TORONTO — CANADA'S justice minister has softened sweeping gun-control legislation that would have given police broad search-and-seizure authority for unregistered weapons and applied harsh penalties for failing to register.
The conciliatory move comes amid signs that Canada's gun lobby is more potent and organized than expected and that fierce resistance by members of Parliament (MP) from rural areas has divided the governing Liberal Party.
The new law would create a computerized registry for all the nation's guns. While handguns must be registered in Canada, the country has an estimated 7 million unregistered rifles and shotguns, most in rural areas.
Appearing before a parliamentary committee Friday, Justice Minister Alan Rock proposed to narrow search provisions in the legislation, saying police could search only in areas where guns were to have been stored and that appointments must be made with gun owners for inspections.
He also laid out softer penalties for those who do not comply with the government's proposed nationwide gun registration plan. Under his revisions, a first-time failure to register would bring no more than six months in jail and a $1,480 fine. Under the old plan, a 10-year prison term was possible for such a failure.
''The government remains firmly committed to the universal registration of all firearms,'' Mr. Rock told the parliamentary justice committee.
Nevertheless, with final legislation expected to be presented to Parliament in early to mid-June, some analysts say the new gun law has reached a vulnerable stage. Gun-control advocates say the ''silent majority'' must make themselves heard soon if the bill is not to be diluted.
''The gun lobby has mounted an extremely expensive and highly developed campaign,'' says Priscilla de Villiers, president of Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating Its Termination in Toronto. ''It's difficult for ordinary people to have their voices heard above this din.''
BESIDES the search-and-seizure aspects of the bill, the gun lobby also has targeted a provision that would make it a criminal offense not to register a gun. That would make criminals out of collectors, sportsmen, and aboriginals who simply forget to register, they say.
''Rock is victimizing one whole segment of Canadian society, and the most law-abiding segment,'' says Larry Whitmore, spokesman for the Ontario Handgun Association here.
Gun-control advocates, however, deny they want ''grandma or grandpa'' to go to jail for forgetting to register. Yet criminal penalties, not mere regulatory sanctions, are crucial to the success of the bill, they say.
''It sends a signal if a first-time offense is not considered serious,'' says Wendy Cukier, a gun control advocate. ''If failing to register simply becomes a regulatory violation, it would allow provinces to argue that it is under provincial jurisdiction -- and Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta will simply not follow it.''
Gun-lobby groups admit they have several radio campaigns going on. But allegations that millions are being spent is ''a lot of horse manure,'' Mr. Whitmore says. But he does say that Canadian gun owners are more unified and vocal than ever before.
''This [unity] is the first time this has ever happened in the history of the gun lobby in Canada, and we have Mr. Rock to thank for it,'' he says. ''He has awakened the sleeping giant. These groups finally realize an attack on one segment has to be viewed as an attack on all.''
They have been sharing information and organizing by meetings, fax, and phone, he says. Many new grass-roots organizations have also been popping up across Canada and helping each other as never before.
Provincial justice ministers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta opposed the legislation. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna on Thursday signaled his desire for changes in the bill. And between 25 and 30 MPs within the Liberal Party may vote against the bill, an extraordinary situation given that strict party discipline in Canada's Parliament means votes are usually along party lines with little dissension.
Despite opposition, the main proponent of tougher Canadian gun control denied having any second thoughts about the bill.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien said in a speech last week that despite the changes, the government is not backing away from its commitment to enact a much tighter gun-control law. Such tightening is crucial to Canada's sense of its own identity, he said.
''We're not running away from gun control in Canada,'' he told a fund-raising meeting Thursday in Hamilton, Ont. ''The commitment we have is to make sure that some values are preserved in our society. That's what makes us Canadian.''