As many as a million large-capacity rifle magazines that were declared prohibited in 2016 remain in the hands of Canada's gun owners — the fallout of a simmering legal dispute over the RCMP's authority to ban weaponry.
Since the 1960s, owners of the popular 22-calibre Ruger 10/22 long rifle have been able to buy magazines with no limit on the number of rounds they can hold.
That changed in May 2016 when the RCMP, in response to a border-seizure incident, declared as prohibited any 10/22 magazines that can hold more than 10 cartridges.
A briefing note for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says there are tens of thousands of the prohibited magazines still at large in Canada. (CBC)
The Mounties' ruling was prompted in part by sales of a Ruger brand of restricted pistol — for which there are strict magazine size limits — that can use the large-capacity magazines designed for Ruger rifles.
The 2016 decision was not broadly or well communicated. Three months later, the RCMP posted a question-and-answer communique on their website after gun sellers and owners repeatedly asked about the rumoured change.
But almost two years later, tens of thousands of the problem magazines remain in private hands, in regulatory limbo.
The 22-calibre long rifle, widely owned in Canada, is frequently a beginner's firearm. It's often used to hunt small game, to control pests or for target practice.
Solomon Friedman, an Ottawa criminal defence lawyer, says the RCMP made a legal error in prohibiting the large-capacity magazines. (CBC)
The RCMP say they had not previously imposed any magazine-size restrictions for the Ruger 10/22, in part because of the rifle's lower power. (Recent mass shootings in the U.S. have involved semi-automatic AR-15-style rifles and pistols using more powerful ammunition.)
An internal briefing note for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale warned in July 2016 about the large numbers of prohibited magazines still at large.
"The 10/22 rifle platform is popular – tens of thousands are estimated to be owned by Canadians," says the document, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
"Given the popularity of militarizing these platforms, the number of prohibited 10/22 magazines possessed by businesses and individuals is also likely in the tens of thousands. An accounting of these prohibited magazines is not possible since firearm magazines are not registered."
The Criminal Code penalty for possession of such a prohibited device is up to five years in prison, says the document.
The head of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), which has 32,000 members, told CBC the number of 10/22 large-capacity magazines is likely much higher than the RCMP estimates.
"Our understanding is approximately 1.2 million of them in Canada," said Tony Bernardo.
In an email, he dismissed the Mounties' decision on the magazines as "another arbitrary ban from the 'experts' at the RCMP."
Bernardo said his group plans to launch a class action lawsuit against the RCMP to challenge the ban. Meanwhile, the CSSA is warning gun dealers to take their large-capacity 10/22 magazines off the shelves, and telling its members not to transport them.
The RCMP's estimate of tens of thousands of the large-capacity 10/22 magazines in the hands of gun owners and businesses remains valid, said spokesman Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer.
The RCMP's legal opinion is wrong
- Solomon Friedman, Ottawa lawyer and gun control expert
Pfleiderer said the RCMP does not maintain statistics on how many such magazines have been seized, and referred questions about any charges laid to the federal Justice Department, which declined comment. Bernardo said he knows of no CSSA members who have been charged with possessing a large-capacity 10/22 magazine.
But Ottawa defence lawyer Solomon Friedman, who often takes clients in gun control cases, said he's had three such cases in the last year.
"It's apparent to me that the Crown does not have an appetite to prosecute them," he said in an interview. "The RCMP's legal opinion is wrong.
"Every gun owner that I know has these magazines."
The briefing note for Goodale says 25-shot magazines — known as Ruger BX-25s and able to be used in both rifles and pistols — were explicitly prohibited in 2013. And general information about a 10-cartridge magazine maximum was "well circulated on Canadian online forums" at the time.
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"Magazines up to 110 shot capacity are available," says the briefing note, signed by former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson.
"Although the 22LR [22-calibre, long-rifle] cartridge is less powerful than most, it is nonetheless lethal, and combined with high capacity magazines, presents a public safety hazard and an officer safety concern when responding to incidents involving these magazines.
"Notwithstanding the steps taken to inform the Canadian public and firearms businesses, it appears that prohibited 10/22 platform magazines continue to be imported into Canada and sold by unqualified businesses and individuals."
Bernardo said the RCMP has misinterpreted the law, putting thousands of law-abiding gun-owners in legal peril.
"How can they just simply wave their magic wand and turn hundreds of thousands of people into felons?" he said. "Where did the police get this power?"
Friedman called Canada's gun-control regime a "complete mess," with the RCMP's ruling on the 10/22 magazine issue a prime example of an erroneous legal opinion putting ordinary gun-owners in legal jeopardy.
"You don't have a single, coherent firearms policy that informs the legislation and regulations," he said.
In March, the Liberal government tabled long-promised gun-control legislation – Bill C-71 – that still leaves decisions on weapon classification with the RCMP.
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