by Lorne Gunter
Since Bill C-68 became the law of the land more than 15 years ago, one of the most common charges police have laid against gun owners has been for unsafe storage. The reason for this is that the federal firearms law is very unclear about what constitutes safe and unsafe storage.
Is it enough to have one’s firearms locked away in a gun safe or must they also have trigger locks installed? How secure must the safe’s lock be: strong enough to keep a thief out for two minutes? Five? Fifteen?
Is it OK to store ammunition in the same safes as guns or must bullets and shells be in separate safes from one’s firearms? Must the two safes be in separate rooms?
There are no hard-and-fast rules, so in some provinces, unsafe storage provisions have become catchalls. In Ontario, for instance, most frontline officers have been trained to lay unsafe storage charges against any gun owner whose firearm lacks a trigger lock, even if the owner had just removed the lock so he could use his firearms to defend his home or family against intruders.
These unwritten rules make self defence next to impossible. You are permitted by law to use a gun to defend yourself and your home against an armed intruder, but you cannot remove the locks on your guns to defend your loved ones, yourself or your property unless you’re willing to be charged with unsafe storage.
Perhaps the unsafe storage rules should be called a Catch-22 rather than a catchall.
The point is, whenever police choose to harass a legitimate gun owner, they often use the storage provisions of the Firearms Act because those sections are so broad and ill-defined that nearly every gun owner can be presumed guilty of breaking them at any given moment.
The storage laws were added to the Criminal Code because the federal government believed guns were so dangerous that although law-abiding citizens would be permitted to own then, the authorities had to do all they could to keep them from falling into the hands of thieves, from where they could make their way onto the streets and into the possession of drug dealers, gang members, bank robbers and murderers.
But here’s a glaring double standard for you: Police themselves have lost hundreds of guns from holsters, lockers, trunks, crime scenes and evidence cages over the years. They are doing little to recover these lost or stolen weapons, which are every bit as dangerous in criminal hands as those stolen from ordinary citizens. Yet there are no criminal or career consequences for careless officers and police services. No officer is being jailed or even fired.
Based on Freedom of Information requests, the National Firearms Association (NFA) has determined that since approximately October 2008, police forces and other law-enforcement agencies have lost at least 428 firearms nationwide. Thirty-two were lost by or stolen from the RCMP. Another 316 went missing from municipal police forces, while 80 have gone missing from other agencies, exclusive of the military.
The missing arsenal includes two sniper rifles lost by the Peel regional police outside Toronto, one handgun left in a Tim Hortons, one dropped in a parking lot and several left behind at crime scenes.
It can happen. Police are human. The trouble is, if an ordinary Canadian gun owner stopped at a Tim’s – or even went through the drive-thru – with his target pistol he could be charged with a criminal offence and subjected to jail time and seizure of his guns, even if his pistol [was in] a securely locked carrying case safely stowed in the car’s trunk. (Handgun owners are only permitted to drive to and from their ranges using the shortest possible route. No stopping.)
The NFA also discovered that most lost or stolen police guns are never recovered. So, many presumably end up on the streets in criminals’ possession.
This is nothing new. In the mid-1990s, the Toronto police service had to admit it had lost between 400 and 3,000 guns from storage and from evidence lock-ups. Five officers were charged with black-marketing some of these firearms, but many more were taken by persons unknown.
Police are simply held to a different standard of safe storage than ordinary gun owners – that disparity is wrong.