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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media at a campaign event in Coquitlam, B.C., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Canadians will vote in a federal election Sept. 20th.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Erin O’Toole may have placed his election hopes in jeopardy over the issue of guns. The Liberals have already pounced.

The Conservative leader faced a barrage of questions from reporters Saturday over a statement he made during Thursday’s TVA French-language debate.

During that debate, Mr. O’Toole declared that, if elected, his government would maintain the ban on assault weapons.

But he was referring to a 1970s-era bill banning fully automatic weapons. His campaign platform explicitly states: “We will start by repealing ... the May 2020 Order in Council and conducting a review of the Firearms Act.” That order-in-council bans assault-style weapons such as the one used in the 1989 attack on women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique and found in the possession of the gunman behind Canada’s worst mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020.

Instead, his government would conduct a “transparent and public review of our classification system,” Mr. O’Toole told reporters. But in the meantime the order-in-council would be lifted.

By Saturday morning the Liberals were already on social media with ads saying Mr. O”Toole wants to take Canada “back to the days when assault weapons were legal.”

The controversy over guns comes at a crucial inflection point in this federal election campaign. In its opening weeks the Conservatives successfully attacked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for calling the election even as the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gathers momentum. Mr. O’Toole reiterated that criticism Saturday, while calling for greater unity in working to persuade the unvaccinated to get their shots and promising to work with provinces on a national vaccine passport system.

But the Conservatives are vulnerable on vaccines because Mr. O’Toole does not support mandatory vaccination for government workers and air and train travellers, a stance the Liberals are pushing. There is broad public support for restricting the activities of those who refuse to be vaccinated.

And now Mr. O’Toole has handed them a wedge issue on gun control.

The Conservatives have made impressive gains in this campaign, turning what appeared to be an election about whether Mr. Trudeau deserves a majority Liberal government into a genuine horse race. But the Grits were bound to counterattack, and the Tories have given them a splendid opportunity.

It’s a political wound the Conservatives inflicted on themselves by seeking to attract millions of urban and suburban voters in Ontario without alienating their rural base. Mr. O’Toole has presented himself as a leader committed to fighting climate change, supporting the rights of workers and reducing the deficit in a measured, responsible fashion.

But some circles cannot be squared. Re-legalizing banned assault-style weapons would alienate the voters the Conservatives must win over to form government. Doing nothing to protect gun-owners’ rights would anger the base.

Does Mr. O’Toole really believe the votes he might lose among the base are more important than the votes he risks losing in areas like the Lower Mainland, where he is campaigning this weekend, by making guns that were once illegal, legal?

Yes, the Liberals no doubt waited until 2020 to pass the order-in-council in hopes of wedging Mr. O’Toole on gun control. But that’s politics.

The Conservative platform on crime correctly identifies illegal weapons smuggled over the border as the most serious source of gun crime, and one that needs to be tackled. Even before the order-in-council, the country enforced strict gun control. And farmers and hunters do have a right to hunt for pleasure and to protect their property.

But many urban dwellers do not share those values, and they elect the government of the day.

The Conservative leader could extricate himself from this trap by promising to keep the order-in-council in place while conducting the public review. By disavowing one sentence in his voluminous election platform he could inoculate his campaign against the Liberal attacks.

Otherwise the last half of this election campaign could become very unpleasant for Mr. O’Toole.

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