OTTAWA - The Conservative law-and-order agenda has been dealt another blow by the opposition, which is refusing to support a key bill to impose mandatory minimum prison terms for a variety of gun-related crimes.
The Commons justice committee, which is dominated by the opposition, is wrapping up months of study on the flagship bill and members said yesterday they will send a dramatically watered-down version to Parliament for a final vote.
"It's on its deathbed," Liberal MP Derek Lee declared of the Conservative proposal to impose minimum prison sentences of three to 10 years.
Tory MP Rob Moore accused the opposition, particularly the Liberals, of trying to "gut" the bill after they refused yesterday to accept government overtures to soften it.
The gun bill was the first piece of legislation introduced by the Harper government last spring. It was widely regarded as having more chance of passing than any other government justice proposal because both the Liberals and the NDP proposed increases in minimum prison terms, albeit less severe, during last year's election campaign.
The stalemate between the opposition and the government is the latest sign the Conservative justice agenda is stalled.
Last fall, the Commons passed a watered-down version of a Conservative bill to severely curtail the use of house arrest, which allows offenders to serve their time in the community instead of going to jail.
A housekeeping bill on judges' salaries, and another one to crack down on street racing, are the only justice measures that have passed.
Nine more bills are still winding their way through the parliamentary process.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, whose job is to stick-handle the Conservative justice agenda through the Commons, vowed "the fight is not over yet" on the gun bill.
"I don't accept that the bill is doomed," Mr. Nicholson said.
While he said he is open to some amendments, he added he isn't prepared to accept a hollowed out version of the bill.
The gun bill would increase mandatory prison terms for numerous crimes involving guns, such as attempted murder and kidnapping, and force judges to impose terms of three to 10 years, with the lesser sentences reserved for first-time offenders and the most severe terms for serious, repeat offenders.
There are already 20 automatic jail terms of up to four years for gun-related crimes in the Criminal Code, ranging from one to four years, imposed a decade ago as part of Liberal gun control laws.
A key sticking point is the opposition desire for some latitude for judicial discretion, rather than a cast in stone "meat chart" for a sentencing regime, said Mr. Lee.
There is a general consensus among criminologists that minimum mandatory sentences do nothing to deter crime. The gun crime bill was introduced primarily as a response to a wave of gang-related shootings that plagued Toronto and other large cities in 2005, months before the last election.
Critics contend there is no need for stiffer legislation because the problem has largely been addressed by more aggressive enforcement of existing laws.
For instance, gun-related crime in Toronto plummeted last year, a drop attributed to a focus on community-based policing.