RCMP Authority to Seize Firearms During a Disaster

A small groundswell of citizens in High River, Alberta are noting their objections to the actions of the RCMP during an emergency flood this past June. In a meeting this week with the RCMP the residents question why searches by the military and RCMP resulted in property damage and seizure of firearms. The RCMP justify their actions by stating they were conducting searches of the homes to ensure no residents or pets were left behind during the evacuation.

The RCMP has the authority under s. 487.11 of the Criminal Code to enter homes to save lives. But their authority at High River more likely came from s. 24(1) of Alberta’s Emergency Management Act, which allows law enforcement to put emergency management plans into place. Residents are still seeking compensation for damage to their homes as a result of the forced entry. The authorities are responsible for these expenses under Section 24 of the Emergency Management Act, but there has not been any payout yet.

The RCMP claims that it only seized firearms which were improperly stored or in plain view, although there are some reports that they seized properly stored firearms as well. In either case the actions would likely be justified if these measures were detailed in their emergency management plans in place before the disaster. Since at least Katrina we can find references to concerns about looting and rioting after a disaster.

Firearm seizure could easily be justified if the RCMP claims that they were seizing the guns to prevent looters from illegally obtaining them, which could then be used for criminal activity, especially since they later said they were only confiscating these firearms and would return them soon. The majority of these firearms have indeed already been returned. Preventing gun theft is a legitimate public concern, and there are estimates that 20 per cent of illegal guns in Canada come from break and enters.

If Alberta residents object to the RCMP’s actions even after the return of the firearms they can file a complaint with the RCMP Public Complaints Commission under s. 45.35 of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act. The Commission can undertake investigations on their own initiative and has a lot of discretion as to what complaints it will pursue, but any complaint from a member of the public should be from someone who was directly affected. If the Commission does look into a matter they have the option of providing a report. In July the Commissioner indicated that the investigation will proceed.

Ideally these emergency management plans should be available to the public before a disaster, so residents know what to expect and in the immediate aftermath and can look to these documents to get some understanding in these tragic times about what has happened. Making these plans available would also allow residents to scrutinize policies such as firearm seizures, and seek to have these changed through their elected representatives.

We do have studies which show that many of the post-disaster fears of violence and criminality are overstated. Many of the Katrina reports were exaggerated and later found to be without reliable sources. Cold War era studies of nuclear fallout demonstrated that civilians actually behave altruistically and cooperatively in light of disasters and calamities.

The concerns over looting and rioting are not based in real evidence, and I argue they should probably not play as prominent a role in emergency management plans unless there is clear indication of civilian unrest.

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