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Tories aim to turn long-gun defeat into victory

Conservative MP Candace Hoeppner and Prime Minister Stephen oustide the House of Commons on Wed., Sept. 22, after Ms. Hoeppner's private-member's bill to abolish the gun registry was defeated.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters

Stephen Harper's latest attempt to kill the long-gun registry has ended in defeat, but the result has handed the Conservatives a political club they can use to hammer rivals in the next election campaign.

The opposition majority in the Commons joined forces on Wednesday to quash a Tory private member's bill that aimed to scrap the long-gun portion of Canada's firearms registry.

The Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP voted down the legislation by a razor-thin margin of 153-151. No MPs skipped the vote, and six New Democrats sided with the Conservatives as expected.

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This outcome was possible only because eight Liberals and six New Democrats reversed positions to support the registry, although they previously voted against it. Liberal chief Michael Ignatieff had ordered his MPs to vote as they did, and anti-registry New Democrats were urged to switch by current and former leaders.

The vote grants an indefinite reprieve for the registry as it now exists. Although the Conservatives say they will keep fighting to scrap it and the opposition wants to enact reforms that would water down its provisions, neither can be accomplished in the short term.

This week's political about-face by some in opposition, however, gives the Conservatives an opening to go after the rival MPs who backed off killing the registry.

The Tories, who have struggled for three election campaigns to win a majority, and now have 143 MPs, are now clearly targeting the 14 seats held by MPs who changed their minds - primarily located in rural and small town Canada.

"My message everywhere I go [is]if you want the registry scrapped, you need to vote for a Conservative Member of Parliament," said Tory MP Candice Hoeppner, the sponsor of the bill that opposition MPs rejected on Wednesday.

"Any NDP candidate or Member of Parliament, any Liberal candidate who ever says again, 'I will vote to scrap the long-gun registry,' will never be believed … That will certainly have an effect when the next election happens because accountability and credibility is part of what we run on."

Immediately after the vote, a determined-looking Mr. Harper paused on the steps to his third-floor Commons office to vow the Tories would not stop until the registry is dead.

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Flanked by Ms. Hoeppner, the Prime Minister emphasized that the Tories came within several votes of winning.

"After 15 years, opposition to the long-gun registry is stronger than it has ever been," Mr. Harper said. "With the vote tonight, its abolition is closer than it has ever been."

He predicted that opposition to the registry across Canada would not recede.

"The people of the regions of this country are never going to accept being treated like criminals, and we will continue our efforts until this registry is finally abolished."

Within an hour of the vote, the Liberals issued a letter to party supporters celebrating the victory and urging them to donate more money to fight the "bitter and acrimonious" style that they say Mr. Harper displayed on the registry issue.

The Tories will be hard-pressed to introduce a second bill on the same question before another election, unless they prorogue the current parliamentary session. Rules prohibit the Commons from deciding the same question twice in the a session.

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The days and weeks leading to Wednesday's vote forced hard choices on MPs.

Rural B.C. New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, who bucked majority opinion in his caucus to vote in favour of killing the registry, said this was the hardest decision he'd had to make in six and a half years in politics.

The Hoeppner bill is only the latest attempt by Conservatives to eliminate the registry.

In June, 2006, the government introduced a bill to repeal the requirement for owners to register non-restricted long guns and put the onus on firearms retailers to record sales. That bill died when the session was prorogued.

A similar bill was introduced in November, 2007. It too was never passed.

The Conservatives then introduced an identical bill in the Senate in April, 2009. That died when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in December.

The vote was a victory for NDP Leader Jack Layton who personally supports the registry and did not want to be saddled with the blame for its demise.

In recent weeks, Mr. Layton and those close to him lobbied the 12 members of the NDP caucus who had previously voted in favour of Ms. Hoeppner's bill. One by one, MPs started to come on side.

The announcement on Monday of the conversion of Nova Scotia New Democrat Peter Stoffer, a long-time and fierce opponent of the registry, gave Mr. Layton the numbers he needed to ensure that motion to defeat Ms. Hoeppner's bill would pass.

But the vote was also a win for Mr. Ignatieff, who had not previously been able to demonstrate firm control over his caucus on issues where there were disparate points of view.

That all of his MPs were in their seats and stood with him on issue of the gun registry - a Liberal legacy - marked an important turning point for Mr. Ignatieff who has had to contend with divided loyalties among those who sit in the benches behind him.

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