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Tory Leader Stephen Harper rides an ATV during a camapign stop on a farm in Wainfleet, Ont., on April 4, 2011. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Tory Leader Stephen Harper rides an ATV during a camapign stop on a farm in Wainfleet, Ont., on April 4, 2011. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper again targets gun registry, touts hunting and wildlife panel Add to ...

Stephen Harper is targeting the long-run registry again, promising during a visit to the Niagara region Monday morning that he would scrap it if re-elected.

He's also pledging to create a hunting and wildlife advisory panel made up of hunters, fishers and conservation groups to offer Ottawa advice on endangered species and wetland protection.

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Mr. Harper's first campaign stop Monday was carefully chosen. He's making the pledge in the partly-rural Ontario riding of Welland, currently held by New Democrat Malcolm Allen.

"We are the party that stands with rural Canada and understands your values and your way of life," Mr. Harper said during a stop in Wainfleet, Ont.

Mr. Allen is one of eight Liberals and six New Democrats the Conservatives had vowed to target in the election campaign.

That's because after initially backing Tory efforts to eliminate the registry these opposition MPs reversed position before a Commons vote that preserved it last September.

Mr. Harper noted however he would only be able to abolish the registry if the Conservatives win control of the Commons in the May 2 election. "Only a majority Conservative government can be counted on to scrap the long-gun registry."

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was campaigning in Toronto on Monday morning, said Mr. Harper's gun-control message demonstrated the Conservative "disconnect" in a city heavily dependent on manufacturing that has been hit hard by layoffs.

Just weeks ago Henniges Automotive, one Welland's last remaining big employers, announced it was closing and putting hundreds of people out of work.

"Mr. Harper's priorities are to divide wedges between people, and he simply ignores the reality that most working families are facing which is they are worried about their job security," Mr. Layton said.

"And he goes into Welland for the second election in a row and doesn't even acknowledge the fact that hundreds of workers are losing their jobs and that the middle class is being wiped out in London and his government is doing nothing about it."

The Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP voted down a Tory backbencher's private bill to kill the registry by a razor-thin margin of 153-151 in 2010.

Mr. Allen only won his Welland seat in 2008 by a few hundred votes and the Conservatives, who came second last time, are hoping to harness rural anger to take him down.

"We must stop targeting law-abiding gun owners and instead focus our resources on real criminals," Mr. Harper said during a stop in Wainfleet, Ont. Monday morning.

The Tory Leader said he doesn't find rural Canadian opposed to gun control in general.

"There's not a general opposition to the idea that a gun owner should get a license, ... that there should be restrictions on certain types of powerful weapons," he said. "What people don't accept is going out and registering millions and millions and millions of long guns when you already have all this other information."

The costs of the gun registry approached $1-billion over the first 10 years, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser found in 2005.

"It has treated rural people -- farmers, and hunters -- as if they are criminals," Mr. Harper added.

The Tories, who have struggled for three election campaigns to win a majority, were 11 seats short of controlling the Commons when they were defeated March 25.

They are using the long gun controversy to suggest the NDP and Liberals can't be trusted by rural Canadians.

"Any NDP candidate or member of Parliament, any Liberal candidate who ever says again, 'I will vote to scrap the long-gun registry,' will never be believed," Saskatchewan Tory Candice Hoeppner predicted last September.

"That will certainly have an effect when the next election happens because accountability and credibility is part of what we run on."

The Hoeppner bill is only the latest attempt by Conservatives to eliminate the registry.

In June, 2006, the government introduced a bill to repeal the requirement for owners to register non-restricted long guns and put the onus on firearms retailers to record sales. That bill died when the session was prorogued.

A similar bill was introduced in November, 2007. It too was never passed.

The Conservatives then introduced an identical bill in the Senate in April, 2009. That died when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in December.

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