Candice Hoeppner’s first order of business upon arriving in Whitehorse was to head to the shooting range to fire off a few rounds.
Fitting, given that the Manitoba Conservative MP is leading the push to abolish the federal gun registry. While she’s not a gun owner, she was made an honorary member of Whitehorse Rifle and Pistol Club and later called the shoot-up “quite fun.”
Next, she took aim at Yukon’s Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.
She insisted she was here to “support” him. But her pitch sounded a lot more like mischief-making than help.
Addressing a crowd of about 70 people at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre Wednesday evening, Hoeppner urged Yukoners to flood Bagnell’s office with phone calls demanding that he help kill the registry in an upcoming parliamentary vote.
“I think Larry will see there are a lot of good people standing behind him.”
Hoeppner praised Bagnell for having “a lot of courage,” demonstrated by when he broke party discipline in the spring of last year and voted against a Bloc Quebecois proposal to kill the existing amnesty on registering long guns.
She’s calling on him to defy another whipped vote on September 22, when Parliament votes on a private members’ bill introduced by Hoeppner that would abolish the registry.
But that won’t happen, Bagnell said later during an interview. (He was in Inuvik at the time of the meeting.)
Bagnell lost his job as chair of the rural caucus as a result of his last act of disobedience.
“That was my penalty,” he said.
And if Bagnell were to break another whipped vote, “I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the party,” he said.
“I would no longer be able to do all the things I do for Yukoners. Really, you can’t do much as an independent. I’d take the penalty if it was a penalty that doesn’t hurt Yukoners. But when you don’t sit with your party, it really limits what you can achieve.”
Staying at home during the vote isn’t an option either, said Bagnell. “It’s not an option I’m given. It would be the same penalty.”
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says he must whip the vote because Conservatives routinely apply party discipline. He considers Hoeppner’s bill to be a Conservative Party proposal dressed-up as a private member’s bill.
The upcoming vote looks like a squeaker. Current counts suggest it may come down to one or two votes either way.
“Larry could be the deciding vote,” Hoeppner told the crowd. “That’s where it’s getting to.”
Women’s groups have been some of the staunchest defenders of the registry, arguing that it helps curb violence against women. The registry was established, in part, in reaction to Marc Lepine’s fatal shooting of 14 women in Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique in 1989.
But the registry should be abolished on the grounds it’s a headache for aboriginal women who hunt, says Betty Irwin, chair of the Yukon advisory council on women’s issues.
Irwin owns three antique guns. She spent two years fussing with paperwork before giving up. “I still haven’t registered those guns,” she said.
Still, Irwin was puzzled with politicians who couldn’t just simplify the registry, rather than kill it.
The Liberals and NDP both propose exactly that. Under the Liberal plan, first-time offenses would become a ticketing – not criminal – offence.
As well, paperwork would be streamlined and fees would be removed for new, renewed or upgraded firearms. This ought to resolve most concerns Bagnell has heard from constituents, he said.
But these changes would raise “constitutional issues,” Hoeppner said at the meeting, because Ottawa’s jurisdiction over the registry is limited to criminal matters. That means such a plan may require the buy-in of the provinces.
Even if the registry were made less offensive, it would still be a waste of money, said Hoeppner.
Much has been made of the registry’s initial costs, which ballooned to $2 billion from an original estimate of just $2 million.
Now that the registry is in place, annual costs range dramatically, depending who you ask. The RCMP put it at $4 million. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says it costs $106 million.
The RCMP’s estimate likely excludes the costs carried by provincial and territorial agencies, said Hoeppner.
Either way, “I don’t think it’s money well used,” she said. The funds should instead be spent on putting more police on patrol, or toward counsellors for those considering suicide, she said.
Misconceptions about the registry are rife, Hoeppner noted. Some boosters of the registry made it sound as if Hoeppner’s bill would end gun control in Canada. It wouldn’t.
Canadians would still require a licence to obtain and use a gun. Existing safety rules for storing and transporting a firearm would stand. And separate rules would apply to restricted weapons, such as handguns.
The registry is simply a list of who owns which guns. Police chiefs assert it’s a useful crime-fighting tool, although some rank-and-file officers grumble it’s of little use.
An on-duty officer responding to a complaint of domestic violence would be foolish to assume there’s no firearm in the house, simply because none are registered, given the possibility of unregistered weapons.
The RCMP recently released a report that says the registry is effective in fighting crime. But the report fails to offer hard evidence to support this claim.
Police organizations note the registry is searched up to 11,000 times per day as proof of its use. But the vast majority of these searches are automatically conducted when an officer conducts a background check on someone pulled over for a routine infraction like speeding.
Liberals point to how total gun crimes have dropped since the registry’s inception. However, gun violence began to drop in 1979, well before the registry was introduced in 1995.
Canada’s auditor general, Sheila Fraser, has noted there’s no evidence the registry does anything to curb crime.
Hoeppner faced a friendly audience. The meeting had been organized by the Yukon Fish and Game Association.
Dermot Flynn was the lone dissenter in the crowd. Until recently, he supported abolishing the registry.
“It looked like utterly bad public policy,” he said.
But the $2 billion spent on the registry so far is gone, whether the registry survives or not.
Now, after hearing that the police chiefs and RCMP support it, so does Flynn, “with misgivings.”
Emotions run high on either side of the debate. Flynn suspects the issue touches on how we see ourselves as Canadians.
“As Canadians, our history is not of the gun. It’s of peace, order and good government,” he said.
Gun violence is more prevalent in the United States, where gun-owning plays a far bigger role in the country’s culture. “Is that an accident? No.”
“Owning a gun is not part of what most Canadians see as part of their fundamental rights. We don’t want to give the gun status in society. That’s not who we are as Canadians.
“Would you have the same fuss if we were asked to register our chainsaws?”
He suggested MPs consider giving themselves two years to let the issue cool before voting, if possible.
But Hoeppner responded she has “absolutely no faith” the opposition parties would give her bill a fair hearing after a delay.
“You may have an opinion as to what Canada means,” she added. “For some, being Canadian is to own a long gun and to use it for a legitimate and free purpose.”
Contact John Thompson at