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The long-gun registry is to Canadian politics what abortion is to U.S. politics: an issue that will not go away, divides people into entrenched camps, defies compromise and defines the way adherents of both positions view themselves in the wider society.

It's an issue that pits rural Canada against urban Canada, splits the Liberals and NDP, and, relative to all the other more useful discussions the country could have about tackling crime, occupies far too much time and leads to excessive rhetoric.

At least, unlike abortion in the United States, the Canadian long-gun registry provides episodes of comic relief and sharp irony, as it did again this past week.

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In a capital governed by "tough on crime" Conservatives, there were representatives from the front lines in this battle - the police chiefs and police officer associations - telling everyone who would listen that they want and need the registry.

It was unclear just who was listening to the chiefs and cops, but Conservatives certainly were not. They love men and women in uniform - prison guards, military personnel, veterans and especially police officers and their bosses. Except that, rather inconveniently, the police long ago abandoned the Conservatives on the long-gun registry file, and nothing has diluted their estrangement.

If anything, the chiefs' and cops' persistent and vocal support for the registry drives Conservatives to even wilder flights of rhetoric. Take Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz from rural Saskatchewan, a leading opponent of the registry. Two weeks ago, his office sent out a release under his name that scorned the police leadership as a "cult." (He has since apologized for the "over the top" language, explaining, that he didn't write the offending release.)

It was a funny looking "cult," all button-polished and uniformed, whose leaders arrived in Ottawa this week, representing the legions of fellow cultists in the Canadian Police Association (41,000 officers) and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

True, a handful of chiefs and officers have refused to join the cult. Calgary's chief of police said the registry doesn't work for Alberta or in rural Canada. A few officers from Winnipeg testified to the same effect before a parliamentary committee this week.

The rest of the cult, however, believes the registry makes their crime-fighting job easier, but then presumably Conservative MPs know more about fighting crime than the men in uniform. After all, this is also a government that has scorned the expert advice of almost every criminologist, judge and lawyers' group in Canada, even as they say how ineffective, useless and even dangerously counterproductive are most of the Conservatives' "tough on crime" proposals.

Listening to people who really know something has not been a hallmark of this government on a wide range of issues, so scoffing at cultists and experts in the criminal justice field shouldn't surprise anyone. Nor was it surprising, given the way Conservatives treat those who disagree with them, to hear the leather-lunged assault on the chief and cops.

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In fairness, the chiefs and cops caused discomfort within Liberal and NDP ranks, for the gun registry has split these parties.

The Liberals first introduced the long-gun registry, having promised one in the 1993 campaign. The introduction of the registry, however, went terribly wrong and wildly over-budget, as Auditor-General Sheila Fraser outlined in 2002.

The Auditor-General found that whereas the Liberals had said the registry would cost $2-million ($119-million in expenses against $117-million in licence fees), the actual eventual cost hit $860-million ($1-billion in costs and $140-million in fees). Such administrative incompetence played directly into the hands of those for whom the registry was the devil's work anyway.

Today, the Liberals are riven, with some of their rural MPs unhappy with the registry. The caucus split yawned a month ago in a parliamentary vote, initiated by the Liberals themselves.

The same split roils the NDP, some of whose Western Canadian MPs opposed the registry from inception, and still do, causing leader Jack Layton to turn himself into a political pretzel on the issue.

Beyond partisan politics, the registry remains one of those self-defining issues for a lot of people. For some, being a Canadian means opposing guns in almost any hands but those of the police. It's a Canadian definitional question: We abhor guns and want them tightly regulated, unlike those crazed, lawless Americans with their National Rifle Association, Second Amendment nuttiness and high homicide rate.

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For others, the right to bear a long gun (or to keep it in a cupboard or pickup) is a right to be left alone, a cry of defiance from an area of dwindling population, a right to be respected as a responsible person without the state having to say so, to hunt within the bounds of the law, to resist further incursion by the state into the private realm of citizens. It's "us" - the law-abiding owners - against "them," defined as bureaucrats, "experts," city-slickers, lefties and people who wouldn't know how to aim, let alone fire, a gun.

For both sides, the registry takes on a moral hue, underscoring what kind of society Canada should be. As such, the registry has been burdened with a symbolism it was never intended to bear. When morality meets symbolism, issues seldom go away, since the temporary losers of today do not accept the finality of their political defeat.

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