The House of Commons dealt a major blow to the federal long-gun registry Wednesday night as 20 Liberal and NDP MPs broke ranks with their leaders to endorse a Conservative bill that would bring the program to an end.
The vote exposed clear splits among Liberals and New Democrats along rural and urban lines, as the 12 NDP MPs and eight Liberals who voted with the Conservatives were primarily from rural ridings.
Many of them had been the target of an aggressive Conservative lobbying campaign which flooded their ridings with anti-registry pamphlets from Tory MPs, as well as Conservative party radio ads.
"I was just blown away by the support we got," said Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz, who led the battle against the registry in opposition. He helped write the private members bill that won approval Wednesday night to be studied by a committee. "I'm relieved after 15 years, finally we get some action on one of the biggest boondoggles in Canadian history."
Both Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton allowed their MPs a free vote, even though both leaders officially support the registry.
Following the vote, the two parties were sharply criticized by Wendy Cukier, the President of the Coalition for Gun Control, who was in the House of Commons for the vote.
"It's appalling," she told reporters Wednesday evening. "It wasn't even close. You had urban MPs not stand up for gun control. … Many Canadians are going to wake up [Thursday] I predict, and will be absolutely horrified."
Conservatives widely expected the vote would be very close. They were clearly surprised by the size of the 164 to 137 win.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Ignatieff said he supported decriminalizing the federal long gun registry.
In the highly polarized debate that has raged in Ottawa for years, Mr. Ignatieff said his party is working on a proposal that aims to find a middle ground.
The notion of decriminalizing the registry would be a response to one of the main criticisms of the registry's critics: that law-abiding hunters could, in theory, become criminals for failing to properly fill out the registry's paperwork.
Neither Mr. Ignatieff nor his staff would not offer further details, but past advocates of decriminalizing the registry have suggested the criminal provisions could be replaced with non-criminal fines.
"It's not the end of the registry tonight," said Mr. Ignatieff Wednesday, dismissing the vote as "mischief" on the part of the Conservatives. "The fundamental issue is to make sure that we get a system of gun control which works both for rural Canada and for urban Canada."
Wednesday's close vote was triggered by a private members' bill from backbench Conservative MP Candice Hoepnner, who took up measures proposed earlier by Mr. Breitkreuz. The bill is essentially the same as a Conservative government bill that was introduced in the Senate but never moved for debate.
If further debate on Ms. Hoepnner's bill moves quickly, the Conservatives' efforts to scrap the long gun registry could succeed before Parliament's summer recess in June. The bill's future will also depend on whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper fills upcoming vacancies in the Senate so that the Conservatives outnumber the opposition in 2010.
The Conservative bill, if passed, would completely eliminate the requirement to register hunting rifles but would maintain the registry for prohibited or restricted weapons such as hand guns.
Many rural opposition MPs bristled in recent weeks at the attacks they received from Conservatives in their ridings, but still voted for the Tory bill.
One Conservative flyer mailed in to the Timmins-James Bay riding held by Charlie Angus pictured Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Layton and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe above a heading in all capital letters stating: "Attacking farmers and hunters."
Mr. Angus has long been critical of the registry and was among the 12 NDP MPs who sided with the Conservatives Wednesday.
"Every day people bring [the flyers]into my office and say 'Tell these guys to stop using our taxpayers dollars' to lie to us," said Mr. Angus.
Critics of the system have long said the second step of registering a hunting rifle is a waste of time and money given that hunters are already required to obtain a hunting license.
Police organizations are split on the issue, with some insisting the registry remains a key database to help police while others say the money would be better spent on cops.
Toronto Police Chief William Blair, the President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote in The Globe and Mail this week that the Tory bill would force the destruction of more than eight million firearms records.