Prop gun wranglers refute gang tie allegations
The gun wranglers for British Columbia's lucrative film and TV-production business are running scared these days.
As gangsters shoot each other down on B.C. streets, the entertainment industry's property masters are cowering under what they consider unfair accusations they're channeling weapons to the underworld.
The B.C. government singled them out as a problem in February when it announced plans to take over control of firearms regulation from Ottawa.
It wants to emulate Ontario and four other provinces that opted to take over firearms registration after the federal government passed a new Firearms Act in 1998.
The new long-gun registry, which the current government in Ottawa wants to abolish, wasn't very popular politically among B.C. voters. But funding issues apparently were behind the decision not to take control, says John van Dongen, the province's current solicitor general and minister for public safety.
It's much more difficult to get a licence for movie guns in Ontario than in B.C.
"You have to demonstrate a need for having that licence," says chief firearms officer Chris Wyatt, a superintendent with the Ontario Provincial Police.
"So you must have a contract or letter of intent from a production company to show that they're going to engage in an agreement with you to supply or furnish prohibited firearms or prohibited devices."
There are more than 60 B.C. firms licensed to supply prohibited weapons and devices such as silencers to the film and TV sectors, compared with 17 in Ontario.
Even accounting for the West Coast industry's larger size, van Dongen has suggested that's too many and pledged to crack down on licensing.
"I do know there's good operators in that field," says van Dongen. "And I do know that there's bad operators in that field."
Lumping the good with the bad?
Prop masters feel blindsided by the plan.
Ken Anderson, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 891, says the publicity caused a double-barrelled backlash. It lumped professional prop masters in with shady gun dealers and it signalled to criminals that they might be a ready source of high-powered weaponry.
"What terrified them when that report came out was that they were afraid it looked like what was being said was if you want some really cool guns, knock over a props truck ..." says Anderson.
But while prop masters are upset by the government's tone, they don't disagree with its policy direction.
"They made the right point but they went about it the wrong way," says Kelly Abram, an experienced armourer who's worked on TV productions such as Supernatural and Dead Man's Gun.
Abrams says the problem is two-fold.
Industrial firearms licences have been given out to too many people who don't regularly work on productions. And staff at British Columbia's firearms registry office are too overworked to actively monitor licensees.
The Firearms Act allows businesses to be licensed to possess prohibited guns, devices and ammunition for specific purposes, including movie, TV, video or theatrical production.
A consultant's report prepared for van Dongen last year identified 63 such licensees in the province, about a third of them tied to gun dealers.
Only a handful of licensees maintain large gun inventories, which are rented to productions. Otherwise, the guns are imported as needed for a project.
"When you have a big movie, you bring it in from the States and you send it back to the States," says Abram.
An armourer accompanies the weapons to the set and is responsible for them, he says, though often the production's prop master also has a licence to facilitate handling.
Some gun dealers will get themselves licensed to supply the movie industry but not be very active, says Abram.
"They're doing it because they want to have the cool black guns," he says, by which he means military-style assault rifles and automatic weapons.
The guns themselves are supposed to be converted to fire only blank ammunition. Licensees have to supply the chief firearms officer with documentation they've been deactivated.
But officials often have to take their word for it because the staff at the firearms office or designated police officers rarely have time to follow up in person.
"They're not looking after just the film industry," says Abram. "They're looking after every transfer, every new registration, every new gun owner in B.C. That's a little more work than five people can do."
In one notorious case two years ago, International Tactical Solutions of New Westminster, B.C., imported a shipment of fully automatic weapons, including assault rifles and machine guns, ostensibly for film and TV production.
The company faxed documents to the firearms office saying the guns had been converted to blank-firing. No one knew different until two of the AK-47s in the shipment were found at the scene of a gangster firefight in Richmond, B.C.
Owner John Lansdowne eventually pleaded guilty to minor firearms charges after claiming the entire shipment disappeared from the home of an employee.
It's that kind of loophole van Dongen hopes to close by having the province take control of firearms regulation.
Ten police officers, part of a new B.C. weapons enforcement unit, will work with the firearms office to ensure licence compliance, van Dongen says.
Ontario keeps close tabs on commercial firearms licensees, inspecting them every two years and watches prop gun licence-holders even more closely because they often have access to automatic weapons.
"They know that because of the type of firearms that they have, they get more careful scrutiny than, say, your Canadian Tire that's selling rifles and shotguns," says Wyatt.
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear
Van Dongen says he sympathizes with professional prop masters but says those who are operating within the regulations will have nothing to fear from the new regime.
"We are strong supporters of the film industry in British Columbia and we are not going to do anything that will hamper the ability of that industry to operate and flourish," he says.
Van Dongen says his staff is just beginning to sit down with their federal counterparts and other stakeholders to discuss transferring firearms regulation to the province. There's no set timetable for the process to be finished.