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Guns 'n' Roses: How 'High River Gun Grab' hysteria hurt the Wildrose Party

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The Riflewoman

Día de los Muertos

Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party lost the Calgary West by-election last week by 315 votes to Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives.

It's completely reasonable to conclude in such circumstances that Wildrose support for the paranoid fantasies of the Alberta gun lobby -- in particular the anti-RCMP hallucinations of the assault-weapon ownership rights crowd and its media cheerleaders about the so-called "High River Gun Grab" -- cost the party this one riding at least.

Leastways, it's pretty hard to imagine that at least 315 urban voters in a riding that wasn't going to vote for anything but one variety of conservative candidate or another weren't turned off by the apparent Wildrose conviction society would be better off if there were no restrictions on private gun ownership.

Alert readers will recall how, back in the fall of 2013, Smith herself referred in a press release about the aftermath of that year's High River floods to "the forced entry into private residences and the seizure of private property such as firearms" by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Interestingly, that release has apparently since disappeared from the party's website.

In a 2013 interview with Sun News Network agitator Ezra Levant, Smith suggested the Mounties were liars and referred to their entry into High River homes during the flood crisis as "the break and enter."

Encouraging conspiracy theories about a "gun grab" may help the Wildrose Party in the rural nether regions of Southern Alberta -- Wildrose territory where Premier Prentice wisely scheduled no by-elections for Oct. 27 -- but it seems to have done them little good in the city of Calgary where voters had every reason to punish the Tories for years of mismanagement and borderline corruption under serial leadership.

It may even help less than the Opposition party imagines in places like High River itself, a community that increasingly is taking on the characteristics of an urban Calgary bedroom suburb and less those of the charming agricultural town many of us still associate with its name.

A body of evidence is starting to accumulate that courting self-styled "law abiding gun owners" as a wedge issue is politically toxic in urban areas, where there are precious few legitimate reasons to own a firearm -- especially the kind of mock assault rifles beloved for some reason by a significant subset of this region's population of highly politicized LAGOs.

It certainly did soon-to-be-former Calgary West MP Rob Anders no good last spring when, redistributed out of his old riding, he sought the federal Conservative nomination in the reconstituted Calgary Signal Hill riding. Moreover, it hardly seemed to help him in his subsequent faint-hope assault on the new rural riding of Bow River either, although that was more likely because he was seen as a citified poseur than because of his loudly expressed views about guns 'n' pickup trucks.

Regardless, it's clear that in Canada and even Alberta gun-nuttery is a wedge issue that cuts two ways, and the Wildrose Party needs to wake up to this reality if it hopes to supplant the other variety of Tories led by Prentice. This is true notwithstanding the reinforcement for Wildrosers' pro-gun instincts by the phalanx of Alberta gun ownership advocates in the far-right media that includes Levant and the Edmonton Sun's Lorne Gunter, who has made stirring up paranoia about the Mounties' motives a virtual cottage industry.

The Prentice Tories are likely to be somewhat wary of this issue because in addition to hoping to woo moderate voters in Alberta's political centre, particularly in riding-rich Calgary, they'd doubtless like to do so without scaring away too many loony right-wingers.

But the opposite side of this wedge would also be a great place for Alberta's New Democrats as they campaign for the vote in urban tidings, especially in Edmonton, where they are polling well and even achieved a strong second-place in the solidly Tory Edmonton-Whitemud riding on Oct. 27.

In 2012, the Wildrose Party saw its hopes dashed by a candidate's outburst of what was widely perceived as ugly homophobia.

The party has largely put that behind it by persuasively repudiating the religious beliefs of a Pastor Allan Hunsperger and making the case they do not reflect the views of Wildrose leadership.

It will not be so easy for them to argue they do not support virtually unrestricted gun ownership in Canada and Alberta when so many of their leaders, including Smith herself, have been front and centre advocating treating gun ownership as strictly a property rights issue and encouraging American-style delusions about police efforts to control gun crime.

Unfortunately for Smith, her upcoming post-by-election leadership review is likely to push her in the opposite direction.

Still, Smith and her party need to do some serious soul searching on this issue. If the Wildrose Party fails to win the next general election in the face of a Jim Prentice-led revival of PC fortunes, its prognosis for long-term survival is not an optimistic one.

Remaining in bed with assault weapons ownership rights advocates will not help the party's leaders overcome this problem.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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