TORONTO — A CANADIAN-STYLE showdown at the OK Corral is looming in Canada's Senate tomorrow over a landmark gun-control bill that would require every gun in the country to be registered.
Forces opposed to gun control see this as their last, best chance to either defeat the bill outright or to neutralize some of its key provisions. The Senate will either pass the bill into law in a vote tomorrow afternoon - or return it to Parliament with amendments.
Sending the bill back would lead to a dangerous lengthening of an already fractious debate that might further damage the Liberal Party majority of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Such a delay, gun-control opponents hope, might even lead to defeat of the legislation.
Canada's gun laws are already much stricter than those in the United States, and require registration of all hand guns.
The bill proposes a computerized registry for all the nation's guns. If it became law, it would apply to an estimated 7 million unregistered rifles and shotguns. Criminal penalties would be prescribed for those who did not register.
Close vote expected
The bill is sparking nationwide interest because the unelected Canadian Senate is usually a rubber stamp for legislation passed along by the majority party in the House of Commons.
In this case, however, the vote may be close, running roughly along party lines. The 104-member Senate is almost evenly divided between the Liberal Party (50 senators) and the Progressive Conservative Party (51 senators), with three independents. Both parties expect a few last-minute defections when the vote comes - for or against an amended bill.
''It's going to be close, that's for sure,'' says a key aide to a ranking conservative senator who asked not to be named. ''We know there are Liberal senators with serious reservations and some Conservative senators that support most, if not all, of it.''
He dismisses the idea of an outright defeat of the bill, but suggests amendments such as ''decriminalizing'' non-registration of shotguns and rifles would improve on the bill by preventing overly harsh penalties for people who simply ''forget'' to register.
''This is our best opportunity,'' he says, ''to deal with the many problems this bill would create'' by amending it.
''Few bills are perfect, and this one is no exception,'' the aide says.
But those who have fought hard for the bill's tough requirements - including criminal penalties for non-registration - denounce all of the amendments as delaying tactics and Trojan horses.
''They were smart enough to realize that we won the argument,'' says Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. ''They know they can't take registration out of the bill outright. So they're trying to water it down with amendments.''
Under the bill as currently written, gun owners will be required to register guns over a five-year period from 1996 to 2001. All the nation's firearms would be registered by Jan. 1, 2003.
But one proposed amendment, for example, would allow individual provinces to delay adopting universal gun registration until 2005. Another amendment proposes to decriminalizing nonregistration, whereas the bill as written says those who fail a second time to register a gun could face up to a year in jail.
Bill was prompted by a massacre
Such a piecemeal approach would effectively nullify registration, gun-control advocates say. In essence, it would make the whole process ''optional,'' Ms. Cukier says. ''Police aren't going to enforce the law if all they can do to someone they find with 2,000 unregistered rifles is hand them the equivalent of a traffic ticket,'' she says.
The impetus for tough new gun-control measures flowed initially from the national soul-searching that followed the Dec. 9, 1989, massacre of 14 college women in Quebec by a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle.
As the sixth anniversary of the killings nears, relatives of the 14 women traveled to Ottawa yesterday to urge the Senate to pass the bill without amendment.