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Canada’s Harper Loses Vote to End Shotgun Registry

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister. Photographer: Norm Betts/Bloomberg

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s governing Conservative Party today lost a Parliamentary vote that would have ended the country’s mandatory registry for rifles and shotguns.

Lawmakers voted 153 to 151 to kill proposed legislation that would have eliminated the registry, with all of the opposition Liberal and Bloc Quebecois members and all but six New Democratic Party representatives voting to keep it. Harper’s Conservatives hold 143 of 308 seats in Parliament, meaning they must get support from some opposition lawmakers to win votes.

Harper, whose party dominates rural electoral districts, has repeatedly vowed to end the registry, saying it treats farmers and hunters like criminals while doing nothing to stop gun-related violence. The Conservatives may try to use today’s defeat to raise money and exploit divisions within the New Democratic Party, the smallest opposition group with 36 seats.

“The people of the regions of this country are never going to accept being treated like criminals and we will continue our efforts” to eliminate the registry, Harper said outside Parliament following the vote. “With the vote tonight, its abolition is closer than it’s ever been.”

Voter Support

The Conservatives and the Liberals both have 33 percent voter support, according to a Nanos Research poll of 1,014 voters conducted Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 that has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The NDP had 16 percent support, down 5 percentage points from a June poll, Nanos also found.

“This is an emotional issue inside our caucus, but we showed unity,” Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters. “If you care about public safety in this country, you want a gun registry.”

New Democratic Leader Jack Layton said “Harper continues his politics of division” with the gun registry. Most Canadians want it fixed instead of abolished, he said.

The Conservatives raised C$4.12 million ($4 million) from 34,431 donors in the second quarter, compared with the Liberals’ C$1.61 million raised from 17,064 donors, according to Elections Canada data.

Under current legislation, Canadians must report ownership of weapons to the firearms registry. This has allowed the government to build an online database that is accessible to law-enforcement authorities, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s website.

There are about 1.8 million valid licenses for firearms in Canada for the population of 34 million, according to RCMP and Statistics Canada data. Canadians own about 6.5 million so-called long guns, which include rifles and shotguns, and 500,000 restricted firearms such as handguns, according to a February evaluation report by the RCMP that was published last month.

Firearms Deaths

The report found that the share of firearms deaths caused by long guns fell to 69 percent in 2004 from 72 percent in 2001, the year the registry was implemented. Police consulted the registry about 9,800 times a day in 2009, up from 1,800 times a day in 2003, the report also said.

An online Angus Reid poll of 1,011 voters conducted Sept. 15-16 found 46 percent of Canadians want the registry abolished, compared with 40 percent who want it kept. Some 53 percent of people living in rural areas oppose the registry, compared with 44 percent in cities, according to the poll that was published Sept. 20 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

The registry was adopted in 1995, spurred by the 1989 mass murder of 14 women at Universite de Montreal’s engineering school. The current government has enacted an amnesty, effective until May 16, which exempts from criminal prosecution licensed owners who haven’t registered their guns. The government allowed a transitional period to let Canadians get used to the new law and study its implementation.

The vote stopped the progress of a private member’s bill introduced by Candice Hoeppner, a Conservative lawmaker from Manitoba. Having the initiative come from an individual lawmaker, instead of being a regular government bill, was a tactical choice by Harper, said Andre Albinati, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa who was part of former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s transition team.

It “allows him, win or lose, to save face,” Albinati said.

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