Ottawa looks at regulating imitation guns after police shootings

Police in Ontario shot and killed men brandishing fake weapons in three incidents in recent years. Coroners' inquests in all the cases called for Ottawa to better regulate imitation guns to avoid future fatalities. Justice Canada now says it is reviewing those recommendations, which echo those of police and doctors.

Justice Canada considering restrictions on pellet guns, paintball guns

A BB gun - one of the imitation weapons that Ontario coroners' inquests into police shootings want Ottawa to regulate.

The Trudeau government is looking into whether it should regulate imitation firearms following three Toronto incidents which saw police shoot and kill men brandishing relatively harmless guns.

Dr. Dirk ​Huyer, Ontario's chief coroner, alerted federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her officials to the cases, which led three coroner juries to recommend Ottawa revise the Criminal Code to help prevent such fatalities.

The minister confirmed in a letter last month to Huyer that the department is reviewing proposals to tighten controls on look-alike weapons that police often have no choice but to treat as genuine.

A spokesman for the minister, Simon Rivet, told CBC News that officials are "examining the recommendations" and consulting on them with Public Safety Canada, which also helps set Ottawa's gun policies.

Ian Pryce was a Toronto resident who suffered from paranoia. He died in November 2013, when officers shot him as he brandished a look-alike weapon. (Heather Thompson)

The review follows years' of pressure from police groups which have warned that free access to unregulated imitation weapons poses grave risks to the public.

As far back as 1994, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has been calling for bans and regulations on such faux weapons.

The Canadian Medical Association also has called for curbs on unregulated low-velocity firearms – such as pellet and paintball guns – after research showed several hundred children and youths were injured by them over a five-year period.

Some municipalities, such as Edmonton and Whitby, Ont., have passed bylaws regulating fake weapons. The Edmonton Police Service said officers responded to 1,598 incidents in 2015 involving imitation guns.

"Low-velocity firearms, replica firearms, or any toy gun that resembles a firearm can pose a risk to the public because they are often mistaken by police as real firearms and can be used to commit crimes and intimidate members of the public," says internal briefing material prepared for Wilson-Raybould.

Toy guns

"Such firearm lookalikes are a serious concern for law enforcement. Possession of these guns has resulted in fatal shootings by police in a number of incidents across Canada.

"Toy guns that look similar to real guns can also pose a risk to the individuals possessing them."

CBC News obtained Justice Canada briefing notes and related documents dating from January this year under the Access to Information Act.

... possession and sale of such weapons should be regulated in Canada so that they would be less likely to come into the possession of persons with mental-health challenges.- 2016 Ontario inquest into police shooting death calls for regulation of imitation guns

Huyer alerted the minister specifically to a Nov. 13, 2013, incident in downtown Toronto in which police shot and killed Ian Glendon Pryce, 31.

Pryce, suffering from paranoia, pointed a pellet gun at police, who fired back at him in response.

"The jury felt that both replica handguns and unregulated firearms … such as the one possessed by Mr. Pryce, should be more closely regulated and that possession and sale of such weapons should be regulated in Canada so that they would be less likely to come into the possession of persons with mental-health challenges," says a summary of the inquest findings.

Jury recommendations from two other 2016 inquests involving imitation, unregulated weapons – the Dec. 31, 2014 police shooting of Daniel Nickolas Clause, and the April 13, 2014, police shooting of John Caleb Ross – were strikingly similar.

Daniel Clause, 33, brandished an imitation weapon and was fatally shot by police on Dec. 31, 2014. (Facebook)

The Criminal Code says replica firearms — designed to look like the real thing but unable to fire — cannot be purchased or imported, but can be possessed legally.

"As there is no requirement to register replica firearms, it is unknown how many exist in Canada," says the briefing material.

Imitation firearms – which include replica guns, pellet guns and other low-velocity firearms, as well as fake guns carved from wood – are also legal to possess. But it's illegal to use an imitation firearm to commit any offence.

Police reaction

"So long as it is possible to purchase these imitation guns in Canada without any permit process, consumers should be made aware that if such a weapon is seen by police they may have no alternative but to react to the weapon as if it were a real gun," says a summary of the Bryce inquest.

"… children have been shot by police after brandishing such imitation guns."

Among the possible solutions raised by the Bryce inquest was mandatory package labelling for imitation guns, which would warn the purchaser of the dangers of police action.

A spokesperson for Huyer, Cheryl Mahyr, declined to answer questions about the issue, saying the coroner was simply conveying the findings of the inquest juries and was not registering a personal opinion.

The Liberal government's Bill C-71, to amend gun-control law, is being studied by the House of Commons' public safety and national security committee. The reforms, which do not include curbs on imitation guns, have drawn criticisms from all sides of the gun-control debate.

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Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby