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Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino speaks to reporters about Bill C-21 in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on Dec. 14.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

You don’t have to look at opinion polls too long to see wide support for gun restrictions among Canadians. It should be hard for the Liberals to make a major political mistake with gun control. Yet here they are standing atop a dumpster fire of a gun bill.

More than 80 per cent of Canadians supported a ban on “military assault-style” weapons, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in 2020. Another Ipsos poll from 2020 found that a slim majority in cities supported banning all guns. All of them.

Polls are polls, but clearly gun control offered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals smooth sailing down a wide river of political opportunity. Somehow with Bill C-21, they careened into the banks.

The legislation was initially touted as a handgun bill, then amended to include what was supposedly a ban on those “assault-type” long guns, and now it is widely criticized as a ban on a lot of rifles and shotguns currently used by hunters and farmers.

In its current form, it is opposed by the Conservatives, the NDP, the Assembly of First Nations, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, and some Liberal backbenchers. That takes some doing.

On Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino convened reporters to say the government will “take the time to get it right,” which would have been a smart thing to do months ago.

Mr. Mendicino was surrounded by rural Liberal MPs, and followed at the microphone by Rural Economic Development Minister Gudie Hutchings, not because she has any responsibility for gun policy, but she could tell people she is a hunter. Mr. Mendicino implored listeners to believe that the Liberals respect the traditions of hunters and Indigenous people. He said he is open to changing the bill.

But by now, just before the House of Commons breaks for six weeks, it was desperate flailing. The government would have been wise to retreat, and strip out all the controversial provisions covering long guns. That way, they might have a better chance at doing it better, later. At the moment, this bill is a millstone.

Those rural Liberal MPs who were standing behind Mr. Mendicino at his press conference are heading back to their ridings to get an earful from constituents. So are rural MPs from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, who initially supported Bill C-21.

The Liberals have riled up constituencies that don’t get exercised about most gun bills. “It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen,” New Democratic MP Charlie Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins–James Bay, said in an interview.

When the legislation was introduced in May, it was mostly about handguns. It wasn’t until Nov. 22, after committee hearings, that the government tacked on a massive amendment to outlaw assault-type firearms.

There was a backstory. The Liberals had banned a lot of those guns in May, 2020, by an order in council, an executive order. Conservatives complained that it banned guns based on whether they looked scary, rather than solid criteria. Gun-control advocates feared that newer models not on the list would be sold. The Liberals decided to set general criteria for what weapons would be banned.

That by itself isn’t a bad idea. But the criteria rushed into the bill ended up capturing popular models used by ordinary hunters and farmers. And there was a new list that included some guns that didn’t seem to fit the criteria.

Mr. Angus said he started to get complaints from folks who didn’t get upset about gun bills in the past, not from gun groups but from hunters and Indigenous communities. The way it was done damaged the government’s credibility. “I can’t explain this to people,” he said.

Politically it slid downhill. Rural Liberal MPs were nervous; Yukon MP Brendan Hanley criticized it. The minority Liberals need support from other parties, but Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s defence of the bill has grown cooler by the day. After the AFN declared the bill a threat to Indigenous treaty rights to hunt, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party won’t support it as is.

“You know you’ve gone too far if the socialist NDP is fighting you on gun control,” said Conservative MP and public safety shadow minister Raquel Dancho. She was noting the erosion of support, and rubbing it in.

Somehow the Liberals started with massive public support for almost any gun restrictions, and still managed to turn it into potent opposition. And it could get worse.

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