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Politics The Liberals are nervous about a handgun ban, but it’s Conservatives who should worry

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are flirting with a handgun ban, but it still makes them nervous, so they’re running public consultations. It is Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives who should really be nervous: A handgun ban would give the Liberals a political tool they haven’t had for a long time.

For a decade, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives beat the Liberals in appealing to the concerns over crime felt by a lot of voters, notably women living in suburbs – swing voters in swing ridings.

Mr. Harper’s Tories did that with tough-on-crime policies such as mandatory minimum sentences. A handgun ban is the Liberal version: a promise to dent violent crime.

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In this 2013 file photo, police display guns seized during a series of raids in Toronto.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

There will be loud opposition. Bill Blair, the newly minted Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Prevention, found that out at a town hall on guns in Toronto on Sunday, when gun owners turned up to interrupt. The Liberals had already been nervous about that – which is why they didn’t announce a ban, and instead told Mr. Blair to conduct public consultations. The consultations will hear protests. But the protesters are screaming against a popular idea.

Some experts argue a handgun ban won’t do much to cut crime, but it’s still popular. Many argued the Conservatives’ mandatory minimum sentences wouldn’t cut crime, either, but a lot of voters supported them anyway. Canadian voters tend to like all kinds of measures aimed at violent crime. Many don’t see a choice between tough sentences and crime prevention, or between smuggling crackdowns and gun control. They want all of the above.

The Liberals are still nervous. There’s a hangover left by the long-gun registry, which ran way over budget and was lambasted as a boondoggle. The registry targeted the rifles and shotguns used by farmers and hunters in rural Canada, and the Liberals felt it caused political damage.

But some veteran Liberals think Justin Trudeau learned the wrong political lesson. The registry got a bad name, said Eddie Goldenberg, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, but gun-control was popular. “The polling always showed it was extremely popular, amongst women in particular – urban and rural, East and West,” he said. After the 1995 gun-control bill, Mr. Chrétien’s Liberals won re-election in 1997, sweeping rural Ontario and picking up seats in Quebec.

A handgun ban seems popular now. A Nanos Research poll conducted in August found 67 per cent of respondents said they support or somewhat support a total handgun ban.

The Liberals aren’t actually considering a total ban. There will be exceptions, such as for police and private security firms. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said the government should consider a ban on private handgun ownership: Target-shooting ranges could keep handguns, but individuals would have to use them there.

He notes that countries with handgun bans, such as Britain, seem to have lower rates of gun crime. There are other measures that can also be taken, such as cracking down on gun smuggling, he said, but a ban should be considered.

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Royal Military College professor Christian Leuprecht thinks the results would be disappointing. Unlike Britain, Canada shares a border with the biggest gun market in the world. Less than a third of handguns used in crimes in Canada were diverted from legal owners in this country, he said; most came from the United States. A handgun ban would see criminals buy more smuggled guns. Several other measures would be more effective, he argues.

That’s the argument the Conservatives are warming up – that a handgun ban won’t work. But voters might not listen – just as voters didn’t listen when experts argued mandatory minimum sentences weren’t going to cut crime. Many intuitively believed it would work, and wanted governments to act.

It’s not just that events such as July’s Toronto Danforth shooting have renewed focus on gun crime. It’s also that many Canadians shake their head at the U.S. failure to tighten gun laws after a series of school shootings, and want this country to be different. Many Canadians would be happy to see fewer handguns around even if it doesn’t have much of an impact on crime. But many, it appears, intuitively believe it will. If the Liberals get over their nerves and propose a handgun ban, it would leave law-and-order Conservatives arguing against a policy that a lot of Canadians see as a measure to combat crime.

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