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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes an announcement during his election campaign tour, in Markham, Ont., on Sept. 5. The Liberals have found an opportunity to arrest the Conservative momentum that has defined the first half of the campaign.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

In a week that shook up the federal election campaign, both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole focused on guns and crime, leading the Conservative Leader to reverse his position.

Faced with the possibility of losing an election that they hoped would deliver a comfortable majority government, the Liberals have been lashing out at a Conservative commitment to lift a 2020 order-in-council that banned certain kinds of semi-automatic weapons.

In Markham, Ont., on Sunday, Mr. Trudeau declared: “Mr. O’Toole has made a secret deal with the gun lobby to reverse that ban on these assault weapons, military-style assault weapons,” which had been used in a number of mass shootings in Canada.

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“Those guns have no place in Canada, but that’s the choice Erin O’Toole is offering, to return to a time when these guns were legal in our country,” Mr. Trudeau said. “That’s not what Canadians want.”

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The Liberals have found an opportunity to arrest the Conservative momentum that has defined the first half of the campaign.

And on Sunday, the Conservatives reversed themselves. At a media availability at Vancouver’s Canada Place, Mr. O’Toole announced that, if elected, his government would keep the order-in-council in place during the public review of legislation and regulations.

“We’re going to maintain the ban on assault weapons, and we’re going to maintain the restrictions that were put in place in 2020,” Mr. O’Toole told reporters.

“Our intention is to take the politics out of this,” he said.

This is a complete reversal of the Conservative election platform commitment to rescind the order-in-council banning certain weapons, even before the public review got under way.

It remains to be seen whether the newfound Conservative flexibility on gun control defuses it as an issue in the days leading up to Wednesday’s French-language and Thursday’s English-language debate.

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Later in the day, after Mr. O’Toole announced he had changed his position, the Liberal war room put out a statement accusing the Conservative Leader of “saying anything to anyone to get elected.”

With the Sept. 20 vote only two weeks away, this federal election has already been more surprising and more eventful than any in recent memory.

The Liberals appear to have been caught flat-footed by the Conservatives’ decision at the very beginning of the campaign to release a comprehensive and surprisingly progressive platform that emphasized protecting the rights of workers, increased health care spending and offered a GST holiday in December.

The Grits also clearly did not count on voters being so upset with what many consider an unnecessary election, even as the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum. A comfortable Liberal lead has disappeared, leaving the two parties running neck and neck in the polls.

Mr. Trudeau and his advisers may be banking that most voters have been ignoring the campaign as they enjoy the final weeks of summer, and that those voters will be alarmed at the Tories’ now-reversed plans to loosen gun control.

Unlike his Conservative predecessors, Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper, Mr. O‘Toole enjoys being in front of crowds, and in meetings with supporters. At a rally in Nanaimo Sunday night, he projected confidence and energy, and happily spent more than half an hour afterward chatting and taking selfies with those who had come out.

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Also unlike Mr. Harper and Mr. Scheer, by quickly shifting his position on a stand that is proving unpopular, Mr. O’Toole is demonstrating a tactical flexibility his predecessors noticeably lacked.

For his part, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh appears to be thoroughly enjoying his second campaign as leader, focusing much of his attention on the Liberal record and on Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call a snap election during a pandemic.

On Sunday, he committed his party to investing $1-billion as part of a strategy to remove barriers preventing people from getting vaccinated.

He also proposed changes to the law that would make it an aggravating offence to impede or assault a health care worker in the course of their duties, in the wake of several anti-vax protests outside hospitals across Canada over the past week.

And Mr. Singh scored a bit of a political coup on the weekend when he sent a letter to the other leaders participating in the debates to join him in shooting a commercial urging citizens to get their vaccines. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole quickly agreed.

Once the debates are concluded, all three men will sprint to the Sept. 20 finish in a race far more competitive than most would have predicted only three weeks ago.

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With reports from Laura Stone and The Canadian Press

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