have faced increasing scrutiny from police authorities. The surveillance has increased particularly since the Firearms Registry database went online. In the second quarter of 2003, the database was searched 95,503 times by police. By the first quarter of 2011, the number of searches had reached nearly 1.3 million.
This thirteen-fold increase happened because the Firearms Registry database is now automatically included in the routine identity searches of many major police departments – something Canadian Sports Shooting Association (CSSA) executive director Tony Bernardo knows all to well.
One day Mr. Bernardo was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in Ontario, and upon checking his identification, the officer learned he was a registered firearms owner. The officer asked if he had a gun in the car, and wanted to check if it was safely stored. Bernardo refused to participate.
“I said: ‘Excuse me, what did you pull me over for? If I broke a traffic rule, give me a traffic ticket and let me go,’ ” Mr. Bernardo said. “Most gun owners would not react as confidently.”
Many gun owners less familiar with their rights have consented to such searches, Mr. Bernardo says.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how many members of CSSA we’ve had to defend in court because they were charged with unsafe storage, and the officer charging them didn’t have a clue what the safe storage laws were,” he said. “You’re treated completely differently sometimes because you’re on that list. Sometimes it can get really, really crazy.”
In July 2010, the CSSA released the results of a non-scientific survey on the changing relationship between police and gun owners. The survey was anonymous and responded to by 2,018 random legal firearms owners in Canada.
To the question “Do you believe police target firearms owners?” more than 87% responded “yes.” Some 74% said they no longer trust the police since the implementation of the Firearms Act. Furthermore, 64% of respondents said they were now more afraid of the police than criminals.
And more than 53% of respondents to the questionnaire said they personally knew someone who was “unjustly charged with a firearms offence.”
Professor emeritus Gary Mauser of Simon Fraser University, a leading academic on firearms issues, says he has watched the long-gun registry undermine the relationship between police and the public.
“The faith in and support of the RCMP that has existed since Confederation has been ruptured and threatened by the gun registry,” he said. “This is a subversive problem because the police are doing things people don’t think are reasonable.”
Mr. Friedman said gun owners are widely suspicious of police, particularly older gun owners who have lived to see activities that were wholly lawful in their youth become criminal offences.
“This has driven a wedge between two groups that should be naturally allied: law-abiding firearms owners and law enforcement,” he said. “Law-abiding firearms owners are your most responsible citizens, people who care most about society in general, and that’s just a fact.”
Asked if he thought the relationship between police and gun owners has soured, Pierre Perron, RCMP Assistant Commissioner and director general of the Canadian Firearms program, said, “Obviously we can’t please everyone.”
He thinks firearms owners are “generally happy” with the status quo.
Jean-Guy Gagnon, a former deputy chief with the Montreal Police Service and the chair of national firearms strategy council of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, says many police understand gun enthusiasts because they are hunters themselves. Police are not trying to treat lawful gun owners as criminals, he says, but when complaints are made, police must take action.
“We don’t press charges against people for fun,” he said.
Mr. Bernardo says the Firearms Act is convoluted and in severe need of reform. He welcomes the federal government’s intent to put the longgun registry to rest, but says more is needed. He says the law should be rewritten from the ground up to protect lawful gun owners from police persecution.
“There are 144 pages of legislation, and not a single mention of the criminal misuse of firearms,” he said. “Every page is directed at the law-abiding.”
“If it doesn’t affect the criminal use of guns, no wonder,” he says. “It never intended to.”
Original web source: National Post