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gerald caplan

Rifles line an Ottawa hunting store's shelves on May 16, 2006.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A tense showdown over the long-gun registry will soon take place in Parliament. Under the guise of a Conservative private member's bill, the Harper government still hopes to abolish the registry and to gain politically in the process. Nothing new here.

Happily, all three opposition parties largely want to maintain the registry and mostly even agree on how to make it more palatable to some of its reasonable opponents. This should be good news to the millions of Canadians who support sensible gun control.

Bizarrely enough, however, Stephen Harper may win this vital confrontation. Maintaining the registry is far from assured, since crass politics seem to be trumping the need to constrain violence carried out with guns.

I've written a lot here recently about the epidemic of violence against women in Canada. That led Allan Rock, president of Ottawa University and a former minister of justice, to remind me that any discussion about guns is automatically a discussion about violence against women.

Here's Mr. Rock: "When I began to learn about the subject after my arrival in Justice, I was shocked to discover that one women was shot to death on average every six days in Canada. These killings were almost always in the home, almost always at the hands of an intimate partner, and almost always with a long arm (rifle or shotgun)." Compare this with the Prime Minister's phony accusation that registry advocates are simply trying to victimize innocent "duck hunters and farmers".

The 1996 bill mandated extensive background checks before licensing, which had, mysteriously, not been the case before. In the process, many men who had physically abused women were denied licenses.

Registration also allowed more thorough enforcement of court orders. As a result, by 2005 there had been a 67 per cent decrease in the annual number of domestic firearm homicides - men shooting their partners - even though the number of domestic murders by other means hadn't fallen. This is something to cheer to the rafters about. It's also another reason why the prospect of losing this law is simply unthinkable.

Yet it might happen. Surely even in our barely sane world it should be possible to get an amended bill that that would preserve the vital parts of the registry (now costing only a few million dollars a year) while satisfying legitimate concerns of some Canadians, notably aboriginals, northerners and many in rural Canada.

Yet some NDP MPs still apparently claim that they're bound to reflect their constituents' deep hostility to the registry. I reject this notion. Sometimes the public is wrong. Our proudest moment as a party came in 1970 when Tommy Douglas and David Lewis eloquently led the opposition to Pierre Trudeau's invocation of the War Measures Act. Though the Act turned Canada into a police state overnight, public opinion backed Mr. Trudeau to the tune of some 90 per cent. Every NDP MP would have been defeated had there been an election. But principle came first, where it belonged. The overriding purpose of an NDP MP is to fight for principles, not to get re-elected.

Here's what's most appalling about the issue at the moment. Both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton favour maintaining the registry in an improved form. Mr. Layton intends to introduce amendments to this effect at the first opportunity. And yet it appears that Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals will refuse to support those changes until the happy day they become government and introduce them themselves. The intention, if I understand it, seems to be to embarrass the NDP. But I can't imagine how playing politics with the issue in so blatant a way won't rebound against the Liberals themselves

The government of course remains determined to use the long-gun registry issue as a wedge between itself and the other parties. But in this matter as in so many others, Mr. Harper is also driving a deep and wholly unnecessary wedge between Canadians.

In a sane world - that sweet word again - you'd expect that since both the police chiefs of Canada and the Mounties embrace the long-gun registry, it might have some small effect on the law-and-order-when-it's-convenient governing party. But as ever, political gamesmanship trumps the true security of our citizens, particularly women.

As far as I can see, the Liberals' and the Bloc's apparent refusal to support the NDP amendments can only be attributed to political opportunism. Yet both Mr. Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe know that failing to support Mr. Layton's amendments could well kill the registry. Surely they can't allow that to happen. Am I just being naive after all these years in believing that in the end, these parties will do what they themselves acknowledge is vital?

Something has to move here for the registry to be sustained in a more palatable form. All three opposition parties will have much to explain to furious Canadians if they fail us. But the NDP in particular needs to understand what's at stake. They can blame the Liberals all they want for playing politics and not supporting sensible amendments, and they will be right. But if in the end it's NDP MPs who allow the Harper government to eliminate the gun registry, the party will not easily be forgiven.