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On Dec. 6, 1989, a crazed gunman slaughtered 14 female engineering students in Montreal. The 13th anniversary of this tragedy could not have been better timed. Facing heavy fire over their billion-dollar gun registry fiasco, the federal Liberals shamelessly took cover behind the bodies of the victims.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon found time to drop in on a Dec. 6 memorial service attended by grieving relatives. Former justice minister Anne McLellan accused the nasty provinces and the gun nuts of sabotage. Allan Rock, who presided over the launch of the blighted registry, blasted away at rival Paul Martin for "playing into the hands of the gun lobby" because Mr. Martin had dared to say something bad about it. Then he presciently claimed that the gun registry will save 1,240 lives by the time it's up and running. "You have to ask yourself, what are 1,240 lives worth?" he said.

You have to ask yourself, how cynical can this gang get?

I asked Philip Stenning, a leading expert on firearms policy, how we got into this billion-dollar mess. "Ideology and incompetence," he answered. "They were on a moral crusade."

Prof. Stenning, who's with the University of Toronto's Centre of Criminology, has advised governments on gun policy since the 1970s. He also advised Sheila Fraser's audit team. "They just couldn't believe their eyes. They've seen lots of terrible things. But they've never seen anything like this."

The gun registry was a direct response to the Montreal massacre and the widespread public sentiment that something should be done to prevent a recurrence. Some of the victims' relatives became impassioned spokespersons for the gun-control lobby, and their emotional appeals touched everyone.

They also touched then justice minister Kim Campbell and the Tories, who vowed to tighten gun laws. The Liberals, who knew a winning issue when they saw it, upped the ante. They promised that, if elected, they'd be even tougher than the Tories. They vowed to register every single gun that had been lying around in barns and basements since Confederation.

Canada was not alone. During the 1980s, concerns over gun violence had exploded. A generation who had cut their teeth on peace and love believed that weapons used for war and killing were, per se, unsavoury (a belief that I confess I share). Anxious parents banished toy guns to save their sons from being conditioned to violence. And as fewer people grew up exposed to guns, the urban-rural culture split grew deeper. Sophisticated urban types automatically wrote off deer and duck hunters as redneck rubes.

"Anybody who voiced any kind of opposition to this package was branded as a gun nut and an enemy of peace and security," says Prof. Stenning.

The gun registry was supposed to catch the small minority of irresponsible and potentially dangerous gun owners. But its underlying ideology was that all gun owners were potential criminals. The Justice Department itself admitted as much. In her damning report, the Auditor-General says: "The department said the excessive regulation had occurred because some of its program partners believed that the use of firearms is in itself a 'questionable activity' that required strong controls."

The irony is that Canada already had some of the toughest gun legislation in the world. Handguns had been restricted since the '30s and had to be registered. Permits were required to carry restricted weapons. Long gun purchases required a firearms acquisition certificate, complete with background check. Gun crime rates were in decline.

The Liberals also ignored the overwhelming lack of correlation between gun ownership and gun crime. Canada has a high rate of gun ownership, but we're not the United States. Culturally, we're more like Switzerland, which is a low-crime nation even though its citizens are armed to the teeth. The Liberals also chose to ignore the mounting evidence from places such as New Zealand that had given up on gun registries. Guess what? They're a bureaucratic nightmare, they cost a fortune, and they do nothing to improve public safety.

For the record, total firearms deaths in Canada have stayed steady at about 1,000 a year from 1995 through 1999, the last year statistics are available. Most gun deaths -- 802 in 1999 -- are suicides. If the Liberals really wanted to save lives, they should have spent our billion dollars on suicide-prevention programs.

But saving lives was not the point. Pandering was the point. How else to understand the Liberals' despicable defence of the indefensible? Is it ideology that makes Mr. Rock and his cronies so dishonest? Or is it cynicism and opportunism? And can they even tell the difference any more?

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