Leef fires blanks in gun registry fight

There are many weighty issues this federal election. Canada's role in supporting Syrian refugees. Competing schemes to help parents raising young children.

There are many weighty issues this federal election. Canada’s role in supporting Syrian refugees. Competing schemes to help parents raising young children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. Electoral reform. And so on.

So, naturally enough, Yukon’s MP has dedicated a good part of his campaign to huffing away about a piece of legislation that was shot dead and buried more than three years ago, and for which there is remarkable consensus across Canada’s political parties to keep it that way.

We’re talking, of course, about the long-gun registry.

Our Conservative MP, Ryan Leef, seems to have dedicated a good chunk of his campaign war chest to blasting away on the issue. The person in his sights is his Liberal opponent, Larry Bagnell, who, during his own stint as MP, once helped to prop-up the long-gun registry after previously telling voters that he opposed it.

A full-page colour advertisement that Leef’s campaign placed in Wednesday’s newspaper features a large, red-tinged face of Bagnell, with the following words over top: “If Larry Bagnell comes back, the gun registry comes back.” Another caption proclaims, “Only a vote for Ryan Leef will stop a long-gun registry.”

This is misleading. In truth, the Liberals have long ruled out bringing back the gun registry. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the ad.

Instead, the only context is a Dec. 2012 quotation from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau: “If we had a vote tomorrow, I would vote once again to keep the long-gun registry.” The ad neglects to include the rest of Trudeau’s quotation from this time, in which he goes on to say that the registry was a “failed policy” because it was “so deeply divisive for far too many people.”

Taken as a whole, Trudeau’s message at this time seemed confusing and self-contradictory, but the Liberals have had nearly three years to clarify it: they haven’t entirely renounced the gun registry, but they have repeatedly promised they won’t bring it back.

The NDP have adopted a similar posture. Their leader, Tom Mulcair, said as recently as Dec. 2014 that he would bring the registry back in a modified form, but the party reversed itself on the subject soon afterward.

Of course, politicians have been known to say one thing and do another. But beyond the fevered imaginations of some gun enthusiasts, it’s hard to envision the return of the gun registry, widely derided as a billion-dollar boondoggle that treated law-abiding hunters as criminals. Conservatives are essentially asserting there is a secret scheme to do so, without offering a shred of evidence to support this theory.

This must feel like payback – for years, their party faced similarly paranoid attacks from left-wingers who claimed that Stephen Harper, upon seizing a majority government, would quickly ban abortion and much else that has not come to fruition. Now Conservatives are able to accuse the opposition parties of harbouring their own “secret agenda.”

Bagnell should certainly be judged on his past voting record. But the vote he cast in favour of the gun registry is not the simple morality tale that his detractors make it out to be. Bagnell faced the choice between going against his word and expulsion from his party. Yes, he could have walked away from the Liberals to sit as an independent. But in doing so, he would have given up the benefits of party membership that helped him lobby in the best interests of his riding. This is a genuinely difficult trade-off.

Of course, this is all old news to anyone following such things. Bagnell cast his controversial vote five long years ago now, and everyone has by now formed their own opinion on it. It was the focus of Leef’s run for office four years ago. Now we’re hearing the same arguments all over again. When will it end?

This all must say something about the gun registry’s symbolic potency. During the long-running debate over it, partisans on both sides never worried too much about sticking to the facts.

Some of the registry’s more hysterical detractors were sure it was part of a broader government plot to take away everyone’s guns. The largely urban, liberal-minded Canadians who defended the registry as an important crime-fighting tool never had much in the way of evidence to support their views, either. In truth, gun-related crimes had begun to decline in Canada long before the registry’s introduction, and have continued along this trajectory since the registry was scrapped. And it was often lost in the debate that even after the gun registry’s disappearance, Canada’s gun licensing laws remain on the books.

But the most important thing to remember about the gun registry is that it’s dead, and nobody is campaigning to bring it back. Leef’s eagerness to suggest otherwise simply creates the impression he just doesn’t have that much else to say.