The gun registry vote: a shaken MP, an unsatisfying debate

How can voters judge whether their MPs did the right thing?

Just before this evening’s vote on the gun registry I ran into Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer in the foyer of the House of Commons. He’s usually a jovial, stolid sort of guy—voted most collegial in this year’s Maclean’s survey of MPs. This evening, though, he didn’t look so good.

Stoffer is known for tirelessly attending to his Sackville-Eastern Shore riding. So since his announcement on Monday that he was switching his vote on the gun registry—from opposing it to supporting it—he’s had been working the phones just about non-stop, responding personally to angry constituents who contacted his office to lace into him.

“I don’t use the Internet so I called every single person back,” Stoffer said wearily. “There is no question fair number of people have expressed their severe disappointment in me.”

Stoffer put himself on the winning side, although he didn’t appear to feel that way. He and five other NDP MPs switched their votes to keep the registry alive in this evening’s vote. Six New Democrats sided with the government, but that wasn’t enough. The vote was 153-151 in favour of of a motion to kill Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner’s private member’s bill to scrap the registry.

The questions now are mostly electoral. Will those six NDP switchers pay a price? Will rural Liberal MPs, who were compelled to vote along their party’s pro-registry line, be punished by voters?

“I can’t tell how it’s going to go. I’ll put my name on the ballot and the people will determine if I’m worthy or not,” Stoffer said. “When you reverse a decision, a lot of people think you’ve let them down. That’s a fair comment to make.”

That’s the proper, democratic attitude, of course. Yet it unsettles me. This debate just didn’t seem coherent enough to me for voters to intelligently judge whether their MPs did the right thing or not.

From the anti-registry side, we heard mostly nonsense about how criminals won’t register their guns—as if that was ever the point of the registry. From the pro-registry side, we witnessed a heavy reliance on very broad statistics about the way police use the registry—and surprisingly little research that dug deeper to paint a persuasive picture of how the registry helps.

As for me, I think the balance of evidence supports the keeping the registry. But considering how long this debate has dragged on, it’s surprising the quality of the argument—the facts and the analysis available for fair-minded people to hash over—is still so unsatisfactory.

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