It happens in a second. One moment, the clerk is at the till, concentrating on the job. A couple words are exchanged with an anonymous customer. A quick movement, and suddenly there’s a handgun.
The clerk has no way of knowing if the firearm is real or fake. Neither do the police, who will arrive in minutes to reports of a man with a gun.
The details vary, but crimes involving pellet and BB guns that appear to be real take place frequently in cities across the country, including Abbotsford, which has seen two such incidents already this month.
And it seems to be getting more frequent, according to Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald.
He made the observation just days after a man pointed a pellet gun at the public and officers during a short-lived crime spree through Abbotsford. Last week, police locked down several local schools after teens wielding a pellet gun threatened the resident of a house near Robert Bateman secondary, then left and went into the school.
In both cases, a pellet gun was wielded as if it were a real firearm.
And when a report comes in of someone with a gun, officers must treat it as if it is a deadly weapon, MacDonald said, noting that in the vast majority of cases, until the device is seen up close, it is impossible to tell whether it shoots BBs, pellets, or deadly live ammunition.
That poses obvious dangers for the safety of everyone on the scene – particularly the person holding the weapon.
For the public too, looking down the barrel of such a gun can be extremely traumatizing. Earlier this year, Gail Evan told The News about how she was walking down the street when the driver of a passing car pointed what appeared to be a handgun at her and pulled the trigger.
“You’re in shock when you see this happen.”
She was one of at least nine people shot by a man wielding a pellet gun during a spree over the summer. One person was later arrested and now faces several charges.
There is federal legislation that bans the sale and possession of what it calls “replica firearms.” But those must replicate a specific existing model “with precision” to be outlawed. The RCMP, which operates the Canadian Firearms Program, has thus far not prohibited the sale of pellet guns and air pistols that are modeled after existing handguns, but which have some differences.
Multiple Canadian online retailers sell non-lethal guns made and marketed for training, closely based on versions of real guns bearing the same names. A retailer selling a Colt Government 1911 touts its “realistic all-metal slide and frame,” while the same site says a Beretta Model 84FS BB Air Pistol is a “CO2 copy” of the real gun in 9mm or other calibres.
A reviewer of a Winchester CO2 pistol on another site suggests the gun “looks and feels like a real M1911, which is my preferred handgun.”
For most consumers and users, the look of BB and pellet guns or air pistols is a side feature of a device meant for recreation, and,often, target practice.
But for some criminals, that appearance is the draw, MacDonald said, suggesting that by brandishing a BB or pellet gun, criminals seem to hope to avoid the full brunt of the law if caught by police.
“They want people to believe it’s real,” he said. “They think they will escape through a loophole if they end up being searched,” he said.
In 2010, a year after an Ottawa officer shot and killed a man holding a replica gun, the Ottawa Police Services Board asked the federal government to regulate such pistols under the Firearms Act, a proposal initiated by the Canada Safety Council. The council pointed to three incidents between 2006 and 2010 in which people were killed by police while holding replica guns during confrontations.
The call doesn’t appear to have stirred any change, however.
Public Safety Canada would not answer questions about whether the government would take a look at the existing law, pointing only to a Throne Speech pledge to keep Canadians safe.
The News sought to speak to the federal RCMP, but was told they would “not be providing an interview on the subject.”
The RCMP did provide a statement that said, in part:
“The Criminal Code defines a ‘replica firearm’ as a device that closely resembles an existing make and model of firearm, but is not a firearm itself. In the interest of public safety, Canadians are generally not allowed to acquire replica firearms.”
“The Canadian Firearms Program receives enquiries from people wondering whether a low-powered air gun would be considered a replica if it resembles a real firearm in terms of its shape, but it is made of clear or brightly coloured plastic, or has significant dimensional differences. Some of these devices need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. As a general rule however, devices significantly smaller or larger than the real version are not classified as replica firearms.”
The owner of a local retail store that sells pellet guns said the main issue is the type of criminals misusing the devices.
“There are some silly people and not very smart people out there,” said the storeowner, who didn’t want to be identified.
He suggested that manufacturers could add distinguishing features to make them look less like the real things, but wasn’t sure that would solve the problems. After the Bateman incident, he said he looked at his records and found he hadn’t sold a BB or pellet gun in months.
Ridgedale Rod & Gun Club president Henk Gauw refrained from commenting on the popularity of look-alike fake guns. He said replica BB and pellet guns are banned from the club’s range, as “we do not want kids getting the impression that guns are toys.” Air guns are permitted, provided they adhere to the rules that govern them.
Asked about whether the legislation needs to change, MacDonald suggested manufacturers could take action, perhaps by adding coloured tips on the ends of non-lethal guns.
“That would be something that maybe the industry would want to look at,” he said, although he added that it will always be difficult to determine whether a weapon is real or not without up-close inspection. Police, meanwhile, must continue to treat each report of a firearm with the utmost seriousness, not knowing if a suspect has the capacity to kill or only wound.
“The people who brandish these things want everybody in the world to believe they’re real, except for the cops.”