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A.J. Somerset is the author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.

To a cynic, Justin Trudeau’s Friday announcement on gun control might seem like an attempt to change the channel on his embarrassing blackface/brownface problem. The timing of the announcement suggests just that. But it has long been clear that the Liberals would use gun control as a Big Progressive Issue to polish an image tarnished by backtracking on electoral reform, by saying "thank you very much for your donation” to a Grassy Narrows protester, and most recently, by large quantities of dark makeup. Mr. Trudeau’s announcement, which never veered from its careful script, reminds us why: because the Conservatives have painted themselves into a corner on guns and public opinion makes this issue a handy club with which to batter Andrew Scheer until he bleeds votes.

As far back as 2017, it was clear gun control would become a weakness for the Liberals to exploit, regardless of who won the Conservative party’s leadership race. The only debate on guns was which candidate loved them most. Kevin O’Leary, who had once questioned whether anyone really needed an AR-15, rushed to the range to be photographed shooting with Tony Bernardo of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, and promised to repeal the Firearms Act. “I have signed up for my own gun licence,” declared Kellie Leitch, who promptly touched off a short-lived scandal by running off to shoot what appeared to be, but turned out not to be, a Nazi war relic. Mr. Scheer promised to repeal all federal gun laws that failed to respect “honest firearms owners."

Liberals pledge to ban assault rifles, not handguns

The Conservative gun fetish is a product of Allan Rock’s long gun registry, which drove gun owners into the arms of the opposition, and of grassroots gun-owner activism within the party. Leadership candidates got the message: Gun owners were active, organized, determined to set the agenda and punish anyone who departed from their party line. But as the candidates pandered to hard core gun owners, they forgot the gulf between people who want to carry concealed handguns and the typical Canadian.

Mr. Scheer trotted down to the range and shot himself an albatross. Now he has to wear it.

As for the details of the Liberal platform, there were again no surprises, as they have been telegraphed: The Liberals will ban assault weapons and work with the provinces to allow cities to restrict and perhaps ban handguns.

This platform seems almost dictated by polls. An Angus Reid survey this May found that 74 per cent of Canadians – and a surprising 55 per cent of gun owners – support a ban on assault weapons. The same survey found that a majority of Conservative party supporters favour such a ban. Most Canadians would support a government buyback program. And this is precisely what the Liberals have proposed.

Allowing cities to go after handguns is also a safe choice, appealing to people and politicians in places like Toronto and Montreal. That gangs could still easily obtain handguns from outside the city – as demonstrated in Chicago – deters no one. But a gun is never merely a gun; it is a powerful symbol on both sides of the debate, and even a symbolic ban is a victory.

As to what that policy might look like in practice, no one knows. Cities could “restrict – or ban – handguns,” but “restricting” could mean requiring handguns to be stored at ranges, limiting where they may be possessed, or banning their sale. The range of municipal powers remains vague.

And there is a practical difficulty also: cities are creatures of the provinces, and they can’t gain the power to restrict anything without provincial say-so. A province could simply refuse to delegate that power. In Ontario, Doug Ford has said he would do just that. The ire of urban voters in a future election does not appear to be part of his calculus – although in fairness, calculus is likely beyond him.

The Liberals can be expected to push gun control hard, trapping Mr. Scheer between the rock of public opinion and the hard place of his past promises. But Canadians deserve specifics – on how a Liberal government would approach an assault weapon ban, on just how cities could restrict handguns, and on how such measures will address real-world public safety and gun crime. Symbolic measures are satisfying, but bullets are final.

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