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Canada’s Conservative government ponders loosening gun regulations

In 1989, a young man named Marc Lepine walked into the engineering school of the University of Montreal armed with a semi-automatic hunting rifle.

TORONTO, Canada — Last Sunday, Canada commemorated the 20th anniversary of a massacre that haunts us still.

In 1989, a young man named Marc Lepine walked into the engineering school of the University of Montreal armed with a semi-automatic hunting rifle. He stalked its cafeteria and classrooms shouting, “I hate feminists,” and coldly separated the men from the women.

By the time he turned the gun on himself, 14 people lay murdered — all of them women.

The killing spree traumatized the nation. It was a decade before the Columbine high school shootings in the United States. Yet it brought home a level of gun violence many naively thought was the reserve of neighbors south of the border. Worse, it couldn’t be dismissed as the act of a deranged man who randomly opened fire. This was a killer who targeted women.

First came a period of mournful soul-searching. Then came a period of activism.

There were marches to protest violence against women, and to denounce the glass ceilings that restrict the number of women in politics, top business jobs and elsewhere. And there was sustained pressure to toughen gun laws, some if it led by the Montreal women who survived the massacre.

The Liberal government of the day reacted by setting up the “long-gun registry,” a centralized system whereby owners of rifles and shotguns have to register their weapons. With an estimated 1.9 million Canadians owning guns, its implementation took a decade and cost $2 billion.

The gun registry is strongly backed by police chiefs across the country. Police officers like to know, when they’re responding to a call, if there’s a gun in the house. It helps protect them. They can also seize the weapons in cases of domestic disputes. And, it helps track the provenance of rifles, particularly when they’re stolen from homes and used in crimes. Police used the registry 2.5 million times in 2007.

The registry is also about violence against women. Rifles or shotguns are used in most murders committed in the home during incidents of domestic violence. And most of these victims are women.

The registry, however, has long been opposed by many who live in rural areas of Canada. They question its value in restricting gun crime and insist it treats law-abiding farmers and hunters like criminals. These same people, bizarrely, don’t complain about having to register their vehicles.

Rural Canada is the power base of the Conservative Party. So when the party formed its first minority government in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately set about undermining the long-gun registry.

He granted new owners of rifles and shotguns an “amnesty” — they didn’t have to register them. It also waived fees for people renewing gun licenses.

The message gun owners came away with is that they need not bother with either the gun registry or licenses. In October, Canada’s national police, the RCMP, said 138,000 Canadians had let their gun licenses expire. Of those, half had moved without notifying registry authorities of their new address. In other words, every year police lose track of tens of thousands of guns.

Last month, the Harper government went further. It let a Conservative member of Parliament propose a law that would abolish the long-gun registry once and for all. It would also destroy the files of 7 million previously registered rifles and shotguns.

The bill would not affect handguns, which would continue to be registered. And illegal weapons, such as assault rifles and sawed-off shotguns, would still be banned.

The bill was a cunning move. Laws proposed by the government are subject to party discipline, which means MPs must vote the party line. With the three opposition parties officially in favor of keeping the long-gun registry, any bill sponsored by Harper’s minority government would have been defeated.

But bills proposed by individual MPs — such as the one to abolish the gun registry — are traditionally allowed a “free vote.” Politicians can break from party policy and vote as they like. That put the pressure on several opposition MPs that represent rural ridings. The Conservative party increased the pressure with radio attack ads targeting the most vulnerable MPs.

Several Liberal and New Democratic party MPs caved in and supported the bill to abolish the registry, allowing it to pass an important vote that leaves it just two more votes away from becoming law.

Heidi Rathjen, one of the survivors of the Montreal massacre, described the proposed law as a “slap in the face” to all victims of gun crimes.

The vote on the bill highlighted the rural-urban divide in Canada politics, one that has shut out the Conservative party from almost all urban ridings. It also revealed what some describe as the Harper government’s blatant hypocrisy.

At every turn, Harper vaunts his government’s law-and-order agenda. Inspired by American methods of fighting crime that have proved ineffective, he has passed laws that set the minimum amount of prison time judges can impose for a series of crimes, and is considering spending billions of dollars on the building of massive prison compounds.

But tough on crime apparently doesn’t mean vigilance about rifles and shotguns.

All week long in the foyer of the House of Commons, the government paid tribute to the victims of the Montreal massacre with a vase of 14 white roses, one for each woman killed. But with the government’s efforts to abolish the long-gun registry, many couldn’t help but see it as an empty gesture.