A displaced resident waits for his return home. Canadian Press
While just over a third of High River’s 13,000 residents affected by the Alberta floods are allowed to return Saturday, debate is still swirling around the seizure of firearms from evacuated homes.
RCMP said they searched all 5,000 homes after the bodies of three victims were discovered in the river and several other people were reported missing. The goal, according to RCMP, was to search for bodies or missing people. However they also removed an undisclosed number of firearms from the homes, a decision that angered some residents and gun rights advocates.
“We surmised that we were in a mass casualty situation and we were conducting a search and rescue operation and entered the home under that authority,” said inspector Garrett Woolsey with the High River RCMP detachment.
“Also there was a local state of emergency that also supports us in that endeavor. We didn’t seize them for criminal purposes. We simply secured them for public safety,” he said.
Legislation gives police additional powers during a state of emergency to enter homes. Woolsey said forced entry was only used as a last resort and locksmiths were called in to help.
But lawyer and Canadian firearms law expert Solomon Friedman said even if RCMP has the legal authority to enter the homes, they do not have the power to remove property.
“[State of Emergency] doesn’t give them carte blanche to take whatever items, temporarily or otherwise, because they deem it advisable,” Friedman said. “As long as they’re stored in conformance with the regulation they’re like any other private property and can’t be disturbed.”
Federal regulations says stored long guns, like rifles and shotguns, must be unloaded and disabled, either by a trigger lock, cable lock or by removing the bolt. Restricted weapons, like handguns, must be stored and locked in a secure room, safe or vault.
It is unclear whether all the confiscated firearms violated these requirements but may become apparent if residents are charged with improper storage.
Friedman believes residents likely moved their firearms out of flood prone areas of the home, such as the basement, which is why they were out in the open.
Once all residents were evacuated RCMP created a perimeter around the town to monitor the situation and prevent residents from re-entering their homes. Woolsey said security was increased after the homes were searched.
“There is no special permission that the RCMP has to go door to door and seize them. It becomes as civil break and enter at that point,” Solomon said.
However, Woolsey said RCMP were acting within the law, adding that the firearms are being stored at the High River RCMP detachment.
But Friedman asked why other harmful items like knives and bow and arrows were not removed.
RCMP said they removed firearms which were in “plain view” but Woolsey didn’t know if that was the case in every instance.
“They are being logged and recorded and will be returned to their owner in due course, as soon as we can, once this disaster is over.”
He added that RCMP don’t yet have a procedure of how they will return the firearms to their rightful owners or what could happen to family heirlooms including grandfathered prohibited firearms.
Friedman fears the government will require proof of ownership, something some gun owners won’t be able to provide for long guns and heirlooms. Restricted firearms will be registered with the federal government.
On Friday, the Prime Minister weighed in, asking RCMP to return the firearms as soon as possible.
Friedman said issues of firearms seizures will not be resolved by suing the RCMP, who’s funding ultimately comes from the public purse, but through changing the law.
“People need to respectfully pressure their politicians to reform and repeal the Firearms Act,” said Friedman. “For as long as it is a criminal offence to peacefully possess a firearm without licence or authorization from the government, gun owners will be treated like presumptive criminals. Their homes will be entered without warrant and their property will be seized without due cause.”