Shooting community angered after rifle suddenly appears on prohibited list

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Teams get down and dirty with one of the most influential firearms, the legendary AK-47. They face an extreme obstacle course with mud pits, barbed wire and exploding mortars. The Blue Team employs unusual, divisive training methods and the Red Team remains unimpressed. In the elimination challenge, two shooters face a friend or foe challenge with a military and police pistol.

Some members of Canadian shooting community are up in arms over the prospect that a gun they've been legally allowed to own for a decade now will be added to the list of prohibited weapons.

The situation has prompted questions on how the government determines which guns are OK to own and which aren't.

The Swiss-made PE-90 semi-automatic rifle, also known as the Classic Green, is a civilian target version of the standard 5.56-millimetre assault rifle used by the Swiss Army.

The expensive firearm (estimated value $3,000-$5000) has been imported into Canada since the early 2000s, but the RCMP's National Firearms Centre now has recommended it be placed on the prohibited list. That means owners must turn over their guns for destruction unless they have a rare prohibited-firearms licence.

The issue has been simmering for months within the shooting community but it broke cover last month when Postmedia News reported the RCMP had zeroed in on the PE-90.

Ironically, the decision to put the rifle on the prohibited list originated from a request by James Cox, who owns the Shooting Edge gun shop in Calgary.

Cox told Postmedia News he contacted the RCMP after a customer brought in a beat-up looking rifle to trade in, which looked like it had been refurbished to resemble a Classic Green, manufactured by SAN Swiss Arms AG. The company's products are the firearms equivalent of Swiss watches, known for impeccable workmanship.

Cox suspected it was a variant of a Swiss Army surplus assault rifle, which is prohibited in Canada because it's capable of being converted to full-automatic fire.

“If somebody comes in here with an illegal gun you can’t just turn your back,” he told Postmedia News.

[ Related: Study claims gun-control laws have no effect on murder rate ]

Cox's inquiry, however, set off a much wider investigation by the RCMP's firearms boffins into the entire line of Swiss Arms semi-autos.

Cox got a letter last May from William Etter, the Mounties' chief firearms technologist, who suggested all the guns were variations or modified versions of the prohibited SG550 military rifle, not the legally acceptable SG540.

Cox told Postmedia News he went to Switzerland to collect evidence the guns he'd imported were all legal variants of the SG540, which he forwarded to the RCMP.

Nevertheless, the National Firearms Association's web site said Thursday night that the Classic Green had been reclassified.

"There are approximately 1,000 -1,800 of these firearms in the public," the association said. "The government will not be offering compensation and will be demanding that the firearms, which cost between $3,000 - $4,000 be surrendered.

"The government is suggesting that all affected firearms owners contact the distributors from which the firearms were purchased for reimbursement."

It's estimated there are about 2,000 of the guns Canada.

The situation has caught the gun-friendly Conservative government off guard. National Post columnist Matt Gurney said Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney signed off on the RCMP's decision to reclassify the Classic Green as prohibited.

"Sources close to this matter have told me that Minister Blaney essentially goofed, and didn't realize the full implications of what he'd approved," Gurney wrote.

The Conservatives fulfilled a longstanding promise to gun owners to scrap the long gun registry but now could face a backlash over this.

[ Related: Quebec loses appeal to preserve long-gun registry data ]

However, Tony Bernardo of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association told CBC News on Thursday that Blaney was working with his group to deal with the issue.

Blaney's office issued a statement Thursday: "We are looking into this matter on an urgent basis. Our Conservative government is standing up for law-abiding gun owners."

In an email to CBC News, Blaney spokesman Jean-Christophe de Le Rue said the minister "will take appropriate action to ensure that firearms owners who acted in good faith are not penalized as a result of the actions of others."

National Firearms Association lawyer Solomon Friedman told CBC News the process that sent the Classic Green rifle from non-restricted to prohibited is an example of problems with the whole system.

Having the RCMP recommend which guns should be prohibited is like "the fox guarding the henhouse," he said, because the Mounties have a vested interest in limiting firearms in civilian hands.

Gurney said firearms classification should be put in the hands of an independent group of experts.

"Canadian citizens are being ordered to surrender legally purchased property or else face prison time," he wrote. "No justification has been offered, and certainly no compensation.

"And since these were non-restricted firearms, they are no longer registered, meaning there are law-abiding Canadians out there who, unless they follow the news very closely and pick up on this, may soon become criminals thanks to a flick of Minister Blaney's pen."