OTTAWA -- MPs voted by a clear margin Wednesday to repeal the federal long-gun registry, signalling for the first time since the program was adopted 14 years ago that it is headed for the scrap heap, despite police assertions that it saves lives.
A private member's bill, sponsored by Conservative backbencher Candice Hoeppner, had the backing of all the Tories, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper down, and enough Liberal and New Democrat MPs to clear its first major hurdle of winning support in principle.
The bill passed by a surprising 164-137, winning more supporters than expected as 18 opposition MPs rose to cast their votes with the government.
The proposed legislation now moves to an all-party committee for public hearings before it returns to the House of Commons for a final vote and then heads to the Senate.
"It's step one but there is still a lot of work to do," Ms. Hoeppner said outside the Commons after her bill passed second reading.
The bill would only end the long-gun portion of the registry, eliminating the need to register rifles and shotguns. The requirement to register handguns would remain in place.
If the bill makes it through Parliament, it would mean the dismantling of eight million firearms records, say police.
The registry has been the source of many court battles, bitter party infighting between rural and urban MPs, political rhetoric -- and a scathing 2002 report from the federal auditor general that found that final tab to implement the program would ring in at more than $1-billion, dramatically more than the $2-million original estimate.
The Harper government, which has strong rural support, has introduced legislation to kill the registry, but the bill has languished due to a lack of opposition support and government will to propel it through Parliament.
MPs are normally permitted to break ranks from the party line for private member's bills, giving Hoeppner's initiative enough support from dissident MPs to succeed, even though the three opposition parties officially support the gun registry.
Pressure was on MPs to show up and the Commons was packed, with 301 of 304 casting votes -- including a Bloc Quebecois MP who was wearing a mask because he suspects that he has the H1N1 virus.
Supporters and opponents have campaigned nationwide in recent weeks in an attempt to sway the outcome of the vote, lobbying in newspapers, on radio and in the hallways on Parliament Hill.
The Conservatives backed radio ads urging Canadians in swing ridings to call their MPs to voice their opposition to the registry.
The registry was adopted 14 years ago by the former Liberal government as part of a wider gun-control package, largely due to lobbying from the families who lost daughters in the 1989 Montreal massacre, when Marc Lepine used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique. Mothers of victims have campaigned relentlessly in the last week to preserve the registry as a vital component of gun control.
"I'm a mother as well and I completely sympathize," said Ms. Hoeppner. "Unfortunately, the long-gun registry didn't do anything to stop criminals from having guns. It was a huge waste of money and it targeted the wrong people."
Police, who normally side with the Harper government on law-and-order initiatives, have been at odds with the Conservatives over the program, maintaining it is an important crime-fighting tool that they use often.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police asserted in a news release Wednesday that the registry has saved lives.
The chiefs say that Canadian police tap into the registry more than 10,000 times a day.
"Some of the most important queries are about domestic violence calls, which every police service in Canada receives," said association president William Blair.
"This is not a regional issue. It is not an issue between big cities and small towns. It is not about hunters and sportsmen, collectors and enthusiasts. It is not about politics.
"It is about public safety. It is about giving police the information to deal with the danger posed by a firearm in the wrong hands."
Montreal police Chief Yvan Delorme said that registry proved its value following the September 2007 shooting at Dawson College in Montreal, when police heard of threats made by another individual and they were able to check him out, learn he owned several weapons, and confiscate them.
Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan echoed the long-held Conservative position on the registry, when he denounced it Wednesday as an ineffective waste of money that punishes law-abiding citizens.
Registry opponents say it should be enough that gun owners must hold licences, but supporters say that licensing does not help police track how many guns an owner has.
- With a file from Mike De Souza
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