February 2nd, 2012 – Lorne Gunter, National Post
If a senior provincial judge and two senior lawyers cannot make sense of Canada’s safe-storage gun laws, how can ordinary gun owners be expected to? Once the federal government has successfully dismantled the long-gun registry — something that should occur before Easter — it needs to rewrite the sections of the Criminal Code dealing with the storage of legal firearms so that civilian owners do not run afoul of the complicated rules and end up with a criminal record through no fault of their own.
On Tuesday, Ontario provincial judge Tory Colvin suspended until May the trial of Ian Thomson, the Port Colborne, Ont., man charged with unsafe storage of firearms after he fired three warning shots at assailants who were firebombing his home in the summer of 2010. Both the Crown and the defence had presented their closing arguments in the case, but Judge Colvin decided to give each side more time to produce precedents that supported their divergent interpretations of what constitutes “safe storage.” He also admitted he needed more time himself to review the case law.
It shouldn’t be this difficult, but it is, in large part because the Liberals intentionally wrote the 1995 Firearms Act to be as ambiguous as possible and give prosecutors as big a net as possible in which to ensnare gun owners. Their intention was to make gun ownership as complicated and onerous as possible so as to encourage owners to give up their firearms.
For instance, the Canadian Firearms Program, run by the RCMP, instructs gun owners to “unload and lock all firearms,” when not in use. That seems clear enough. When not hunting, target shooting or killing vermin, gun owners should remove the ammunition from their guns and “attach a secure locking device, such as a trigger lock or cable lock,” or “lock the firearms in a container or room that is hard to break into.”
But is cleaning or repairing the firearm a legitimate “use?” Most judges have ruled that cleaning constitutes use when such cases have come to court, yet police forces across the country — and particularly in Ontario — continue to lay unsafe storage charges against owners whose guns are found out of their safes or locked cabinets, even though they are dismantled for cleaning on a workbench or kitchen table.
In Mr. Thomson’s case, the uncertainty revolves around the interpretation of whether or not he was storing the ammunition for his guns too close to the registered pistols he had locked in a gun safe. The Crown contends that because Mr. Thomson was able to gather up both a gun and its ammunition in less than a minute, then fire three warning shots at the masked men lobbing Molotov cocktails at his remote home, that the ammunition was too “easily accessible” and, therefore, by definition, unsafely stored.
This is angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory and utterly preposterous. Mr. Thomson’s lawyer, Ed Burlew, who specializes in firearms law and has argued more than 600 firearms cases says he has never before heard such a theory of safe storage. It defies reason.
But this is far from the first preposterous safe-storage case. Perhaps the most notorious example of police and Crown overzealousness in enforcing Canada’s existing gun laws is the case of Mike Hargreaves, a former Toronto-area gun-safety instructor and collector. Over the Christmas holidays in 2003, while Mr. Hargreaves was visiting his son in Florida, thieves worked to open the 770 kilogram concrete and steel safe he had had installed in his north Toronto apartment. For nearly two days, burglars used sledgehammers and blowtorches to open the vault, before they could make off with 35 high-powered handguns and rifles worth more than $40,000.
Still, police decided the precautions Mr. Hargreaves had taken to protect his collection were inadequate. They obtained a warrant for his arrest on unsafe storage charges, which forced him to remain in Florida to avoid prosecution.
What is or isn’t “safe storage” has become so ambiguous that police and prosecutors now use this provisions to harass otherwise law-abiding gun owners, who are guilty of no other offence.
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? Two days?
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?
We hope the judge in Mr. Thomson’s case can clear up some of this confusion and ambiguity. But what is really needed is a wholesale amendment of the safe-storage laws. Gun owners need to know what their obligations are with clarity and certainty. And the purpose of any safe-storage reforms must be simply to ensure firearms pose no threat to children or the community when they are not being used. There should be no hidden goal to complicate gun owners’ lives so that they give up shooting sports in frustration.