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Gun-registry controversy triggers political war games

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff talks to reporters before attending his national caucus meeting in Ottawa on April 21, 2010.

FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Wayne Easter was driving back to his office from a funeral Thursday when he stopped to fill up on gas and grab a coffee at a Tim Hortons near Winsloe, PEI.

It was no time before the Liberal MP was spotted. "Wayne, did you change your position on guns?" yelled one of the patrons. "We're hearing on the radio ads that Ignatieff is whipping the vote."

Clearly, the Conservative radio ads are working. The ads, released this week, target the so-called Liberal 8 - the eight rogue Liberals who voted with the government last November to scrap the long-gun registry.

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"No," Mr. Easter told the gun-owning, coffee-drinking Islanders. "We found a solution that works, guys."

He explained the Liberals' new position. And he says the gunners liked it; they got it.

So, it seems, has Michael Ignatieff - finally.

This week, the Liberal Leader reignited the controversy over the registry. He assured a meeting of police that his caucus would not support Manitoba Tory MP Candice Hoeppner's private member's bill to scrap the long-gun registry when it comes back to the House for third reading, some time in the next few weeks.

He also announced changes a Liberal government would make to it: A first-time failure to register firearms would be treated as a non-criminal, ticketing offence. Currently, it is a criminal offence. A Liberal government would also permanently eliminate fees for new licences, renewals and upgrades, and streamline the paperwork.

It appears this new plan is working to satisfy the "Liberal 8." So far, it is expected that at least six of them, including Mr. Easter, will now vote against scrapping the registry. And caucus leaders hope all Liberals will be on side when the bill comes back to the House.

Then there is the side benefit - Mr. Ignatieff's vow to support the registry has stirred up angry Reform elements in the Conservative Party.

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That face of the party emerged this week in an aggressively worded press release from Tory MP Garry Breitkreuz's office calling for Mr. Ignatieff to be beaten " black and blue" by his caucus for his support.

Now the Liberals are launching their own ad campaign to counter the Tory attacks; Friday they started soliciting donations.

Mr. Ignatieff, meanwhile, needed to get this one right. Not only does he need to appease the rural caucus - that vote has been slipping away from the Grits for several years - but it is crucial for him to counter criticisms that he can't control his own caucus. That is especially true on an issue like the gun registry, brought in at considerable political cost by the Chrétien Liberals.

So, has Mr. Ignatieff finally got this one right? Mr. Easter, at least, thinks so.

"To Ignatieff's credit … he came to rural caucus, talked to those of us who had concerns … and over the several months I think we found a solution that in fact works," Mr. Easter said. "It's a reasonable compromise that I think shows leadership on Ignatieff's part."

Victoria Liberal MP Keith Martin also voted with Mr. Easter to scrap the registry. He, too, has changed his mind - but for different reasons.

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He is convinced now, as he wasn't before, that the police rely on the registry. If the police were not supportive, he says, he would have voted to scrap it and face the consequences despite the whipped vote. Regardless, he says the registry will still be an issue in the next election.

Mr. Easter, however, believes he will be able to explain to gun owners the merits of the Liberal proposals. Still, he says he is proud of the way he voted, despite embarrassing his leader at the time.

"I think those of us who voted provoked the kind of response that has led us to a solution that should be relatively acceptable to both sides," he said.

But does the Liberal whipped vote mean the registry will survive? Not likely. For the Hoeppner bill to be defeated, all of the Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs need to vote together.

Last time around, however, 12 NDP MPs voted to scrap it. And not all 12, it seems, are willing to reverse their votes the next time.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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