When Yukon MP Larry Bagnell rose in Parliament Wednesday to help prop up the gun registry, the tears he wiped from his eyes were quickly perceived by national reporters as a sign of his conflicted feelings.
Bagnell, a longstanding critic of the registry, was being whipped by the Liberal party to support it.
But his emotions were welling to the surface for far more personal reasons, he said in an interview yesterday.
His wife, Melissa Craig, recently suffered a miscarriage. Shortly before the vote, MPs had offered Bagnell their condolences, which were still fresh on his mind.
“That’s really what I was thinking about,” he said.
He would find little sympathy on the government side of the House. Immediately following the vote, Candice Hoeppner, who pushed the private member’s bill to end the registry, aimed a blast at Bagnell.
“Right now, if you live in the Yukon, it’s a pretty sad day for you because your member of Parliament’s vote kept the long-gun registry,” she told reporters in Ottawa.
But it’s hard to pin the registry’s survival on Bagnell alone. With a vote of 153-151, even if he had defied his party, the registry may have lived.
The real wild cards during the vote were rural NDP MPs who had supported an earlier vote on Hoeppner’s bill. Unlike the Liberals and Conservatives, the NDP members were allowed to vote their conscience.
Bagnell knows his vote won’t please Yukon’s vocal critics of the registry. “But I’ve always made the case I wouldn’t leave the party over this,” he said. “They know that.”
And that’s the choice he faced.
When Bagnell defied an earlier whipped vote, he was punished with losing his job as chair of the Liberals’ rural caucus. Another act of disobedience – which would include staying home the day of the vote
– would result in him being booted from the party, said Bagnell.
Both the Liberals and NDP want to make the registry less of a nuisance by making first-time failures to register a noncriminal offence, streamlining paperwork and eliminating fees for new licences, renewals and upgrades. Bagnell sees this as a fair compromise between hardline positions in support and against the registry.
But the Conservatives aren’t interested. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to keep fighting “until this registry is finally abolished.”
The government has made several past efforts to kill the registry, none of them successful. However, the government has crippled the registry by waiving the criminal liability of unregistered gun-owners.
Hoeppner recently visited Whitehorse to urge Yukoners to put heat on Bagnell to turn against his party and help kill the registry. But “she didn’t have a choice on how she was voting” either, said Bagnell.
MPs are usually able to freely vote on private member’s bills. But the Liberals have maintained Bill C-391 was a government bill in disguise. Because Conservatives voted in unison in favour of it, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff whipped his party to oppose it.
Bagnell acknowledges the registry will be an election issue. It always has been for him, he said.
But he senses more Yukoners are moving towards supporting the registry. “I’ve never heard so much support for it in the past,” he said.
The RCMP report which claimed the registry improves public safety, without offering much in the way of evidence, likely helped improve public confidence, said Bagnell.
He speaks as if he’s changed his own mind, too.
“If I were partly responsible for the disassembling of the registry and one of my constituents was shot, I could never really forgive myself for that,” said Bagnell. “I’d never forget that. One life is too many.”
A Yukon Crown attorney helped sway Bagnell. He made the case that the registry helps the courts determine whether to search the home of a licensed gun-owner who has become mentally unstable.
“He was very worried about that. That’s a public safety issue that hasn’t been talked about much.”
With the registry vote behind him, Bagnell hopes to now spend more time focussed on issues like pension reform, improved childcare, addressing poverty and fighting for the return of the mandatory long-form census.
“I think people want to get back to dealing with those. We’ve spent all summer on this one issue.”
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