Harper cites spectre of long-dead gun registry, fears 'back door' resurrection

He says he doesn't want to sound paranoid, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is concerned his own federal bureaucracy is trying to bring back the long gun registry "through the back door."

PM courted gun owners and anglers today in northern Ontario with a carefully stage-managed Q&A

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took part in a moderated question and answer session on the National Conservation Plan in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

He says he doesn't want to sound paranoid, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is concerned his own federal bureaucracy is trying to bring back the long gun registry "through the back door."

Harper courted gun owners and anglers Friday in northern Ontario with a carefully stage-managed question and answer session with invited representatives of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

Killing the long gun registry was a long-standing Conservative government promise -- and fundraising cash cow.

Now that it's dead and buried, a governing party in election mode is reviving alleged threats of its resurrection in repeated donation appeals to Conservative faithful.

The government introduced new legislation last month to simplify gun licensing, and also has loudly denounced and reversed an RCMP move to prohibit a couple of guns police say can too easily be converted into fully automatic weapons.

'Not something we can tolerate'

"I don't want to feed paranoia, but as prime minister I can tell you I share the frustrations of our caucus members," said Harper, before alluding to "bureaucratic initiatives that we think are effectively trying to put the long gun registry back in through the back door."

"This is not something we can tolerate."

He said the government would ensure, in future, that such measures "can't be done without some degree of political oversight."

However, documents obtained by the CBC through the Access to Information Act show the RCMP notified the public safety minister well in advance about — and sought input on — its decision to ban the Swiss Arms Classic Green and the CZ858 rifles last winter.

Harper himself was briefed in May 2013 on issues surrounding the reclassification of firearms, according to a heavily redacted document obtained by The Canadian Press.

Good politics for Tories

Still, resurrecting the ghost of the gun registry is good politics for a Conservative government that already appears to be in full flight toward a date with voters in 2015.

Frank Fata, a Sault city councillor who was among 100 or so invited guests at the Harper event, said the Conservative stand against the gun registry was a decisive factor in northern ridings such as Sault Ste. Marie, where the Tories reclaimed the seat in 2011 — by just under 1,200 votes — for the first time since 1988.

"Looking back to the last federal election, that did play a very important part in people's minds," said Fata, not a gun owner himself.

"Us being from northern Ontario, we tend to see it a little more personal and closer to home."

Harper noted to the audience that conservation, hunting and fishing aren't simply rural or northern preoccupations, citing statistics that 40 per cent of the fishing licences in Ontario belong to people in the Greater Toronto Area.

He said the issues "unite a wide range of Canadians from all backgrounds."

Still, members of the crowd listening in the hotel ballroom were predominantly male, white and in suit jackets.

'Pretty cool' PM showed up, says local hunter

Dave McKinney, a local member of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, stood out in his camouflage jacket and magnificent white mullet haircut.

He said he received an invitation to the event less than 24 hours in advance and showed up expecting to see the prime minister on a video link, not in the flesh.

"I was shocked that he was here," said McKinney.

"That's pretty cool that he showed up in this little town of Sault Ste. Marie."

He said the Conservative gun platform "absolutely" moved votes in the 2011 election.

"For northern Ontario votes, for sure. People have hunted and fished all their lives — I have — and all of a sudden there was all this red tape and more expense and hassles and police looking for you to be a bad guy."

Current Conservative fundraising appeals are peppered with talk of alleged Liberal and NDP plans to revive the registry, although Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is on record saying that now that the data has been destroyed he won't try to recreate the old Liberal program.

Harper opened by thanking the federation "for putting this event on," although an official with the group had already confirmed to The Canadian Press that it was a production of the Prime Minister's Office to which the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters had been invited.

Angelo Lombardo, the federation's executive director, read his questions from a script, including lobbing one on the "hot topic" of the gun registry.

Harper did not take questions from journalists after the event.

The prime minister also visited the local steel plant for a photo op and was to meet with members of his hunting and angling caucus later in the day as parliamentarians wrap up a week-long break from the House of Commons.