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It wasn’t really a surprise when the Trudeau government was forced last week to pull a pair of controversial amendments from its latest gun-control bill. After all, this is an issue the Liberals have repeatedly misfired on.

In February, 2021, the Liberals tabled legislation that they said would get dangerous weapons off the streets. It would have done nothing of the sort.

The bill included a voluntary buyback program for military-style semi-automatic rifles that the government had banned after the 2020 Nova Scotia massacre. What was needed was a compulsory program; otherwise, why bother?

Even more feckless was the Liberals’ proposal to allow municipalities to ban handguns. What should have been the job of Ottawa was handed to cities and towns, creating the prospect of a hodgepodge of restrictions without any prospect of achieving the goal of getting guns off the street.

The bill died when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election in August, 2021. Many suspected (this space included) its unspoken goal had been to stir up the gun debate in a year the Liberals planned to send voters to the polls.

Fast forward to May, 2022, when the Liberals tabled another gun-control bill. This time, they got it right. The new legislation brought back the few positive aspects of the previous one – increased sentences for gun smuggling and trafficking, and making it an offence to alter the legal capacity of magazines – and contained some of its own.

These included a “red flag” law making it easier to have guns taken away from someone who is deemed a risk to themselves, their family, the public or an intimate partner, and new authorization for wiretaps in cases involving the suspected possession of illegal weapons and ammunition.

Above all, the Trudeau government finally found the courage to do its job when it brought in, via regulation, a national freeze on the sale, purchase or transfer of handguns. The freeze went into effect on Oct. 21, 2022.

All seemed to be going swimmingly. The bill sailed through second reading and committee hearings. Then, out of the blue last fall, the Liberals tabled two surprise amendments that had nothing to do with handguns. One banned thousands of military-style semi-automatic rifles; the other outlawed the future sale of similar weapons in Canada.

Whatever else their goal, the amendments would have also outlawed some popular hunting rifles – a move that angered many Canadians who don’t happen to live in large urban centres. The minority-Liberal bill immediately lost the support of the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, both of which have strong support among rural voters.

Mr. Trudeau promised in December that the Liberals would “fine-tune” the confusing amendments. In the end, faced with the prospect of seeing the entire bill die, they fine-tuned them right out of existence.

It was the right move, and it saves a good piece of legislation. But it never should have been needed in the first place.

The episode raises doubts about the Liberals’ Parliamentary chops. In a single act, they callously sidelined the NDP – their partner in a voting alliance that keeps them in power – and tabled amendments that were so overbroad in scope that the Speaker of the House would likely have been called upon to overrule them.

The fiasco also highlights the Liberals’ endlessly cynical use of the gun-control debate as a wedge issue. In December, Mr. Trudeau blamed the widespread public opposition to the amendments on disinformation spread by the Conservatives – a convenient line of attack that lies in political ruins.

The Liberals now say they will bring back the amendments, presumably in separate legislation. And that’s good; Ottawa can and should crack down on the proliferation of high-powered semi-automatic rifles for sale in Canada that have no place in a legitimate hunter’s arsenal.

But this time, please, do it without an eye to polarizing Canadians along the negatively charged lines of the gun-control debate.

There is a need for a sensible discussion about how some semi-automatic hunting rifles are capable of firing ammunition that is far more powerful than any hunter would want, and which can turn a legitimate civilian firearm into a tool of mass murder and destruction.

The Liberals, however, will need to consult extensively – especially with hunters and other legitimate firearms owners – before they can be trusted on the issue again.

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