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Seized firearms on display during a Toronto Police Service press conference on June 22, 2018.Peter Goffin/The Canadian Press

There must be an alarm that goes off in every Liberal Party war room when polling shows support has fallen to undesirable levels: Attention! Electoral success threatened! Please deploy “abortion,” “gun” or “austerity” attack!

The federal Liberals heeded that alarm about two weeks into the fall election, when they warned that then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole would make Canadian streets more dangerous by reversing the government’s ban on certain “military-style assault weapons.” Never mind that the government’s ban did not, and has not, actually gotten these firearms off the streets – indeed, its promised buyback program is still in the works – the important thing is that the Liberals’ attack scared people into thinking the Conservatives would make life in Canada more dangerous. The tactic worked, and Mr. O’Toole changed his position a few days later.

In Ontario, the provincial Liberal Party has been polling behind the Progressive Conservatives for some time, but with about six weeks to go before the election, the party has deployed an old faithful early to get its numbers up ahead of the campaign.

On Tuesday, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca announced that if he becomes premier, he would implement a provincial handgun ban within his first year of taking office. Mr. Del Duca said that Premier Doug Ford has chosen “to stand with the gun lobby instead of defending the people of this province,” adding that he finds it “heartbreaking” that the Ford government “could be so cruel, could be so callous.” Indeed, who has not emerged from this devastating, life-altering pandemic thinking, “I can’t believe Doug Ford hasn’t done something about handguns?”

To Mr. Del Duca’s credit, he has, unlike his federal counterpart, at least honed in on the type of weapon most often used in firearms-involved crimes. But his promise ignores the fact that handguns are already classified as “restricted” in Canada, meaning anyone carrying one on the street (as opposed to in a secure container, locked and unloaded) is already breaking the law. According to police sources, the overwhelming majority of guns used in crimes (where the source can be traced) are smuggled into the country – that is, they are not purchased legally – meaning that Mr. Del Duca’s proposed ban would have a negligible effect on gun crime anyway, especially without controls between provinces.

But the issue here isn’t simply that Mr. Del Duca’s announcement is a crass political move that exploits the fears of those unfamiliar with Canada’s existing firearms laws to create a divisive wedge issue out of thin air. It’s also that it’s happening ahead of an election that, in a perfect world, could be about serious problems that are long overdue for a robust province-wide discussion.

The entire province just got a first-hand crash course in the absurdity of running a health care system perpetually at its brink, where surgical waitlists are months or years long and the standards in long-term care have devolved to truly scandalous levels. Ideally, this election would involve more than mere promises to throw money at our existing inefficient system; it would play host to a serious airing of ideas about how to fundamentally reform health and long-term care. (While I’m dreaming of things that will probably never happen, I guess I’ll also put out there that I should be gifted a villa in Versailles.)

The Liberals would point out that they have many other policy proposals beyond their promise to ban handguns in Ontario. But I would point out that their strategists aren’t stupid people, and that the reason the Liberals raise issues such as guns or abortion in elections is because they know it sucks up the oxygen during a campaign, to their advantage. Indeed, the federal Liberal Party entered the election in the fall virtually tied with the Conservatives, only to see the Conservatives pull ahead in the first couple of weeks. It wasn’t until the Liberals started wedging Mr. O’Toole on guns and conscience rights for health care practitioners that polling started to shift in the Liberals’ favour.

The tactic of exploiting inflammatory issues to gin up support is annoying enough when it happens during a typical election. But it’s particularly loathsome ahead of what is probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity to discuss health care reform before an entire province that has very recently yielded to its frailty and is now primed for a debate. Ontarians were subjected to some of the longest lockdowns and restrictions of any peer jurisdiction, and it’s important to look at why, now, before we all start to forget.

We have seen firsthand just how dire the state of our health care system really is, but if things continue as they are, and the political parties get their way, the upcoming election will be about handguns and license plate stickers. Now that would be cruel and callous.

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