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Politics Fear of stoking gun-registry debate haunts Arms Trade Treaty

In April, Canada voted for an international arms-trade treaty. In June, it can't decide whether to sign it.

On the surface, it's a bizarre, split-personality indecision over a treaty that so far has been opposed outright by only Iran, Syria and North Korea. Behind it is the Conservatives' fear of riling elements of their base that are worried, mistakenly, that the treaty will create a new gun registry.

The issue seemed to provoke rapid mood swings in Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, when New Democrat MP Paul Dewar asked about the Arms Trade Treaty in the Commons this week. First Mr. Baird said any treaty for higher standards on munitions sales is a good thing. A few minutes later, he exploded with a suggestion the treaty might allow the Liberals and NDP to bring back the gun registry.

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It might be only short-lived hesitation, which could pass after the Harper government gets through the Conservative Party's convention in Calgary later this month. But it's an episode where the Tories have been tied in knots on a relatively arcane foreign-policy issue by parts of their domestic base.

The hubbub is over the Arms Trade Treaty, which requires countries to report on arms exports, to help ensure they don't go to banned countries that commit human-rights abuses, or transfer them to abusive factions and terror groups. Maybe that's why Iran, Syria and North Korea voted against it at the UN General Assembly in April.

The treaty applies to a list of weapons, like tanks and missiles, that includes "small arms," like machine guns and rifles. But it only applies to international trade. It doesn't apply to domestic gun sales, or require domestic controls on guns in Canada. Still, some gun owners fear it will. Gun organizations in Canada and the U.S. have been telling them so.

In the United States, the National Rifle Association has been seeking "emergency donations" to stop the U.S. from ratifying the treaty. In Canada, the National Firearms Association argues it will be used as an excuse to establish a new gun registry, and donors are responding.

That's not something the Harper Conservatives can easily ignore. Gun owners are part of their political base. The fight against the long-gun registry was a cash cow for their own fundraising.

And it's coming up inside their ranks. The Portage-Lisgar Conservative riding association has proposed an amendment to party policy to be debated at this month's convention that states that a Conservative government "recognizes the legitimacy of private ownership of firearms and will resist any domestic or international pressure to the contrary."

The treaty actually doesn't force Canada to change any domestic gun-ownership laws at all. But Sheldon Clare, the president of the National Firearms Association, said the treaty doesn't force Canadian governments to regulate guns with things like a new gun registry, but a government could use the existence of an arms-trade treaty as an "excuse" to do just that. He said the treaty could be broadened in the future. "It's the thin end of the wedge."

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Mr. Clare said his association is growing rapidly because of the donations and new memberships triggered by the issue. "We're getting our message out and people are reacting to that," he said.

The Harper government saw the political danger a long time ago. It kept some gun groups in the loop during talks. The Canadian delegation tried to have hunting and sports guns excluded from the treaty, but other countries said no. But it did succeed in pushing a paragraph into the treaty's preamble that lauds the "legitimate trade and lawful ownership" of guns, including for recreation.

Clearly, the Harper government was trying to make it more palatable to sign the treaty. Canada voted for the treaty at the UN General Assembly in April, though Mr. Baird's office now claims, strangely, it was simply voting to open it so others could sign.

Ottawa will be under pressure. It's not that Canada's involvement is crucial to arms-trade policing, because Canada has relatively strict controls. The treaty is to put pressure on others to raise their standards. Allies like Britain and the U.S. will want Canada to sign.

But so far, the Harper government is not for or against the treaty. It's both.

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs from Ottawa

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