OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has issued an unexpected rebuke to his government's own firearms advisory committee, rejecting its recommendations and suggesting the group's membership may need revisiting.
Documents obtained by the Coalition for Gun Control reveal the committee advising Public Safety Minister Vic Toews wants some prohibited weapons, including hand guns and assault rifles, reclassified to make them more easily available.
The 14-member group is also pushing to make firearm licences good for at least 10 years, rather than the current five — a measure opposed by police who say the five-year renewals are a chance to weed out unstable gun owners.
Coming on the anniversary of Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique massacre — in which 14 young women died at the hands of a deranged gunman — the documents provided opposition MPs with new ammunition to fire at a government that earlier this year repealed and destroyed the federal long-gun registry.
But even as gun enthusiasts cheered the proposed reforms Thursday on online message boards, Harper was pouring cold water on the committee in the House of Commons.
"Let me be as clear as I can be," the prime minister said in response to a question from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
"Prohibited weapons exist as a category under the law for essential reasons of public security. The government has absolutely no intention of weakening that category of protections."
Harper stressed repeatedly that the recommendations contained in a March 2012 "memorandum for the minister" are not government policy.
And when interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae suggested the government's advisory committee — which is dominated by sport shooting enthusiasts and those opposed to gun control — needed wider representation, including from police chiefs, those fighting domestic violence and groups dealing with suicide prevention, Harper all but agreed.
"I will take the advice of the leader of the Liberal party under consideration," Harper responded.
"I'm obviously very concerned with some of the recommendations made in that report, and I think the committee does need some re-examination in that light."
The prime minister's comments will certainly be a come-down for gun enthusiasts who were cheering a Toronto Star report of the committee recommendations earlier Thursday.
"A shocking outbreak of common sense? What are they drinking in Ottawa these days?" said one poster on Outdoorsmenforum.ca.
"This is great!! I am so glad we have a government that has some common sense ... at least for now," wrote another.
Conservatives used the Liberal long-gun registry as a prime fundraising tool and rural electoral wedge issue for more than a decade. But now that the registry is gone, the government appears to be playing down further changes — at least for broad public consumption.
Two important developments this fall, the final destruction of all gun registry data outside Quebec and the further postponement of gun-marking regulations, were proactively announced by the government to the gun lobby but not to a national audience via the news media.
Toews' firearms advisory committee is co-chaired by Steve Torino, the president of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association.
It includes prominent anti-registry advocates including Tony Bernardo, a self-described gun-rights champion with Torino's CSSA; Greg Farrant of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters; Linda Thom, an Olympic gold medallist in pistol shooting; and Niagara police constable John Gayder, an advocate who has written pieces such as "Is Modern Gun Control Hazardous to Police?" which posits that gun control "will prove to be as disastrously misguided as leech therapy, shock treatment and Thalidomide were to the field of medicine."
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has actively lobbied to be represented on the committee, without success.
"The CACP is very interested in being represented on this committee, as this would provide you with timely and balanced advice on firearms issues from the leading law enforcement organization in Canada," the association's president, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, wrote to Toews two weeks after the May 2011 election.
Rae emerged from the Commons to suggest the prime minister "has learned something from this experience."
"This is an area where frankly the public does not share the ideological enthusiasm of the Conservative back bench," Rae said.
"People are just not interested in increasing access to weapons. They're interested very much in reducing access to dangerous firearms."
Both Harper and Toews stressed the Conservative government's firearm focus is now on tougher sentences for gun-related convictions.
"We've made it very clear that we see no benefit to the long-gun registry," Toews told the Commons.
"However, what we have indicated is that we must continue to implement measures that in fact target the criminal use of firearms."
The Public Safety minister also noted that firearms crime rates are at their lowest in 50 years.
The homicide rate from guns is down 30 per cent since 2008, Toews added, "because of the very strong measures that this government has taken against the criminal use of firearms," drawing a huge round of applause and desk thumping from the Conservative benches.