A service outage on the RCMP website this weekend is exposing a grey area around gun sales and who is responsible for checking that they are legal.
A national online database that lists the names of all Canadians who have firearms licences is down for two weekends in a row so that the RCMP can purge Quebec data from the now-scrapped long-gun registry after the Supreme Court ruled the province cannot have the information.
The list is available to gun shops so they can double-check the purple photo ID cards that show customers' Possession and Acquisition Licenses are valid.
The service outage means sellers cannot do the extra check. To some, this means closing until Monday. For others, it is business as usual, because they believe they are not obligated to check online. It is unclear who is right.
"Whether or not they're actually calling the registry, I have no idea," said Chantal Trahan, who oversees licensing at Ontario's Chief Firearms Office.
New gun laws in 2012 mention double-checking buyers' eligibility, but do not require sellers to do it in any specific way.
Sellers must have "no reason to believe" a customer is not authorized to buy or possess a gun, according to the law. They also "may request" authorities to tell them if the buyer holds and is still eligible to hold the licence, in which case authorities "shall" comply.
Ms. Trahan said sellers do not have a legal obligation to check the database. However, they do need to "satisfy themselves" that the buyer is legally in compliance, which in effect means they do, she said. "How is it that you get that guarantee, right?"
One gun seller told The Globe and Mail he always does the check and, when he called the RCMP on Friday morning about the outage, was told to suspend sales.
On Friday afternoon, the police force could not provide immediate clarification on the rules or what advice they are giving gun vendors. A spokesman promised more information over the weekend.
Other gun vendors said they did not notice the site was down. Some said they do not need to run the check, since they believe police have a legal obligation to seize revoked gun licences.
"It's like if you lose your driver's license for a DUI, they take your licence away at court, right?" Ken Brown, the owner of Guns'n Games in Stettler, Alta. "Supposedly, that's how it's supposed to work."
Police have been instructed on that issue in tepid language as well. About a year after the gun law changes, Mounties were informed in a special bulletin that they "should make every attempt" to seize invalid licences. That measure had not previously been crucial, since all firearm sales were processed and approved by the RCMP, the bulletin said.
"If the buyer's licence had been revoked, the transaction would fail and not be approved," it said. "Since April 2012, long gun sales and transfers no longer require [RCMP] approval, so a person who has had their licence revoked may be able to deceive a seller by presenting an invalid licence card. It is therefore important that the licence card be seized when it has been revoked."
According to RCMP data, about 2,400 firearms licences have been revoked annually for the past four years.
Poor checks of the licences have helped fuel a trend of fraudulent gun purchases in the past three years, Ms. Trahan said. In one scenario, criminals pose as online gun sellers to steal licence information from buyers and then use it to acquire firearms online fraudulently.
One Orillia vendor said he only consistently does the extra check for first-time online buyers.
"The card's good if I see it in a guy's hand," said Paul, a sales clerk at Ellwood Epps Sporting Goods who did not provide his last name. "Otherwise, it would have been pulled. There's no obligation for us to check it online – never has been."