Nunavut judge rules on tricky firearms case
No improper storage charges mean man does not have to forfeit guns
Do Canadian courts have the authority to take away seized firearms from people convicted of crimes if those firearms are not related to the crimes committed?
That’s the question Justice Sue Cooper of the Nunavut Court of Justice addressed in a written decision issued July 21.
Cooper’s response, which concerns the single firearm-related conviction of 33-year-old Gary Arnaquq from Qikiqtarjuaq, is no: courts don’t have that authority.
After receiving a call from Arnaquq’s common-law wife that Arnaquq had tried to commit suicide with a rifle, the RCMP arrested Arnaquq “on the evening in question,” Cooper wrote in her decision, without giving the specific date.
Cooper’s seven-page decision says that Arnaquq’s matter was heard in Qikiqtarjuaq and Iqaluit over three dates in February, March and June of this year.
Arnaquq’s wife found her husband drunk and trying to shoot himself when she took the gun away and called the police, Cooper wrote.
Police arrived shortly after receiving the call and seized six firearms and ammunition, the court document says.
According to Cooper’s summary of court proceedings, lawyers on both sides agreed that Arnaquq handled only one firearm in the incident and legally owned the other firearms that were seized.
However, those firearms were not properly stored, the decision says.
Arnaquq pleaded guilty to carelessly handling a weapon and received a one-day sentence, served by attending court, wrote Cooper.
Arnaquq, who has a “lengthy” criminal record including “offences of violence,” also received a 10-year firearm prohibition from Cooper, the court document says.
“The remaining issue is whether all of the firearms seized at the time of the incident should be forfeited or if only the firearm which was handled in a careless manner should be forfeited,” Cooper wrote.
Crown prosecutor Caroline Lirette recommended to Cooper that all firearms seized should be forfeited because they were not properly stored — a criminal offence in Canada.
But Cooper said that recommendation “is contrary to fundamental principles of due process.”
In asking the court to seize all firearms because they were not properly stored, Crown prosecutors are asking the court to rule on a charge for which there hasn’t been a trial, Cooper wrote.
“An accused person must know the case they are expected to meet prior to making pleas. The approach put forward by the Crown calls upon an accused to defend a charge that is not before the Court,” the judge wrote.
In other words, Arnaquq pleaded guilty to carelessly handling a firearm, and the Crown never filed a charge of improperly storing firearms against him.
“The Crown is essentially asking the Court to make a finding, in the context of a process that is not a trial process,” Cooper wrote.
Given that Arnaquq is now under a 10-year firearms prohibition — meaning he cannot legally own or use firearms for 10 years — Cooper ruled that the other firearms seized by the RCMP must be transferred to or sold by a third party.
“Such an approach would address the public policy concern of safety while avoiding an additional penalty of financial loss to the accused resulting from the forfeiture of property,” Cooper wrote.
Cooper noted that the 10-year firearms prohibition will have a “significant impact” on Arnaquq, as he spends “considerable time” hunting and working with outfitting and research groups.
“It will also have an impact on his family as it will limit their access to country food,” the judge wrote.
At the same time, however, Cooper noted Arnaquq’s lengthy criminal record and a recurring problem in Nunavut.
“Unfortunately, the improper use of firearms is becoming far too common in this jurisdiction, sometimes with tragic consequences.”