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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole attends the 'Face-a-Face 2021' French language election debate at TVA studios in Montreal on Sept. 2.MARTIN CHEVALIER/POOL/Reuters

Last Thursday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said something that instantly turned his party’s gun control platform into a major election issue. By Sunday, Mr. O’Toole had reversed course, and in effect rewritten the platform, in an attempt to stop a misfire on guns from shooting his campaign in the foot.

Mr. O’Toole’s approach this election has been all about appealing to a big tent of voters, particularly swing voters in places such as the Greater Toronto Area. His platform is the most progressive conservative thing since the demise of the Progressive Conservatives.

But not on firearms. Which is why, in last week’s French-language debate, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau zeroed in on the Conservative platform’s promise to scrap new gun control measures, notably a ban on so-called “assault-style” weapons that the Liberals introduced last year.

Mr. O’Toole surprisingly responded that a government led by him would maintain the ban on “assault weapons.”

Reporters spent the next two days asking him to explain what that meant. His words didn’t square with those in his platform; perhaps more importantly, his platform likely doesn’t square with the majority of the electorate.

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It quickly became clear that Mr. O’Toole was not promising to uphold the weapons ban that the Trudeau government implemented, via order in council, in May, 2020, after a mass murder in Nova Scotia that took 22 lives.

Instead, he was saying that he was committed to upholding Canada’s ban on fully automatic assault rifles, which can fire a continuous stream of bullets as long as the trigger is pulled – a ban in place since 1977.

Of course, no one had asked whether he favoured allowing Canadians to own machine guns. The questions were about semi-automatic weapons, which fire one round with each trigger pull, and which are a real issue.

They are readily available weapons that are often styled after military assault rifles. The Nova Scotia killer was armed with semi-automatic rifles and handguns; so was the shooter who killed six people at a mosque in Quebec City in 2017. The killer who took the lives of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 did so with a semi-automatic rifle.

No self-respecting hunter needs this kind of fire power. But the Conservative platform clearly states: “We will start by repealing C-71 and the May 2020 Order in Council.”

That is – or was – a promise to immediately legalize 1,500 semi-automatic weapons and their variants, and to repeal Bill C-71, a 2019 law that, among other things, says police must do a lifetime background check on anyone applying for a firearms permit.

The Conservative platform thereafter promises a “review of the Firearms Act,” so as to “update legislation” and bring in a new “simplified classification system” for firearms.

In other words, the Tories were promising to first scrap the Liberals firearm rules, and then to study what to replace them with.

But as of Sunday, Mr. O’Toole has reversed course. He now says that, if elected, he will “maintain the restrictions put in place in 2020.”

What some people thought they heard him say last Thursday is what he is now saying. Bill C-71 is apparently still in his sights, but he will not immediately scrap the order in council. Instead, his first move on gun control would be a “public and transparent process on firearm classification to take the politics out of this.”

The Conservatives have gone from promising to instantly repeal the most prominent Liberal firearms rule to promising to at least study it first.

And what of Liberal plans? They’re better than the Conservatives, but, infuriatingly, the Liberals still want to punt the task of banning handguns to provinces or municipalities.

If there is little place for assault-style semi-automatic rifles in Canada, there’s even less for easily concealed handguns. They have no legitimate civilian use, can’t be used for hunting and kill more Canadians each year than long guns.

Passing the buck to lower levels of government is doomed to fail. What good would it do for one town or province to ban handguns, if they’re legal the next town or province over?

If the Liberals were as serious about strengthening gun control as the Conservatives appear to be about watering it down, they would have taken steps to ban, or at the very least severely limit, handguns. They’ve had six years to do it.

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