Alberta and Saskatchewan are moving to assert greater control over gun regulation by taking over the appointment of their provincial firearms officers at a time of heightened tension on the Prairies over gun rights.
Both provinces have announced plans to replace the current provincial chief firearms officers, who until now have been appointed by Ottawa, with their own selection. The firearms officers oversee licensing, transportation and other administrative issues related to the implementation of federal gun laws.
They will join Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in having control over who fills that position.
Alberta and Saskatchewan announced their intentions regarding firearms officers months ago, but the idea has taken on greater urgency since Ottawa announced a ban on what it calls assault weapons in May.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said that while he acknowledges the federal government has jurisdiction over gun laws, a provincially appointed firearms officer will ensure those laws are applied appropriately.
"Often, personnel is policy,” Mr. Kenney said on Monday.
“We believe we can have somebody who, while obviously committed to upholding the law, will do so in a way that focuses enforcement on criminal misuse of firearms rather than regulatory harassment of safe, legal, law-abiding farmers and duck hunters."
Alberta’s United Conservative Party government tabled a motion in the provincial legislature recently calling for a provincially appointed firearms officer. It is expected to pass in the coming days.
Saskatchewan announced last week that it was formally launching the search for a chief firearms officer.
The province’s Minister of Corrections and Policing, Christine Tell, said she wants someone in the role who understands rural Saskatchewan.
“The Firearms Act has to be followed, there’s no question, but having somebody who gets it, somebody who understands this province is important,” Ms. Tell said in an interview.
“I’m hesitant to use the word ‘control,’ because the act is very specific. But it’s how you administer it."
Ms. Tell declined to provide any examples of areas where she wants federal gun laws to be administered differently.
Mary-Liz Power, the press secretary for federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said in an e-mailed statement that the federal government supports the provinces’ right to appoint a chief firearms officer.
Solomon Friedman, an Ottawa-based criminal lawyer who specializes in gun laws, said provincial chief firearms officers have latitude when it comes to licensing and other decisions. For example, that includes where a licensed gun owner can transport a gun and in what conditions, which can vary from province to province.
He compared it to the discretion a local police chief has in enforcing the federal Criminal Code.
“Whatever differences would apply, I think they would be minor and regulatory in nature, but they could make a big difference in the day-to-day use of firearms by licensed gun owners,” Mr. Friedman said.
Mr. Friedman, who represents a gun shop owner in a legal challenge of the federal firearms ban, said gun owners, particularly in the West, have often felt like a political target.
“There are definitely regional issues there,” he said. “There’s no question that, in the Prairies, this has long been an issue that’s galvanized political support.”
Wendy Cukier, a Ryerson University professor who is the president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said chief firearms officers also have a lot of control over who is prohibited from owning a restricted weapon if, for example, they pose a danger.
“The flavour of the provincial government does have a pretty profound impact on how rigorously they implement the law, how committed they are to rigorous screening,” she said.
Prof. Cukier said that if provinces want more control over gun regulation, they also need to be prepared to share the blame if mistakes are made. She added that provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan that have higher rates of gun ownership also have higher rates of gun crime, suicide and domestic homicide.
“When, as invariably will happen, there are tragedies, people will be asking: Why did that person have a gun?” Prof. Cukier said.
“With responsibility comes accountability, and if the provinces decide they want to take more responsibility for administering gun control laws, they will also be held accountable for that. And that may not be a bad thing."
Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, said provincially appointed firearms officers are able to reflect how people use guns and what’s acceptable in different parts of the country.
“What works in downtown Montreal doesn’t necessarily work in Strathmore, [Alta.]," he said.
“Every area in the country has a different level of accepted utility in the use of firearms."
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