Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole has shot himself in the foot — twice — with murky stance on gun control

Click to play video: 'O’Toole reverses course on Conservative gun policy, pledges to keep ban on ‘assault-style’ guns'
O’Toole reverses course on Conservative gun policy, pledges to keep ban on ‘assault-style’ guns
After being dogged by questions about his vague stance on gun control, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole now says he will uphold the Liberals' ban on 'assault-style' weapons if he's elected. His party's platform pledged to repeal it. Mike Le Couteur explains what may be behind O'Toole's clarification – Sep 5, 2021

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has had a hard time making the “hidden agenda” accusation stick to Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole during this election campaign.

Two-tier health care. Abortion. So far, no dice.

But on Sunday, O’Toole attempted to finally square his recent confusing and contradictory statements about what a Conservative government would do with the military-grade, “assault-style” firearms banned under a May 2020 Trudeau government order-in-council.

The Conservative election platform states bluntly that an O’Toole government would rescind the ban. But then, during Thursday’s first French-language leaders’ debate, O’Toole began sending signals that the Liberal ban on “assault weapons” would remain in place.

Or maybe not.

Would the ban continue to include the 1,500 semi-automatic weapons prohibited under last year’s Liberal government order, or would it apply only to fully automatic firearms that have been off-limits anyway since the 1970s?

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Was O’Toole reversing the party’s policy pledge or not?

Despite repeated questions on Friday and Saturday, O’Toole failed to clarify his position. In fact, the Conservative policy got murkier by the hour.

But on Sunday, he finally spelled out that a Conservative government would maintain the Liberals’ May 2020 ban. However, as prime minister, O’Toole would also initiate a “public review” of firearms rules that could result in banned weapons quickly becoming unbanned.

In this damage control misfire, the Conservative leader has shot himself in the foot — twice in rapid succession.

Click to play video: 'Canada election: Trudeau doubles down on gun laws, pledges tougher firearm control'
Canada election: Trudeau doubles down on gun laws, pledges tougher firearm control

O’Toole was attempting once again to seem moderate and transparent — two key attributes he needs to convey to mid-spectrum voters to win the election, and something he’s so far been doing surprisingly well during this campaign.

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But the Conservative leader has instead shone a bright spotlight on his party’s hard-right agenda on gun control and managed to make himself look untrustworthy in the process.

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O’Toole has taken a policy that was in plain sight — right there in black and white in the party’s campaign platform — and disavowed part of it. But he has also confirmed that he could use a different part of his party’s policy to sneakily reverse the reversal if Conservatives form the next government.

In other words, a hidden agenda. In fact, it’s a transparently hidden agenda, as oxymoronic as that sounds. Such is the convoluted nature of the Tory leader’s messaging on the matter over the course of just 72 hours that an undisguised Conservative agenda item is now shrouded in suspicion.

O’Toole’s intended reassurance on Sunday that a Conservative government would maintain the Liberal ban on assault-style weapons was delivered with a bright red warning label amid flashing lights and a blaring siren: “NOT TO BE TRUSTED.”

The proposed public review constitutes a huge caveat to his new promise about maintaining the Liberal ban. A Conservative government, O’Toole insists, would conduct the “transparent” review of the firearms classification system so that — as party policy states — “ambiguous terms” (such as assault-style and military-grade, we can be sure) are eradicated from the “classification decisions” that result in banning the kinds of guns that can kill a lot of people very quickly.

That’s the classification system, of course, that resulted in more than 1,000 assault-style weapons being prohibited under the Liberals’ May 2020 order.

The ludicrous idea that O’Toole kept repeating at Sunday’s press conference, under determined questioning from reporters, was that a Conservative government would “take the politics out of this firearms issue” and let “science” — huh? — and the public review process determine what guns should be banned or not.

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When a politician talks about de-politicizing an issue, especially one as enmeshed in Canadian politics as gun control, it’s typically because the politician is clinging to a very unpopular position or defending a fringe (but favoured) constituency’s unshakeable view.

Vaccine refuseniks and gun lobbyists, both of which groups are more likely to vote Conservative than Liberal in this election, stand to benefit from O’Toole’s strained efforts to “de-politicize” those issues.

Click to play video: 'Canada election: O’Toole pressed to clarify gun control policy'
Canada election: O’Toole pressed to clarify gun control policy

To go full circle on the firearms ban, anyone wondering where the Conservatives might stand on the reclassification of “assault-style” weapons can simply refer to the party’s platform.

As Secure the Future clearly states, the Conservatives didn’t just promise to repeal the Liberals’ ban on those kinds of weapons (the promise O’Toole has now reversed, or rather delayed). They also pledged to conduct the review in such a way that “it is clear what type of firearms fit into each category” and so that “classification decisions can be made quickly, and with the public and firearms owners having confidence that they are not arbitrary.”

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To follow the tortuous line of Conservative communicating on this issue, imagine the following words stated in the voice of Erin O’Toole: “In our party platform, we promised to repeal the recent Liberal ban on assault-style weapons. We now promise not to repeal the ban for non-political reasons during this election campaign. But during a public, non-political review of gun control after we form government, assault-style weapons will be reclassified as ‘super fun shooty things’ and they will be approved for use once again — because science.”

Perhaps O’Toole will promise that a review wouldn’t undo the repeal of those obviously dangerous, semi-automatic firearms. But why would anyone believe that when, presumably, the Conservative Party of Canada distilled the essence of its members’ and leaders’ earnestly held views into an election platform that pledged to get rid of the Liberals’ ban on such weapons?

The problem for O’Toole only gets worse. He’s now exposed himself as harbouring a hidden agenda; who’s to say he isn’t harbouring others?

A day or two ago, the new series of Liberal attack ads against the Conservatives on health care, abortion and — yup — guns looked like an act of desperation for a flailing Grit campaign.

As of Sunday, the strategy seems much sounder. Now there’s actual evidence that O’Toole is indeed trying to pull a fast one — and will say different things to different audiences at different times — to “secure the future” of a post-election Conservative government.

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O’Toole can count on facing more questions about the Conservatives’ promises and un-promises on gun control during the next French-language leaders’ debate on Wednesday, and the only English one on Thursday.

But the damage has been done. He’ll be limping onto the stage with two self-inflicted wounds.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and former Postmedia News national reporter.

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