By David Ljunggren
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The head of Canada's opposition Conservatives on Sunday scrapped a campaign promise to eliminate a ban on some assault weapons after Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused him of cozying up to the gun lobby.
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole has been under pressure from critics ahead of the Sept. 20 election because of his party's position on gun control, a sensitive issue in Canada, especially following crimes including a deadly 2020 shooting rampage in Nova Scotia.
Liberal governments over the years have tightened gun laws, which are stricter than those in the United States. Canada's rate of gun violence is significantly lower than that of its southern neighbor.
In their platform, the right-of-center Conservatives said they would scrap a 2020 ban on 11 kinds of assault weapons, including those used in a number of mass shootings. O'Toole previously said the restrictions unfairly penalized hunters and farmers.
"I want to make my position on firearms perfectly clear," O'Toole told reporters in Vancouver. "The present ban on a number of ... firearms that were reclassified in 2020 will remain in place."
O'Toole, pressed on the matter, did not explain the shift and accused Trudeau of engaging in American-style politics and "dividing people, pitting East versus west, rural versus urban." Instead of scrapping the ban, the Conservatives would launch a public review of how firearms are classified.
The Conservatives acted to prevent Trudeau from turning the matter into a wedge issue that could hurt them, said a senior party member, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau accused O'Toole of pandering to the far-right elements of his party.
"Community safety is not up for negotiation with the gun lobby. And you certainly don't hand them the pen to write your platform," he told reporters in Markham, Ontario.
The weapons banned in 2020 include the Ruger Mini-14 rifle, which a gunman used to kill 14 women in Montreal in 1989.
Gun control is set to feature in two televised leaders' debates this week, when Trudeau will try to revive a campaign that insiders concede is struggling amid voter fatigue and unhappiness about the election timing.
Trudeau called the vote two years early to serve as a referendum on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A rolling Nanos Research survey of 1,200 people for CTV on Sunday put the Conservatives at 34.9%, with the Liberals at 33.4% and the left-leaning New Democrats at 18.9%.
A day earlier, Nanos had the Conservatives at 35.5% and the Liberals at 33%.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Cooney)