Gun shop owners left 'holding the bag' by the unexpected scope of Ottawa firearms ban

Phil Harnois, owner of an Edmonton firearms and ammunition store, is among countless Canadian sellers and owners caught up in the uncertainties of the federal government's new firearms ban. 

One shop is 'stuck with' dozens of firearms that weren't expected to be banned

A man aims a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle at a gun store in Utah. The semi-automatic rifles are on the list of newly prohibited weapons in Canada. (George Frey/Getty Image)

Phil Harnois has about 30 firearms in his Edmonton shop that are now illegal.

He can't sell the guns and he doubts any of his distributors will be accepting returns. 

Harnois expects his prohibited stock of firearms will remain in limbo for many months.

"We've been limiting the purchase of these firearms from our wholesalers because we didn't want to get stuck with them," Harnois said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Now, of course, we are stuck with them.

"They're prohibited and we're stuck with them. We have to lock them up, of course, and wait for some further direction for some time." 

Harnois, the owner of P&D Enterprises, a firearms and ammunition store in the Oliver neighbourhood, is among countless Canadian sellers and owners caught up in the uncertainties surrounding the federal government's new firearms ban. 

On May 1, less than two weeks after the Nova Scotia gun massacre, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlawed a wide range of rifles, saying the guns were designed for the battlefield, not hunting or sport shooting.

Phil Harnois, owner of Edmonton firearms and ammunition store P&D Enterprises, says the new prohibition has put thousands of dollars of inventory in legal limbo. (P&D Enterprises/Facebook)

The ban covers some 1,500 models and variants of what the government has described as military-grade, assault-style firearms. The banned weapons can not be legally used, sold or imported, starting immediately

Trudeau said there will be a two-year amnesty period to allow people who already own the banned firearms to comply with the ban. He promised legislation to provide "fair compensation" to owners, an expenditure that could be hundreds of millions of dollars and that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said would be better used pursuing smugglers and drug gangs.

Harnois said the industry was not prepared for the extent of the ban. Now they're stuck "holding the bag" on valuable inventory.

There has been no clarity around Ottawa's promised buyback program, he said and he has a lot of money tied up in now prohibited weapons.

Firearms once worth thousands of dollars became essentially worthless overnight, he said.

One in particular, rifle .50 BMG, recently sold for more than $8,500.

"It's a good thing we sold that the day before," he said.  "We would have been stuck with that, not knowing how long we would have to hang onto the firearm and what we do with it in the meantime. 

"There is nowhere for it to go back to." 

Trudeau and federal government documents use the terms "assault-style," which has no legal definition in Canada, and "military-style," for which there is no current classification in the Firearms Act.

Generally speaking, an assault-style weapon is a semi-automatic firearm with an ammunition magazine, built to fire quickly. There is already a legal limit — five rounds — on the maximum size of a magazine.

A statement from Public Safety Canada to CBC News said firearms should be securely stored until details of the intended buy-back program are available. Firearms may also be deactivated or surrendered to police "without compensation," reads the email. All Canadians must be in compliance with the law by April 2022.

Harnois said he expected a ban of some kind but he didn't expect Ottawa to adopt it during the pandemic.

Restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 have been hard on his family-run business and the new prohibitions will make the situation worse, he said. 

He estimates that restricted guns account for up to 40 per cent of his annual sales. Many customers are calling him asking to return their banned guns. 

The ownership of restricted firearms was already strictly regulated, he said. The ban only targets licensed owners and sellers. 

Harnois said if Ottawa had given the industry clear warning on the extent of the ban, it would have prevented a lot of confusion and waste.   

"They can't even be transferred, they can't even be driven down the street," he said.

"We've been advised, take the firearm to your home and that's where it has to remain locked up until further notice." 

With files from Ariel Fournier and The Canadian Press