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Toy Seizure Cannot Go Unchallenged


Police seized a supply of legally-owned toy guns from an Oakville, Ontario store, and then held a press conference to pat themselves on the back for doing so. The police chief admits that "under our present federal and provincial legislation, these firearms [sic] aren't covered." Mr. Gunter expresses alarm that should ring across the country about this police action.

Originally published in the Edmonton Journal.


Lorne Gunter

 Author Notes

Regular columnist with The Edmonton Journal, and frequent contributor to the National Post, National Report, and other publications.

 Essay - 5/17/2000

Peel (Ontario) Regional Police cannot be permitted to get away with their actions of May 4. That day Peel police raided S&K Toys and Crafts in Oakville, Ont., a Toronto suburb, and seized 3,200 toy guns.

Wait, before you tune out because this is "just another gun column by Gunter," remember, the key here is that the police seized toys and acknowledged they likely were not illegal. Peel police confiscated them because they determined the toys were a threat to the public and should be banned.

Claiming that there have been 28 "replica gun incidents" in Peel region since last November, without elaborating what the incidents entailed, and having traced the source of many of the replicas used back to S&K Toys, Peel police asked the owners of the store, Wang and Hon Sum Ko, to remove them from the shelves in late April. The Kos complied.

This wasn't good enough for the police, however, who returned a week later and grabbed the toys.

At a press conference to announce his triumph, Peel Chief Noel Catney uttered a most astonishingly authoritarian statement. "They should be banned," he said of the look-alike toy guns, "and as we speak now, it is illegal to sell these types of firearms, in our view, at any retail outlet in Peel region."

Chief Catney's words are so ripe, it's hard to know where to begin picking them apart.

"They should be banned..." Well, perhaps they should. It is arguable that a bank or convenience store robber is going to rob whether he has a toy gun or not. He'll get a real one if the cheaper toy one is unavailable. And since the robbery is inevitable, it is also arguable that there is less danger to innocent tellers and cashiers from robbers with toy guns. Thus it is contrary to public safety for police to confiscate the toy ones. But I'll admit that's a bit arcane.

Let's agree with the chief for a minute, though. Even if these toys should be banned, the salient point for Peel police, and for the Peel region crown attorney who gave them permission to raid, is that the toys at present are not banned. It is simply and completely unacceptable to have police going about seizing private property on their own say so, just because that property is offensive to them.

Ditto for the chief's claim "it is illegal to sell these types of firearms, in our view." Police often have to make judgements calls about whether this or that action constitutes a crime. The law is not always crystal clear, so the police often make an arrest without being sure whether a judge will agree with them that an offense has been committed.

But what we have here is not police making a judgement call. Rather, we have police making law. "The concern is that under our present federal and provincial legislation, these (toy) firearms aren't covered," Catney added. Precisely, Chief, and until lawmakers cover them, or you get elected to Parliament or Queen's Park, Canadians will thank you to remember that.

Then there's the chief's assertion that the sale of toy guns is illegal "at any retail outlet in Peel region." Okay, then what were his officers doing at S&K? That toy store is in Halton region. The Halton police and crown attorney had given them permission to be there. Yet neither the law nor jurisdictional boundaries seem sufficient to contain Catney.

The fact that these toys are guns, unfortunately, clouds the issue in this case. There will undoubtedly be many people who agree with Peel police that it is dangerous to permit real-looking toys handguns into Canada. That's another debate, though. It is surely at least as dangerous to have police admit they haven't got a legal leg to stand on, but act out their own wishes anyway.

Peel Inspector Tom Trevelyan admitted perhaps the biggest fear most police officers have about realistic toy guns. It's not that criminals will use them in crimes, but that "We're sitting waiting for somebody to get shot with one of these because they didn't drop it quick enough for a police officer on demand."

Although thankfully few street and patrol cops ever have to decide to fire on a suspect, all of them worry (a lot) they will make the wrong decision if it ever comes to that. They know the decision to fire or not must be made in a fraction of a second, to protect themselves and the public. And they worry the armed robber in the shadowy alley will turn out to be a just a poor, dead kid with a toy pistol.

It's hard to imagine, though, the 28 toy gun incidents Catney used as justification for the S&K raid included more than one or two such cases of misidentifying a suspect (and no such mistake resulted in a shooting). Most were surely crimes committed with toy guns, and seizing all the toy guns in the world (which Catney has perhaps already asked Interpol for permission to do), won't stop those.

Whatever your stance on guns and gun control, do you really want police brass making laws on their own?

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