I grew up with guns and I was a competitive shooter for many years. But I recognize the world's changed since I took my rifle (uncased but with the bolt removed) on the bus to go to the shooting range.
Gun violence, though still comparatively rare in Canada compared with the U.S., has people spooked. And police respond accordingly.
The problem for cops is that when they deal with a gun report, often they don't know if the firearm is real or an extremely good reproduction. Without certainty, they treat the possessor exactly the same — as if they're facing the real thing and the holder is a potential threat.
Police in Calgary complain they've been dealing this summer with too many air guns, as well as paintball and pellet guns, that look like real firearms.
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Just last week, police in the city turned up in force after someone reported a rifle being shot in a local park area. It turned out to be a paintball gun but, meanwhile, they responded with a police helicopter, K9 unit and heavily armed tactical team, the Calgary Herald reported.
“It took more than an hour and a half to resolve that,” Insp. Mike Tillotson told the Herald. “Until we prove it’s not a replica or a BB gun, we have to treat [it] like it is.”
Over the summer, Calgary police have seized several air-powered guns being shot illegally (a city bylaw prohibits shooting within city limits) or improperly stored, the Herald said.
Sometimes police are powerless to deal with obvious misuse of legal air guns.
An Ontario family was lolling on a raft on a lake near their cottage in Bancroft, Ont., on the Labour Day weekend when their 22-month-old son Samuel suddenly screamed in pain and began bleeding from a wound on his chest, CTV News reported.
“We thought maybe something came up from the raft, we had no idea," said Matt Sanchez. "But when we heard the second and third shots or sounds, then we were scared."
The couple quickly hustled their three kids into the cottage.
“A short while later, we noticed three cottages down, a young boy up on their deck, shooting a pellet gun — or what looked like a rifle,” Sanchez said Friday.
“We go over to talk to the parents and tell them what we think happened. And to our shock, they gave us pretty much no response.
"They acknowledged that yes, their son shoots out into the water. And when we said, ‘We think he hit our son,’ no apology, no concern. So at this point, we’re angry.”
The family called police, who gave boys involved a stern warning. But there was no evidence on which to base charges. No pellets were found, there was no proof the raft was targeted and no other witnesses.
Paramedics who treated Samuel found his chest was not pierced by the projectile.
“It’s frustrating," Matt Sanchez told CTV News. "It could have been a lot worse.
“Fortunately, nobody else was hurt more seriously. But it’s very frustrating that nobody is accountable for this.”
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Last year, Milton Halton police seized two pellet rifles after someone reported three youths shooting at Canada geese, the Hamilton Spectator reported.
The RCMP's Canadian Firearms Program web site says air guns may or may not be classed as firearms depending on their muzzle velocity. Some are not covered under the Firearms Act's restrictions on real guns.
However, replica firearms — defined as being designed to resemble a real gun with "near precision" — are prohibited. Crooks who can't get hold of a real gun sometimes use them in holdups. If they're caught using a replica it results in the same charge as using a real firearm.
That prohibition includes realistic-looking "airsoft" guns, low velocity air guns that fire plastic or wax projectiles and are popular in battle-simulation games.
If that's true, then what should we make of this Canadian Tire web page advertising several airsoft guns that look quite real?
The Airsoft Canada forum's FAQ page suggests the information on the RCMP site "does not accurately reflect the existing Firearms Act and its related regulations.
"The website statement also contradicts spoken and written statements by the Canadian Firearms Centre (CFC) that airsoft guns are not replica firearms; other spoken and written statements by the CFC reflect the exact opposite position.
"The CFC has indicated that current policies regarding the classification and treatment of airsoft guns are not achieving the desired effect, and clarification is being sought on the status of airsoft guns."
Regardless of the claimed ambiguity, police have no choice but to treat such guns as real. Officers in Newmarket, Ont., last year took in three teens carrying what looked like an AR-15 assault rifle at a home in the city.
They were released without charges after it was determined to be an airsoft gun, the Toronto Sun reported at the time. The boys apologized and were released to their parents with a warning, said York Regional Police Const. Blair McQuillian.
“We’ll treat them as real when we see them,” he said.