Journalistic Judgment: Reporting on RCMP concern about rifles converted to automatic weapons

The complainant, Rida Mirza, challenged the conclusion of an RCMP lab study that there is an increased risk from rifles converted to automatic fire. He thought it was propaganda that CBC took this report at face value and that there is no issue. Disagreeing with an article doesn’t make it wrong. CBC News got the information through Access to Information. It is legitimate journalism to report what a major law enforcement agency believes is a risk.

COMPLAINT

You were critical of a news piece published on CBCNews.ca entitled “Rifles converted to automatic fire an increasing risk, RCMP internal report warns.” You said it was a “propaganda piece” and was “dishonest and defamatory.” The article was based on information from an RCMP lab report which the CBC News team had obtained under an Access to Information request. The report examined the risk posed by the potential to convert semi-automatic weapons to become fully automatic ones. The report concluded that the number of weapons that could be altered had increased a lot in the last 10 years. It also raised concerns that, while converting firearms in such a fashion is covered under the criminal code, the new weapons might not be covered in the current legislation.

The article was accompanied by a photo of RCMP officers carrying a coffin. You cited the use of this photo as evidence that this was a biased and sensational article. You thought it was completely misplaced and irrelevant in this context because “not a single mountie has been killed by an automatic select fire rifle.”

You were quite emphatic that it is illegal to convert a weapon. You rejected the statement that this was not the case for all weapons, and that it was wrong to simply accept the report’s conclusion that newer weapons might not be covered under the criminal code:

Is the CBC the propaganda arm of the RCMP? Didn’t the CBC think that in the interests of information and helping the public at large understand this issue - that if it’s illegal to convert firearms to “full auto” then how does it suddenly become legal to convert a ‘newer firearm’? Newsflash - it’s illegal to convert firearms to full auto - no ifs, ands, or buts. Newer firearms made since 1995 are not immune to the existing laws where Automatic Firearms are Prohibited.

You thought the title of the article, “Rifles converted to automatic fire an increasing risk, RCMP internal report warns,” set the wrong tone, and accepted that there actually is danger. By framing the article in this way, you said CBC is blindly accepting RCMP propaganda:

This implies that converted firearms are a current Public Safety issue.

This begs the questions - A- Whether Automatic Firearms have even been used in Canada in the commission of a crime? B- have any Police Officers ever been murdered in Canada by an individual using a converted Automatic Firearm?

You said CBC News staff did not provide enough information for people to understand the issue, which you actually characterized as a “non-issue.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Producer for political coverage on CBCNews.ca, Chris Carter, responded to your complaint. He pointed out that this was a narrowly focused story about an RCMP lab report. Portions of this report had been made public through a CBC Access to Information request.

He began by explaining why the particular photo of Mounties carrying the coffin of a colleague was chosen to illustrate the story. He disagreed that it was gratuitous. He told you this was a photo of the pallbearers carrying the coffin of one of the three RCMP officers shot and killed by a lone gunman in Moncton in 2014. He pointed out the caption below the story explained the connection. When the RCMP investigated the case, they discovered that the gunman had considered converting his weapon to fire like an automatic. He went on to explain:

. . . because of this knowledge, the force “launched a series of lab tests on popular semi-automatic rifles” which found that “illegal upgrades” were possible on those weapons. Our story is about the RCMP’s report on the results of those lab tests.

Mr. Carter said he agreed with you that it is illegal to convert guns to automatic weapons. He told you the story was clear that this is the case. He pointed out that the regulations in the Code have not been updated since 1995, and so there was concern expressed in the RCMP report that there were types of weapons now on the market that would fall through the cracks, and that it would not be illegal to alter them.

He told you that the points you made about the “use (or non-use)” of these weapons were beyond the scope of this particular article:

We are narrowly reporting on the findings of the RCMP report and on the political response to it. It is the RCMP report that says the Mounties believe the risk to the public has increased, but the report does not quantify that risk in the sections that were released through our Access to Information Act request, nor does it include statistics. With the legislated demise of the federal gun registry, the RCMP no longer has information about how many or what type of semi-automatic rifles are owned by people in Canada.

He rejected your assertion that this was a story “meant to scare the uninformed.” Rather, he said it was intended “to report on the RCMP decision to test certain firearms and on the findings of those tests as conveyed in the RCMP’s internal lab report, which had not been previously made public.”

REVIEW

Almost all the core values of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices would be relevant here. Accuracy obliges CBC journalists to seek out the facts and to use their skills to present the information in a way that helps members of the public understand an issue or the new information being provided. There is also an obligation to treat all organizations evenhandedly and in an open fashion. The commitment to Fairness states:

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them evenhandedly.

You assert that this report somehow is merely a propaganda exercise in the service of the RCMP. It is hard to see how that is the case. First of all, the RCMP did not release the results of their study. To the contrary, it required an Access to Information request to get any information on this lab study, and what was provided was redacted. This was not simply repeating a news release, but enterprise journalism. Even if that had not been the case, there is an obligation to accurately reflect what an individual or organization has to say about an issue of public importance.

You are correct that it is also important to provide other views and other perspectives on issues of controversy, and to provide as much context as possible. However, CBC policy states “that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

It also states that professional judgment should be brought to bear in presenting facts. In the professional judgment of one of the parliamentary bureau’s senior reporters, it was worth the time and effort to seek out the results of this RCMP study, and to lay the facts out for members of the public. And that is what occurred here. This is a fairly narrowly focused report on the information the reporter had obtained. There is nothing inflammatory or inappropriate about it.

One of the issues that concerned you a great deal is that the report states there may be some weapons that are not covered by the current regulations in the criminal code. This is what the article says:

The lab report notes that Criminal Code regulations designed to thwart makeshift upgrades may not apply to newer generations of weapons, creating a legal void.

The article goes on to quote extensively from the redacted report:

“The restricted and prohibited firearm provisions of Criminal Code regulations were last updated in 1995, and there are presently numerous models of military and paramilitary firearms on the Canadian market which are outside the scope of the Criminal Code regulations, many being non-restricted in classification,” says the 15-page report.

“The Canadian introduction of new types of military and paramilitary firearms not mentioned in the Criminal Code regulations, nearly all with large capacity magazines sizes, started circa 2005 and has accelerated since.”

“The public safety threat posed by improvised conversion to full automatic fire has correspondingly increased.”

You provide no evidence to support your assertion that there is no gap, that conversion of weapons is illegal and that covers any kind of weapon. You are most certainly entitled to that opinion, but there is no obligation for it to be in this article. It is accurately reporting the conclusions of a group of professionals.

You also questioned the use of the photo of RCMP pallbearers carrying the coffin of one of their colleagues. As Mr. Carter pointed out to you, the connection to the story is printed just below the photo:

Pallbearers carry the casket of one of three RCMP officers killed in 2014 by a gunman. The Mounties launched a series of lab tests on popular semi-automatic rifles after learning the gunman had considered converting his weapon to fire like an automatic. The tests showed the illegal upgrades worked.

You point out that it is not relevant because the shooter did not make the conversion. True, but your objection is irrelevant because it is the stated reason the RCMP launched this examination. Again, you are entitled to your view that there is no risk. This is a report about the fact that a major law enforcement agency believes that there is. You may agree or not with their reasoning, but it is an accurate reporting of why they did this. The lead paragraph provides the framing for the piece:

The number of military-style firearms that can be temporarily jury-rigged to become automatic weapons has increased “dramatically” in Canada over the last decade — and so has the public-safety risk.

That’s the stark conclusion of an internal RCMP laboratory report on improvised methods for upgrading semi-automatic weapons, and for illegally altering magazine clips to allow for rapid continuous fire.

The fact that the RCMP is concerned, and the fact that the number of weapons and the related risk has gone up, is newsworthy. Reporting it is not endorsing it. It is neither biased nor sensational. Your point that it is always better to provide as much context as possible is a good one. Mr. Carter explained to you that the numbers and statistics are not available. That would have been interesting to note, but it is not a violation of policy to have omitted it. This story in no way violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman