Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says he still supports the embattled federal long-gun registry, but will propose changes to make it easier for gun owners to register their firearms.
Ignatieff, speaking to the Canadian Police Association in Ottawa on Monday, said his proposed changes would give police the tools they need to make communities safe, while removing the "frustrating" elements of the registry to address "legitimate criticisms" from rural Canadians.
But Ignatieff said he will require Liberal MPs to oppose the next vote to abolish the registry in the House of Commons by declaring it a whipped vote, meaning all caucus members must vote with the party's position or face discipline.
During the last session of Parliament, Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner's private member's bill passed second reading 164-137 in a House vote with support from 18 Liberals and New Democrats, most of whom represented northern and rural ridings.
Ignatieff hit out at the Conservatives for trying to dismantle the registry through one of their backbenchers.
"This is not a private member's bill," he said. "This is a government bill that doesn't have the courage to say it's a government bill. And we will whip it. Yes, we will whip it."
Under Ignatieff's proposed amendments to the registry, a first-time failure to register a firearm would be non-criminal ticketing offence, while fees for new licences, renewals and upgrades would be eliminated.
It remains unclear whether all or enough of Ignatieff's rural MPs are on side with his position. Meanwhile, the Conservatives' Hoeppner is demanding opposition members come clean with Parliament and their constituents on their intentions.
Newfoundland Liberal MP Scott Simms refused to say how he plans to vote. But Northern Ontario Liberal MP Anthony Rota, who voted with the government in November, said he could live with Ignatieff's changes and will vote with his leader this time.
"The issues that I had brought up seem to have been addressed and we're almost at a resolution," he said.
NDP Leader Jack Layton said his party is hoping to win amendments to Hoeppner's bill, some of which are similar to Ignatieff's proposed reforms. Should that fail, he refused to say if he'd whip his MPs to vote against the bill.
However, NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said his party has always allowed free votes on private member's bills and doubted the registry vote would be any different.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer said he would again vote in favour of abolishing the registry.
"Criminals don't register their guns in the first place," he said.
The Conservatives have long opposed the gun registry, brought in by the former Liberal government in response to the killing of 14 women at Montreal's L'École Polytéchnique in 1989.
Conservatives argue the registry has been a billion-dollar boondoggle, although a 2006 study by the auditor general found that eliminating the long-gun portion of the registry would only save taxpayers about $3 million a year.