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Tough on crime, but not on rifles

Canada's Conservative government pays tribute to the Montreal Massacre, but ponders loosening gun regulations.

Participant lies on the ground as part of an outdoor display, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Dec. 6, 2005. They were marking the 16th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre of Dec. 6, 1989, in which 14 women students at the Ecole Polytechnique, in Montreal, Quebec, were systematically killed by a lone gunman named Marc Lepine. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — Last Sunday, Canada commemorated the 20th anniversary of a massacre that haunts us still.

In 1989, a young man named Marc Lepine walked into the engineering school of the University of Montreal armed with a semi-automatic hunting rifle. He stalked its cafeteria and classrooms shouting, “I hate feminists,” and coldly separated the men from the women.

By the time he turned the gun on himself, 14 people lay murdered — all of them women.

The killing spree traumatized the nation. It was a decade before the Columbine high school shootings in the United States. Yet it brought home a level of gun violence many naively thought was the reserve of neighbors south of the border. Worse, it couldn’t be dismissed as the act of a deranged man who randomly opened fire. This was a killer who targeted women.

First came a period of mournful soul-searching. Then came a period of activism.

There were marches to protest violence against women, and to denounce the glass ceilings that restrict the number of women in politics, top business jobs and elsewhere. And there was sustained pressure to toughen gun laws, some if it led by the Montreal women who survived the massacre.

The Liberal government of the day reacted by setting up the “long-gun registry,” a centralized system whereby owners of rifles and shotguns have to register their weapons. With an estimated 1.9 million Canadians owning guns, its implementation took a decade and cost $2 billion.

The gun registry is strongly backed by police chiefs across the country. Police officers like to know, when they’re responding to a call, if there’s a gun in the house. It helps protect them. They can also seize the weapons in cases of domestic disputes. And, it helps track the provenance of rifles, particularly when they’re stolen from homes and used in crimes. Police used the registry 2.5 million times in 2007.

The registry is also about violence against women. Rifles or shotguns are used in most murders committed in the home during incidents of domestic violence. And most of these victims are women.

The registry, however, has long been opposed by many who live in rural areas of Canada. They question its value in restricting gun crime and insist it treats law-abiding farmers and hunters like criminals. These same people, bizarrely, don’t complain about having to register their vehicles.

Rural Canada is the power base of the Conservative Party. So when the party formed its first minority government in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately set about undermining the long-gun registry.