Flip flopping on gun control: Harper takes the lead

In the northwest corner of Canada, far from the triumvirate of megalopolises where dwell the country's much-touted liberal elites, some 30,000 individuals occupy an area roughly the size of France.

In the northwest corner of Canada, far from the triumvirate of megalopolises where dwell the country’s much-touted liberal elites, some 30,000 individuals occupy an area roughly the size of France.This is the Yukon, about as rural a riding as you will ever find, and part of the presumed political battleground where we are told the issue of gun control will make or break federal parties.

Represented by the ever-increasingly popular Liberal Larry Bagnell, the Yukon will make an interesting test case for the notion that the Conservatives have found their wedge issue in the long gun registry. First elected in 2000 with a 70-vote margin over New Democrat Louise Hardy, Bagnell has won two subsequent elections, with a comfortable lead in 2004, and a resounding victory in 2006.

Bagnell is far from being a political heavyweight. Canvas the public on why they support him and you will receive some variant on the following two answers: “Larry’s a nice guy,” and “Larry shows up at everything.” These are the secrets to political success in the Yukon, and Bagnell, though no great intellect, has mastered them completely.

According to Don Martin, parliamentary affairs columnist for the National Post, the Conservatives could hope for no better outcome on their “private member’s” bill to scrap the long gun registry, than to see it go down to defeat. “Deep in the bowels of Conservative party backrooms,” says Martin, who knows the stench of those bowels better than most, “gleeful laughter can be heard from a government celebrating a defeat.”

Martin told the CBC’s The Current that the Harper government never expected, nor wanted, to win the vote. Rather, it was a strategy designed to carry them into a majority in the next election, when they can tell rural voters they did their best to defeat the heinous gun registry, but were thwarted by vote-switching Liberals and New Democrats.

Some voters will no doubt buy this line, while others will be insulted by the blatant cynicism of the ploy. If Martin is right the Conservatives are trying to pull the wool over their own supporters’ eyes by pretending that they ever believed their parliamentary minority would carry this vote.

But will it work? Can popular parliamentarians like Bagnell, or the NDP’s Charlie Angus of Timmins-James Bay, be unseated on the grounds that they “flip-flopped” on the gun registry? It’s doubtful. First of all, the national registry of firearms isn’t the powerful issue out in the country that it once was. We’ve almost all registered our guns now. They sit legally locked, separate from the ammunition, only to be liberated in hunting season, or when varmints threaten our livestock.

We all carry gun licences in our wallets. They make useful photo ID (unless, like mine, they make you look like a cross between Rasputin and Charles Manson) and for most of us the whole issue is just old. Like a lot of Yukoners I never wanted to deal with gun control in the first place, but now that it’s done, I have no great desire to reopen that debate.

When gun control was a hot issue in these parts, back in 1977 when we all had to get Firearms Acquisitions Certificates if we wanted any new guns, and then again in 1996 when we all had to get gun licences and register our rifles and shotguns, I was among the many Yukoners who were disgruntled. It seemed at the time an unnecessary imposition.

Today, my reaction to the notion of scrapping the registry is a great big yawn. What difference will it make in my life? I’ll still have to have a licence, so if Big Brother really cares if I have a gun, he can still find out. If I ever need a new gun – mine predate 1977 – I’ll still have to take a firearms safety course. And I’ll still need to find that darned little key every time I want to scare a coyote away from my henhouse.

The only thing that will change, as far as I can see, is that when guns, mine or anyone else’s, go missing, they will no longer be traceable back to their owners. Who does this benefit? Is there a previously unknown powerful lobby of gun thieves in Ottawa, spinning their influence with the Conservatives?

It’s a long time since we had to register our guns, and it may be a while yet before we have to choose our next government. Does this issue have enough staying power to unseat Bagnell in the next election? Probably not. But if the well-financed spin-meisters at the CPC make too big a deal about Liberal or NDP flip-flopping on the gun-registry, they will quickly find themselves tarred with the same brush.

Back in the early ‘90s when Bill C-68, the Firearms Act, passed first and second reading in the House of Commons, it did so with the support of the Reform Member for Calgary West, who later changed his vote to follow party lines. His name? Stephen Harper.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.