OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s minority Conservative government narrowly lost its bid on Wednesday to relax the country’s gun-control laws, an issue that is likely to feature heavily in an election campaign expected within the next year.
The House of Commons voted 153-151 to retain a national registry of rifles and shotguns the government says is a waste of money and penalizes law-abiding hunters and farmers. The Conservatives enjoy significant support among rural voters.
“The people of the regions of this country are never going to accept being treated like criminals and we will continue our efforts until this registry is finally abolished,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters after the vote.
Opposition Parliamentarians, most of whom backed the registry, say it helps curb crime. The program was set up in 1995 in the wake of a 1989 massacre in Montreal, when a gunman with a rifle murdered 14 women at a college.
The registry tightened gun control laws that were already tougher than those in the United States. Gun licenses are already mandatory for anyone wishing to use weapons, and registration of handguns has been long been required.
Defenders of the registry say it is one factor that helps explain why Canada’s murder rate is just under 2.0 per 100,000 people compared with 6.0 per 100,000 in the United States.
The Conservatives hoped to pull out a victory in the House on Wednesday by targeting rural legislators from opposition parties, such as Liberal Anthony Rota, who initially said they would vote to kill the registry but then changed their minds.
Industry Minister Tony Clement, speaking in the House before the vote, accused Rota of flip-flopping on the issue and added: “Shame on him. He will answer to his constituents in due course.”
The Conservatives -- who need to win an extra dozen seats to gain a majority in the House of Commons -- have made it clear the issue of the long-gun registry will feature in the next election campaign.
Polls show the Conservatives are only slightly ahead of the main opposition Liberal Party and would likely lose some seats if an election were held now.
Many political observers believe the most likely date for the next election is early next year, after the government unveils what it expected to be a tough budget.
The issue is not an automatic vote-winner for the Conservatives, who opposition parties portray as extremists with a hidden agenda. Earlier this year a Conservative legislator had to apologize for likening pro-registry police chiefs to a cult.
Some opposition legislators said they were willing to modify the registry but complained the government was unwilling to listen.
“They are not interested in bridging gaps, and so once again we see politics of division, but they don’t have us on their side,” said Charlie Angus of the New Democrats.
The Conservatives, arguing that criminals do not register their weapons, point to huge cost overruns when the program was put in place under a previous Liberal government.
Ottawa said the registry would largely fund itself but an official audit in 2000 found that gross mismanagement meant the costs had spiraled to almost C$1 billion ($970 million).
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson