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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is promising to spend $100 million over five years to train “non-provincial” police officers to fight cyber crime, sexual exploitation and domestic violence.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Sunday he would maintain a Liberal ban on “assault-style” firearms if he forms government, a change in course the Liberals say they don’t believe will last.

O’Toole has faced days of questions about his party’s gun policy after repeatedly saying he would maintain a ban on “assault weapons,” while remaining evasive about whether he was talking about a 1977 ban on fully automatic weapons or a more recent Liberal cabinet order.

On Sunday, he said a Conservative government would keep both.

“It’s critically important for me to say to Canadians today that we’re going to maintain the ban on assault weapons, we’re going to maintain the restrictions that were put in place in 2020 by the order-in-council,” O’Toole told reporters in Vancouver.

It was a change from the day before, when O’Toole said people who were confused on his position could look to the party’s platform to “fill in the blanks.”

That document promises to repeal the Liberal measures, which were introduced through a May 2020 order-in-council and banned some 1,500 firearm models, including the popular AR-15 rifle and the Ruger Mini-14 used to kill 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique in 1989.

“We’re maintaining the status quo that’s in place right now,” he said, however he would not say whether he would maintain the Liberal ban permanently.

O’Toole has also promised to conduct a “public, transparent” review of Canada’s gun classification system, a step he said will depoliticize gun regulation.

“Our intention is to take the politics out of this, because Mr. Trudeau has divided rural versus urban, he has demonized, in some cases, farmers, hunters, sport shooters and actually ignored the real problem of rising smuggling and organized gang activity,” he said.

At a rally in Toronto, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he believes the O’Toole will use the review of the classification system to legalize currently banned guns.

“What he’s says now is, and listen for it is, `OK, we’ll hold onto that order-in-council if we get re-elected, but we’ll start a reclassification system for all the guns and work with the gun lobby to make sure that we get the right guns reclassified,” Trudeau told supporters. “If he’s going to reclassify them, it’s his way of saying, `maybe we can bring them back.”'

Some Conservative candidates appeared to not be aware the party’s position would be changing.

Earlier Sunday, Battle River-Crowfoot candidate Damien C. Kurek posted on Facebook that “a Conservative government will stand with hunters, farmers and sport shooters – law-abiding firearms owners – and will repeal C-71 and the May 2020 Liberal Order in Council.”

In March, Kurek wrote an opinion piece for the Bashaw Star in which he slammed the Liberals for not defining what “assault-style firearms are.”

“Assault” or “assault-style” firearms are colloquial descriptions, and what falls into either category is debated among gun users.

The Conservative platform also promises to scrap Bill C-71, which expanded background checks for people seeking gun licences as well as recordkeeping requirements for gun sellers.

Asked about whether repealing that bill remains a promise, O’Toole repeated that he would maintain the bans on assault and “assault-style” weapons.

PolySeSouvient, a group that pushes for more stringent gun control laws said it doesn’t believe O’Toole’s new stance is a dramatic change from his previous position.

“Yes, he said he would maintain those prohibitions, but he also promised a review of all firearms classification. It is not hard to predict how such a review would play out, as he has repeatedly stated that farmers, hunters and sport shooters `have been unfairly caught up’ in the Liberals’ 2020 ban,” Nathalie Provost, a spokeswoman for the group and a survivor of the 1989 Polytechnique massacre, said in an e-mail.

She said O’Toole is now “offering a more convoluted stance that sounds good to the general public, but which can clearly be construed as a dog whistle to sports shooters and collectors of assault weapons.”

Rod M. Giltaca, the CEO and Executive Director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said his group agrees with O’Toole’s position “that the classification of firearms should not be a political process.”

“This election is about the future of Canada. Our focus is replacing a failed Liberal government with one competent to lead whether on the pandemic, the economy or firearms,” Giltaca wrote in an e-mail.

The National Firearms Association, meanwhile, seemed convinced O’Toole’s backpedal wouldn’t change the policy laid out in the Conservative platform.

“Canada’s National Firearms Association is confident a Conservative government will keep its commitment to protect the rights and property of Canadians,” said Blair Hagen, the association’s executive vice-president.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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