The twisted politics of the gun registry

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The gun registry was created out of the worst instincts of Canadian Liberalism: set up a huge, suffocating, expensive bureaucracy that misfires, ends up dividing the country, and provokes a permanent political insurgency against it.

Now, 15 years later, we have the move to kill it according to the worst instincts of what passes for Conservatism these days: right-wing yahooing, "cold dead hands" rhetoric, and with U.S. gun radicals applauding and maybe even financing the effort.

In itself, the gun issue and Wednesday's vote on the registry, with its razor-thin margin to keep it, is not all that important.

The issue is almost all symbolism, emotion, ideology and twisted politics, with hardly a real fact in sight.

Even the various cost estimates for the registry run from absurdity to absurdity -- from a low of $1.1 million a year to a high of hundreds of millions, with no one in authority apparently interested in pinning down the real cost.

Even as you read this, it may be overtaken by any number of bigger issues poised to take over the top of the news -- the economy, health care, Afghanistan, and so on.

But as a symptom of how twisted our politics have become, with the worst begetting the worst, it's priceless.

For example, the Conservatives probably gain by having their motion to kill the registry defeated. It reinforces the image they feed to their base -- that of principled mavericks at war with their own bureaucracy, which they see as the Liberal party in drag.

Had they won the vote, on the other hand, they would have likely faced a profound pro-registry insurgency on the other side that would have energized the Liberals. Especially so if the killing shot had come from even one New Democrat, giving the Grits sole possession of pro-registry territory as they in turn ignited the move to bring the registry back.

Killing the registry would have put it in the same category as the long-form census as another piece of wanton destruction by the Harper forces.

For lack of any better explanation, wanton, ideologically driven destruction does seem to be what's propelling Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and it seems to be getting worse as his political footing slips.

He probably could have won that vote with even a small dab of compromise. Had he admitted that there's a gun control problem and made a convincing promise to address it by means other than the registry -- as some anti-registry hunter/angler groups were proposing -- he might have given those half-dozen anti-registry New Democrats the comfort zone they needed to vote it down.

But even the slightest deviation from the absolutist path seems impossible for Harper. With regard to any gun control problem, his imperious answer is that he's building prisons to handle that.

If we're looking for an uptick in this sinister brew, we do have a sort of moral victory for the NDP. The party did stick to its guns, so to speak, and has to be credited with carrying the day without enforcing the party line, and thus scoring one for democracy.

With regard to Peter Stoffer, the Sackville-Eastern Shore MP whose switched vote saved the registry, his agony at voting against his promises and being accused of being a flip-flopper should be assuaged by the understanding that he did the right thing, and in a deeper sense was more faithful to his principles than had he killed the registry.

If he finds himself in discomfort, he can no doubt imagine his mortification if he had killed the registry and become an inadvertent hero of the National Rifle Association in the U.S., which would have relished the propaganda value of this victory, and be seen as a dupe of the most extreme of the Harperites.

The way it's rigged, there's no reasonable place to stand on this thing.

Meanwhile, we have the Liberals. On paper, this is their victory. But let's face it. With a considerable majority of Canadians questioning the value of the registry, this is still a problem for the long run.

Are the Grits, then, going to be happy enough to let this slide -- essentially endorsing the bungled creation of the registry by their forebears -- and ensure that it returns as a thorny problem?

Or are they willing to address its shortcomings, on the presumption that they could well be coming to power next time?

On this, as on so many other things, what do the Liberals in fact stand for?

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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