OTTAWA - Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole maintained his commitment Sunday to keep a Liberal ban on so-called "assault-style" weapons in place, as he attempted to distance himself from the firearms lobby.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media in Ottawa, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. Canadians will vote in a federal election Sept. 20th. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media in Ottawa, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. Canadians will vote in a federal election Sept. 20th. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA - Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole maintained his commitment Sunday to keep a Liberal ban on so-called "assault-style" weapons in place, as he attempted to distance himself from the firearms lobby.

O'Toole broke with the party's platform a day earlier, explicitly saying he would maintain a May 2020 Liberal cabinet order that banned 1,500 makes of semi-automatic firearms.

The online version of the Conservative platform had changed as of Monday evening. While the promise to repeal the order-in-council remains in the document, a footnote has been added promising that "all firearms that are currently banned will remain banned."

"For the sake of openness and transparency, we have kept the original language in the platform and added a footnote to clarify the position as Mr. O'Toole stated," Chelsea Tucker, a campaign spokeswoman, said Monday night.

Earlier in the day, Conservative candidate Rob Morrison, who is running in British Columbia's Kootenay-Columbia riding maintained that the promise to repeal the Liberal ban had not changed.

Asked about that post, O'Toole responded, "I'm the leader" before repeating that he would keep the restrictions in place while his party conducts a review of Canada's gun classifications system.

"What I committed to is keeping everything in place now, the status quo, so that people know we can focus seriously on public safety and security, actually go after the illegally smuggled firearms, which are the cause of many of the shootings we see in the cities, and have a completely independent public process to fix the classification system," he said.

Questions about the Conservative party's gun policy have dogged O'Toole since he said he would maintain a ban on "assault weapons" during a French-language debate Thursday.

O'Toole repeated that statement in the following days while remaining evasive about whether he was talking about the May 2020 cabinet order or 1977 bill that banned fully automatic weapons, saying on Saturday that voters could look in the party platform to "fill in the blanks."

Those questions have also provided ammunition for the Liberal Party and gun control advocates who allege O'Toole has close ties to the gun lobby.

O'Toole's campaign manager, Fred DeLorey, is a former lobbyist for the National Firearms Association and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has accused O'Toole of having a "secret deal" with the pro-gun groups.

But O'Toole said Monday that the National Firearms Association is doing "nothing" for the Conservative party: "There is zero quid pro quo."

O'Toole said he is trying to show Canadians he can "put public safety first by maintaining restrictions in place, and taking the politics out of classification."

"I don't like to see law-abiding people like farmers and hunters demonised by the Liberal government," he added.

In a March 2020 survey of Conservative Party leadership candidates conducted by the NFA, O'Toole said he supported withdrawing several gun laws, including the one introduced in 1977, and said he would conduct a line-by-line review of the Firearms Act.

At a campaign event in Welland, Ont., Trudeau accused O'Toole of "pretending" to have reversed his position.

"Instead of coming clean with Canadians, Erin O'Toole is using coded language, weasel words to try to make his position on military-style assault weapons sound reasonable. It's not. You can't promise one day in your platform to repeal our assault weapon ban and then the next day, pretend that you're going to lead consultations in partnership with the gun lobby," Trudeau said. "That's not leadership, that's bowing to the fringe politics that want to take back Canada."

"Assault" or "assault-style" firearms are colloquial descriptions, and what falls into either category is debated among gun users.

Groups that advocate for stricter gun control say they're not impressed with O'Toole's policy change.

In a joint statement, Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and Danforth Families for Safe Communities, said O'Toole's Sunday statement left them "further alarmed."

"Mr. O’Toole has not committed to maintaining the assault weapons ban, nor has he committed to enshrining the ban in legislation and preparing to buyback the now-prohibited guns," the groups said.

They said they're also worried about a promise in the Conservative platform to consult with gun owners and manufacturers in the proposed review.

"There is no such mention of survivors, physicians, women, anti-hate researchers, scientists, or academics," the groups said.

When asked about the issue, O'Toole said in French that all interested groups would be consulted.

The pro-gun-control groups said they're also worried about O'Toole's promise to repeal Bill C-71, which increased background checks for gun owners, created certain record keeping requirements for gun sellers and tightened gun transportation rules.

While O'Toole has maintained that commitment, on Monday he said he supports some elements of that law, including the expanded background checks, but has concerns about the record-keeping requirement, which he described as a "backdoor registry."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2021.

———

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.