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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 1, 2020.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Few topics seem to vex Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals as much as gun control.

Allowed to indulge his own inclinations, Mr. Trudeau would no doubt match his words with actions. But nothing in politics is that simple and gun control is one of those files that has dogged Liberal politicians for decades. They alternately blow hot and cold depending on what riding they are in. Caught between their progressive base in urban Canada and their desire to avoid offending non-urban voters, the Liberals typically end up pleasing no one on this issue.

The Trudeau government’s move last week to ban 1,500 models and variants of what it calls “assault-style firearms” illustrates the dilemma the Liberals face. On its own, the move looks bold and courageous. Even gun-control advocates that have been fighting for this for more than three decades have been impressed.

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“The ban is comprehensive,” said Heidi Rathjen, a graduate of Montreal’s École Polytechnique and a coordinator at PolyRemembers. The University of Montreal-affiliated engineering school had been the location of Canada’s worst mass shooting until last month’s slaying of 22 people by a gunman in Nova Scotia claimed that horrible distinction. No gun-control advocates in the country have been as determined as the survivors of La Polytechnique. After three decades, they are able to declare victory.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair clearly did his homework in drawing up the list of newly prohibited weapons. The order-in-council ban, published in the Canada Gazette, spans more than 50 pages, encompassing most known variants of semi-automatic rifles on the market. A prohibition on the future sale of these weapons will reduce the number of them in circulation.

If Mr. Trudeau is serious about his pledge “to remove these weapons from our streets,” however, he will need to go much farther than the voluntary gun-buyback program his government appears to be contemplating. He has given no indication that he intends to do so. As the leader of a minority government, Mr. Trudeau knows that his path to a majority in the next election lies in retaking non-urban ridings he lost in 2019.

That won’t be easy amid Conservative charges that the Liberals are committed to a “gun confiscation” program that would target law-abiding gun owners. Already, Alberta Tory MP Michelle Rempel Garner has sponsored a petition that calls on Mr. Trudeau to undo his “decision related to confiscating legally owned firearms and instead pass legislation that will target criminals, stop the smuggling of firearms into Canada, go after those who illegally acquire firearms, and apologize to legal firearms owners in Canada.”

Conservative leadership frontrunners Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole have both signed the petition, which has so far gathered more than 120,000 signatures, and sent out fundraising emails denouncing the assault-weapons ban. “Instead of taking steps to crack down on criminal activity, Justin Trudeau is using this tragedy in Nova Scotia to advance his ideological goals,” Mr. MacKay charged in an e-mail sent out within hours of the government’s May 1 announcement.

It is clear, then, why the Liberals are so reluctant to move ahead with a mandatory buyback program that would require existing owners of the newly prohibited weapons to surrender their guns. The Liberals had already been seeking to avoid antagonizing the gun lobby by abandoning the term “assault weapons” because it was considered “disrespectful to the firearms community because it propagates fear.”

The backlash Jean Chrétien’s government faced over the introduction of the now-defunct long-gun registry, which was plagued by cost overruns, has also cooled Liberal ardours for a mandatory buyback program. To be effective, such a program would cost vastly more than government estimates. To incentivize those who possess such arms illegally, the government would need to pay them the street value for their guns.

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The experience in New Zealand, which moved swiftly to introduce an assault-weapons ban after a shooting last year at a Christchurch mosque left 51 dead, reveals the political pitfalls of a mandatory buyback program. Critics on both sides of the gun-control debate have deemed New Zealand’s exercise a failure, having removed far fewer weapons from circulation than expected, in part because the government’s buyback terms were considered too stingy.

The opposition National Party, which had supported the Labour government’s buyback legislation, did an about-face when the program ended in December. “The Government made a mistake in targeting law-abiding firearms owners when they should have targeted the gangs,” a party spokesman said then. “The result is a lot of confusion and lack of engagement.”

For Canada’s Liberals, a mandatory buyback would present a similar minefield.

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