OTTAWA - The national debate over gun control that many Canadians thought had been resolved a decade ago has roared back to life after the House of Commons voted in principle Wednesday to end the long-gun registry.
The minority Conservative government got help from 12 New Democrats, eight Liberals and one Independent to easily pass a bill that would kill the registry, expunge records on more than seven million firearms, and plow under a $1-billion taxpayer investment
The 164-137 vote in favour of Bill C-391 is a big victory for the Tories, who have been fighting for years to end what they call a "wasteful, inefficient" registry.
"I think it's important that the Liberals and NDP allowed a free vote and that many of their members supported the private member's bill," said MP Candice Hoeppner, the Tory backbencher from Manitoba who sponsored the bill.
"It's step one. There's still a lot of work to do, though."
The bill now goes to a Commons committee for study - and possible amendment - setting the stage for another heated national argument over the best way to curb gun violence.
Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, watched the vote from the public gallery in the Commons and called it "appalling."
"It wasn't even close," said the disgusted campaigner.
"It's horrifying and a lot of Canadians are going to wake up tomorrow and find out about this for the first time."
Regardless of what happens next, it appears the lid has been pried off the gun box.
Conservatives say the registry is a billion-dollar waste that targets honest gun-owners while doing nothing to fight crime.
Proponents, including police and victims-rights groups, say the registry is a useful investigative tool and has led to more responsible gun ownership, reducing suicides and deadly crimes of passion.
Michael Ignatieff said earlier Wednesday that his Liberals, who brought in the long-run registry in response to the December 1989 massacre of 14 women at a Montreal college, still support "the principle" of gun control.
But, he added: "the issue is to find a system of gun control that works for all Canadians - that works in rural Canada, that works in urban Canada."
Ignatieff floated the notion of decriminalizing penalties in the gun-registry system, then went on to say he wants to hear from police, victims' groups and gun owners "to find a way to rebuild legitimacy for the gun registry in rural Canada. That's not a thing you can do overnight."
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are sitting on the 2008 annual report on the gun registry provided by the RCMP to Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan.
The RCMP strongly supports keeping the registry alive, and has been working to iron out logistical problems in the database. The 2008 report should indicate how much success they've had, but Van Loan won't make it public.
"Canadians don't need another report to know that the long-gun registry is very efficient at harassing law-abiding farmers and outdoors enthusiasts, while wasting billions of taxpayer dollars," Van Loan's office said in a release Wednesday.
"They don't need another report to know that the registry does nothing to prevent crime."
Conservatives, backed by a strong rural voting base, have been dead-set against the long-gun registry for years but had never forced the issue to a vote in the House of Commons since coming to power.
Rather, the party has put its resources behind the private bill by Hoeppner - young, female, and a mother - knowing that the NDP and Liberal parties traditionally permit their MPs free votes on such legislation.
The Conservatives have simultaneously bombarded rural opposition ridings with radio ads pressuring local MPs to vote in favour of the registry's demise or face a voter backlash. And on Wednesday the Prime Minister's Office issued talking points to all Conservative MPs on the bill under the subject line "Message of the Day."
"They clearly are using private members' bills to achieve the government objective in another way," said Liberal MP Bob Rae.
Cukier accused the Conservatives of having spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars on a campaign to try to pick off individual MPs in a U.S.-style lobbying effort."
The vote will serve as a gift to the Bloc Quebecois, which can use it to attack not only the Tories, but Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton as well.
"They say one thing and they do another thing," said Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe after the vote.
"They always say they're supporting women's efforts on that issue, and look at the reality. Almost half the caucus of the NDP voted with the Tories."
Conservative MP James Rajotte noted he's run in four elections on a platform of eliminating the gun registry, "and we've been increasing support for that position each and every time."
The Edmonton MP suggested urban Albertans may view the registry through the prism of fiscal responsibility "and they feel that it's not in fact cost-effective in terms of reducing any crime."
The auditor general found in 2006 that the registry had cost almost $1 billion in total through the end of fiscal 2005, but noted the program appeared to have come under better control. Since handguns and prohibited weapons must still be registered, eliminating the long-gun portion of the registry would only save taxpayers about $3 million annually going forward.
Liberal MP James Bagnell, who voted for the bill, said the debate should serve as a springboard for Canadians to better understand one another.
"Urban Canadians are passionately in favour, a lot of them, of a registry . . . . They wonder why anyone in the city would actually need a gun," the Yukon MP said before the vote.
"In a lot of rural Canada, it's just a tool that people are used to using every day. They're not afraid of (guns) and they don't think this is the most effective use of funds to reduce crime."
As if to highlight the urban-rural divide, Tory MP Daryl Kramp issued the following on his Twitter account: "feeling sorry for myself - many of my friends are in the hunting camps this week - my son-in-law just bagged a bear and I am here in Ottawa."
"It is incomprehensible that after all these years we should still be held hostage by a relatively small group of citizens, gun owners, who demand the right to possess, exchange or use weapons without the same restrictions that we, in a civil society, demand from owners of vehicles and animals," de Villers said in a news release.
The Quebec legislative assembly voted unanimously Wednesday in support of the registry, and the province's public safety minister sent a letter - copied to every single Quebec MP - urging his federal counterpart, Peter Van Loan, to maintain the current system.