NDP Leader Jack Layton's campaign to convince the rural members of his caucus that the federal long-gun registry is worth saving is starting to pay dividends.
One New Democrat MP who originally supported a Conservative private-member's bill to scrap the registry says he is now convinced the legislation would be a step backward for public safety. And others within the caucus say they could be similarly swayed.
But some remain firmly opposed to the gun program that has been an irritant - mostly in rural parts of the country - since it was introduced by the Liberal government in 1995.
And that means Mr. Layton, who personally supports the registry and does not want his party to bear responsibility for its demise, has more lobbying to do before the issue comes to a vote on Sept. 22.
"I have been hearing more and more that this registry is actually used by police to ensure that our communities are safer, that the officers are safer and that other organizations use the registry as well," Glenn Thibeault, the New Democrat who represents Sudbury, said after announcing Tuesday that he would vote against the bill to kill the registry that was introduced by Tory backbencher Candice Hoeppner.
Mr. Thibeault's change of heart was welcome news in the NDP Leader's office, which has been warning NDP MPs that a vote for Ms. Hoeppner's bill is a vote for the policies of the Conservative government.
But, unlike Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, Mr. Layton has said his members are free to vote with their conscience on this issue. If the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois stand solidly behind it, the survival of the program will be up to those New Democrats who previously supported Ms. Hoeppner's bill.
Many of them campaigned on promises to kill the gun-registration program. And some of them said Tuesday they are not about to follow Mr. Thibeault in an about-face.
"I have had this view since 1995," said Peter Stoffer, a New Democrat MP from Sackville-Eastern Shore in Nova Scotia. "I have always believed that the gun registry is a failure in principle and a failure in policy, and that we could do much better with different policies."
Jim Maloway of Elmwood-Transcona in Manitoba said his province has consistently opposed the registry for 15 years. Mr. Maloway said he believes the gun licensing system, which would continue to exist even if Ms. Hoeppner's bill is passed into law, is sufficient to protect public safety.
And John Rafferty of Thunder Bay-Rainy River, said: "My vote remains the same."
But Mr. Layton's refusal to whip his caucus may be taking a toll on the party's popularity. A poll conducted last week by Nanos Research suggests major drops in support for the New Democrats in Atlantic Canada and Ontario - regions where the approval of the registry runs high.
And some of the registry opponents within NDP ranks are showing signs of softening.
Claude Gravelle, a Subury-area New Democrat MP, said he will wait until his party's caucus meeting next week to make up his mind.
Bruce Hyer, the NDP MP who represents Thunder Bay-Superior North, said he has yet to hear any persuasive arguments in favour of the registry and will not vote for the motion to scrap Ms. Hoeppner's bill.
But, Mr. Hyer said, "I am open to being shown that I am wrong." He made a point of stressing his respect for Mr. Layton, both for allowing a free vote and for his efforts to persuade his MPs to support the registry. "I plan to listen, I plan to learn and I plan to keep an open mind on it," he said.