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Opinion

New Dems Playing with Loaded Gun

Federal NDP will pay dearly if long-gun registry is killed in Parliament with their rural MPs' votes.

By Bill Tieleman 14 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

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Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen: registry a 'waste of money.'

"This private members' bill will end the requirement to register non-restricted hunting rifles and shotguns.... I was completely satisfied that this is what was needed, and I seconded the bill." -- NDP MP Bruce Hyer on the long gun registry

You need to know a few things before reading this column:

1. I like to shoot handguns, particularly the Colt .45 and Glock 19, and have shot long guns many times, too.

2. I strongly believe -- along with police chiefs and officers' associations -- that the long gun registry saves lives and prevents the violent use of firearms.

3. I generally support federal New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.

4. If enough federal NDP MPs vote to kill the long gun registry in Parliament next week, the party will pay a huge political price in the next election -- and it will richly deserve that fate.

The NDP has desperately tried to have it both ways. Layton and most of his caucus strongly oppose Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner's private member's bill, C-391, to eliminate the registry and destroy 8 million existing records of gun ownership.

But Layton is also allowing a so-called "free vote" on the gun registry so his rural MPs can vote in favour of ending it, because their constituents are applying pressure, aided by a Conservative ad campaign.

And almost unknown is the fact that an NDP MP -- Bruce Hyer of Thunder Bay-Superior North -- actually seconded Hoeppner's bill to kill the registry.

How does that happen in the NDP caucus? Clearly the Conservatives were thrilled to have an NDP MP onside to divide the party. And it worked.

In fact, in the initial vote in November to kill the registry, 12 NDP MPs voted in favour, helping provide the narrow 27 vote margin needed to bring the bill back for a final vote on Sept. 22.

Three of those NDP MPs -- Claude Gravelle, Charlie Angus and Glen Thibeault -- have since decided to reverse their votes and now support keeping the registry but the other nine NDP MPs who still back C-391 would be enough to pass it.

The NDP created its own problems, to be sure, by playing with a politically loaded gun without the safety on.

But the Conservatives deserve special criticism -- not only are they encouraging a harmful rural-urban divide over the gun registry but they have refused to make the legislation a government bill -- because they know the opposition would then vote against it based on party rather than MPs' individual positions.

The Conservative government was also obviously behind suddenly sending the senior RCMP officer in charge of the registry, Chief Superintendent Marty Cheliak, off to language school just as the debate got underway again, despite denials from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and RCMP Commissioner William Elliot that they were involved.

Cheliak was scheduled to release a major report at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police annual general meeting and be presented with an award for his work on the registry before he was yanked.

The RCMP says it is "not likely" Cheliak will return to his position, as it is "designated bilingual" -- how convenient.

Like Cheliak, the chiefs of police oppose killing the registry, as does the Canadian Police Association, representing 41,000 rank and file officers.

And no wonder -- over the last decade, 16 police officers in Canada have been killed by a firearm while on duty -- 14 of those deaths were by a long gun.

Both police groups believe it protects both their members and the public, noting that the database is accessed by officers about 10,000 times a day to check for firearms ownership.

That helped convince NDP MP Alex Atamanenko to support keeping the registry in the first vote despite being targeted by the Conservatives in a nasty ad campaign in his riding.

Atamanenko stood up to the bully tactics and resisted pressure in his rural riding -- something Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen should note.

Cullen is the only NDP MP in B.C. who still says he will vote to kill the registry, claiming it is a waste of money -- even though the current budget is less than $10 million a year and registration fees have been waived.

Federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has "whipped" his caucus, telling all MPs they must vote against C-391.

Good for Ignatieff, even if it is politically advantageous and easier for him to do than Layton. He has propped up the Conservative minority government several times and been roasted for it by Layton and his MPs. That uncomfortable shoe is on the other foot this time.

"Right now they're lined up with Stephen Harper against the police," Ignatieff said of the NDP.

Layton's position: "My goal is to fix the registry so that it can work for everybody, and that's what our caucus is working very hard to accomplish."

And his strategists are trying to convince supporters that unless NDP MPs are allowed to vote to kill the long gun registry, the Conservatives will win a majority government in the next election.

"To whip our vote and to hand over our rural caucus to Stephen Harper gives him a majority that he so desperately wants," says NDP national director Brad Lavigne.

"We're doing the right thing and we're playing our strategy a hell of a lot smarter than the over-simplistic version that Mr. Ignatieff would have us do. If we hand over our rural caucus and he (Harper) gets his majority, then on day one he scraps the gun registry," Lavigne told the Toronto Star.

"So you get a two for one, you lose the registry and you get Stephen Harper for four years unbridled," he concludes.

Nice try but the NDP is widely missing the target.

What's far more likely to happen is New Democrat voters, especially women and those in urban ridings, decide the party lacks principles and backbone when faced with a tough issue and stay home on election day or worse for the NDP -- vote Liberal.

Here in B.C. that could put the seats of NDP MPs like Don Davies, Bill Siksay, and Fin Donnelly at risk if their vote drops -- to the benefit of either Conservative or Liberal opponents.

[In a highly ironic side note, the federal NDP inadvertently just sent out a direct mail fundraising letter with a target logo on the envelope titled "Taking Aim" and copy inside saying: "It's time to take aim at Stephen Harper." Talk about bad timing.]

None of this is to deny that the long gun registry is indeed difficult for the NDP. There is no easy solution and whichever way the party turns presents big challenges.

But if you are going to risk losing seats, isn't it better to do so by taking a strong stand in favour of a position the overwhelming majority of NDP supporters believe in rather than by pandering to a Conservative Party initiative?

For a party that proudly boasts today of defending civil liberties during the FLQ crisis in 1970 despite it being highly politically unpopular at the time, seeing rural NDP MPs cast the deciding votes to kill the long-gun registry would be a sad statement.

If you believe the long-gun registry should not be eliminated, tell the NDP today that your vote and donations to his party are at risk. Email Layton at: Layton.J@parl.gc.ca and Cullen at: Cullen.N@parl.gc.ca.  [Tyee]

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