Gun debate was a distraction

The pitched gun battle, or rather the pitched battle over guns, specifically, whether to continue the long gun registry or to kill it, is over – for now. Federal politicians have voted to maintain the registry, but not without a lot of drama and ill feeling. The vote was close, 153 to 151.

Conservative backbencher Christine Hoeppner’s private member’s bill had been deemed a ploy by the ruling Conservative Party, as it became a wedge issue playing up the contrasting perspectives held by rural and urban constituents on gun possession.

The first attempt to kill the long gun registry was halted with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s controversial prorogation of Parliament just before the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Emphasizing the wedge days before the vote in Parliament, Conservative House Leader John Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean) blamed the impending failure of the bill on the influence of “Toronto elites”. His us-and-them, divide-and-rule politics was unhelpful, to say the least.

In her Toronto Sun column this week Connie Woodcock summed up the opposition to the registry this way: “Out here in the country, a gun remains just another tool – like a chainsaw or weed-whacker. When you hear gunfire in the city, you know nothing good is happening. Out here, it’s because a neighbour is hunting or on pest control.”

What has concerned city dwellers are the guns stolen from legitimate owners then modified and used in crimes in urban centres. The registry is a system to trace such arms.

The long gun registry has been functioning for some 15 years, first put in place by the federal Liberals as Bill C-68, six years after the Dec. 6 Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique where gunman Marc Lépine shot 29 people, killing 15, including himself. The aim of the registry is to establish more control of guns in Canada, and thus more safety, and to make gun owners more accountable, including requiring safe storage and use of their firearms. Recent numbers indicate that seven million long guns have been registered while an estimated five million gun owners have failed to register theirs.

Among its aspects, the registry ensures that police officers would know when going to an address whether there was a registered gun owner present and therefore whether guns were present.

But opponents of the registry pointed to the killing of four RCMP officers in Mayerthope, Alberta in 2005 as evidence that it creates a false sense of safety since it cannot verify unregistered guns at an address. In fact, whether an address indicates a registered gun owner or not, police routinely approach with caution.

One of the most contentious issues has been the cost of establishing the registry. The cost, $1 billion over 10 years according to Auditor General Sheila Fraser, has frequently been held up as a symbol of waste. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has claimed the cost was $2 billion and that is the figure frequently quoted.

The Liberals had made it clear going in that although Bill C-391 as a private member’s bill allowed for a free vote, they would for the most part vote as a bloc against it. However, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff offered to find compromise on the rules governing the registry and reiterated that promise after the bill was voted down.

This debate has come to be attached to both personal and political values, from the right to bear arms which, of course, carries no constitutional weight in Canada – consultations with America’s National Rifle Association (NRA) notwithstanding – to crystallizing the urban/rural divide, to how much say government has in the lifestyles of individuals.

But the other story is that Canadians want their Members of Parliament to focus on more substantive, even critical issues – the environment around the oil sands in Alberta, the wellbeing of traumatized soldiers returning from Afghanistan, managing the cost of healthcare, affordable housing and the rising cost of tertiary education. In view of these matters, the registry debate became a surface distraction, especially since a decrease in gun crimes coincided with the implementation of the registry.

Although Harper has said the issue is not dead, we hope that, at least for the near future, Ottawa can now turn its attention to more pressing issues.

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