Gun control politics revised Canada's political map
Private member's bill to kill long-gun registry combined with Conservative attack ads which target sitting Liberal and NDP MPs from rural ridings.
by Ish Theilheimer, with files from Anne Cummings and Lori Steuart, video by Kevin Caners
OTTAWA, November 6, 2009, HarperIndex.ca, with YouTube video: This week's House of Commons vote of support for legislation to kill Canada'a controversial long-gun registry is another chapter in a narrative that has been instrumental in electing and re-electing the Harper Conservatives to government.
The gun registry has been a rallying point for the rural Right since it was introduced by the the Jean Chrétien Liberal government in response to the 1989 "Montreal Massacre", in which 14 women were gunned down. The registry enjoys widespread support in Quebec, in cities, and among police, but the feeling is quite different in rural areas of anglophone Canada. The Conservatives have campaigned relentlessly on the issue, most recently by running attack ads targetting sitting Liberal and NDP MPs in rural areas. Gun control has been used repeatedly as a wedge issue to defeat Liberals and New Democrats in rural ridings across English-speaking Canada, including HarperIndex.ca contributor Dennis Gruending, who ran for the NDP in Saskatchewan (see Related below).
"It's become an iconic issue," NDP justice critic Joe Comartin told Straight Goods News. Comartin represents both rural and urban voters in his riding of Windsor-Tecumseh and supports the registry. "It doesn't matter what you can prove, and I'm quite willing to take anybody on in a debate on this, on the substance, but that's not really where it's at."
Joe Comartin speaks to Straight Goods News about the gun registry:
Comartin says the Conservatives have successfully exploited the issue to create "a huge division between urban and rural" voters. "But it's also a gender division, it divides men and women quite significantly. Every opinion poll I've ever seen shows women, including women who live on farms or in some cases even hunt or have spouses who hunt, partners who hunt, they overwhelmingly – I mean we're running at two thirds to three quarters – believe in keeping the registry. So it's men, on the other hand, who are hunters or farmers generally, who are around the fifty-percent mark in terms of whether they want the registry or not... It's usually divisive, and very very painful in a lot of communities where you have this division."
He believes the registry is vote-determining for about five percent of the voting public, which can make a big difference in tight races.
The legislation to end the registry for long guns (hunting rifles and shotguns) that passed this week was a private member's bill (C 391) sponsored by Conservative Candice Hoeppner. Although Harper and the Conservatives have been attacking the registry for 15 years, moving against it with a private member's bill afforded them significant advantages. Opposition caucus members were free to vote independently on these measures, in contrast with government legislation, on which MPs must vote the party line. At the same time, by not introducing it as a government bill, Harper avoided taking responsibility for it while being able to tell his rural supporters that he delivered on this platform issue.
"The problem with what the government's doing by sending it to private members' business is we're not getting a real, full committee review," New Democrat MP Charlie Angus (Timmin-James Bay) told reporters. Angus, a former Straight Goods contributor, is one of the 12 New Democrats and eight Liberals from rural ridings who voted for the resolution. "Gun policy should be addressed, decriminalization is certainly an issue. The way people have been treated as criminals, even when they've legitimately tried to register their guns has created a lot of alienation and backlash... ... I think they should have brought a government bill, it should have gone to committee, we should have had full hearings, but unfortunately they don't want to have a full discussion on gun policy, they just want to pit rural and urban Canadians against each other."
Charlie Angus is scrummed by reporters about the vote to kill the long-gun registry:
John Rafferty (Thunder Bay-Rainy River), is another rural New Democrat who voted for the bill. He says more than 800 of constituents wrote to him in opposition to the registry in response to the kind of householder mailing to which he normally expects a few dozen replies. Rafferty regrets the message the resolution's passage may send to the families of victims of gun violence, but says "It's an issue that has its roots with the Liberal rollout of the plan. It was disastrous, and many people in Canada glommed on to that fact that it was a disastrous Liberal policy, not unlike their Kyoto policy, for example, which they've subsequently admitted that they didnt know what they were going to do after they had signed it. This is sort of the same situation."
NDP MP John Rafferty says his constituents overwhelmingly want him to vote against the gun registry:
"Conservatives will reward their base by making good on a campaign promise so long on hold," as James Travers wrote in the Toronto Star. "If it dies, Harper will blame his opponents while driving the sharp edge of the registry wedge that much deeper. Rare and priceless is the political gift that keeps on giving."
Comartin is frustrated with the level of discussion on the registry. "It works. It has been a significant tool in reducing the number of deaths in Canada from fire arms, I think we've gotten too wrapped up from the number of murders it may have eliminated, but there's absolutely no question that it's dramatically reduced the number of accidental deaths by as much as a third since it was brought in. It has dramatically reduced the number of deaths between partners, mostly women victims, again, quite dramatically. It has reduced the number of suicides, and I believe, in fact, it has reduced the number of murders as a result of the use of long guns. It's a tool that also is, from just a health and safety standpoint for our police forces, it's really crucial for them [police] to know what they're going in to, and the long gun registry generally lets them know what kind of conditions they're going to be facing in terms of weapons as they move into residences where they know there's some allegation of criminality going on."