Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office is urging the RCMP in High River, Alta., to focus on "more important" tasks and to return the guns officers took from homes while searching for victims in the evacuated flood zone.
Harper's office issued a statement Friday morning in quick reaction to the news that the RCMP had taken some firearms that they said weren't stored properly in empty homes.
"If any firearms were taken, we expect they will be returned to their owners as soon as possible," the statement said. "We believe the RCMP should focus on more important tasks such as protecting lives and private property."
"We are expressing our view," a spokesman for Harper, Carl Vallee, said in an email when asked for comment about the statement.
The RCMP would not comment on the PMO's suggestions, and a spokesman for the High River detachment said the RCMP were acting in the interest of public safety.
"When RCMP officers were going door-to-door searching each residence for potential victims, we did come across a couple of residences where there were some firearms that were left insecure," Cpl. Darrin Turnbull told CBC News in an interview.
"In those situations, when they were out in plain view and they were not properly secured and stored, those firearms were taken by the RCMP member and safely secured in the High River detachment."
Search was for victims, not guns
Turnbull said once people are allowed back in their homes, they can pick up their guns, which have been tagged with information so they will be returned to the proper owner. He didn't know exactly how many firearms had been collected and emphasized that officers were not specifically searching for guns or going out of their way to find them.
"The RCMP were not searching houses looking for firearms. The RCMP were going into homes looking for victims. If while we were in that home looking for victims there was an unsecured firearm that was out in the open, we had to take that firearm to make sure it was safe."
At a press conference Friday in High River held by provincial and municipal officials, RCMP Insp. Gerrett Woolsey told reporters several hundred guns had been seized as officers inspected every home they could enter over a period of several days.
"It's no different than Slave Lake, to seize firearms or to secure firearms that are in plain view," Garrett said, referring to the Alberta community swept by fire in 2011.
Garrett said it appeared that people in High River took their firearms out of storage with the intention of removing them or moving them to higher ground, but then left them behind as they fled their homes. He added that in "the unlikely event" RCMP found an illegal gun, the public prosecutor would be informed, but "in the vast majority of cases — I hope in all the cases — we are going to return these firearms to their owners as soon as possible."
On Thursday, Alberta's Minister of Justice Jonathan Denis wrote to Commissioner Dale McGowan of RCMP K Division In Edmonton, asking for confirmation that the firearms had not been confiscated, but merely secured, and how firearm owners would be informed about how to retrieve their property.
Denis also asked what process would be in place if proof of ownership of the firearm had been destroyed in the flooding. He ended the letter saying, "I thank you and the RCMP for their exceptional service at this time of crisis in southern Alberta."
Premier defends RCMP
Alberta Premier Alison Redford defended the RCMP and said this shouldn't be the focus of attention.
"There is no suggestion that people will not be able to have their guns back again, and I really hope that we can focus on more important matters at hand, like getting 12,000 people back into High River than continue to circulate this story," she said. She wouldn't comment on the PMO's statement.
The Canadian Shooting Sports Association doesn't agree with the RCMP's position that it was acting in the interest of public safety and said the RCMP had "breached and sullied their contract with the public to serve and protect."
"This act of aggression is further proof that the RCMP have a not-so-hidden agenda to take guns away from responsible gun owners," Tony Bernardo, head of the group, said in a release.
Bernardo said the RCMP overstepped their mandate and he's happy Harper's office has got involved in the matter.
"We are advised that the Prime Minister's Office will examine whether the rights of Canadians have been ignored by the police. I am confident that the federal government will deal swiftly with those who have portrayed Canada as a police state in the eyes of the of the world."
The RCMP said in a statement issued Friday that officers had no way of knowing that firearms left unattended would be secure.
"The last thing any gun owner wants is to have their guns fall into the wrong hands. Residents of High River can be assured that firearms now in possession of the RCMP are in safe hands, and will be returned to them as soon as is practically possible," said assistant commissioner Marianne Ryan, criminal operations, K Division RCMP. "Gun owners will also be provided the option of having the RCMP keep the guns until they are able to store them safely."