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Gun law sparks fire in normally mild Canadians

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WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory -- When it comes to guns, people on Canada's frontier see things differently than the rest of the country does, and nothing shows that better than the shooting range that was in the basement of a local school for more than 40 years.

"One of my first encounters with that attitude toward guns was on my first day here, when I saw a mother of one of our students coming into the school carrying a rifle," said Patrice Berrel, principal of the Whitehorse Elementary School since 1993. "I asked myself, 'What did I get into?' "The Whitehorse Rifle and Pistol Club had used the range beneath the gym since the school was built in 1952. There were no accidents, but after someone broke into the school and stole a few guns, some parents complained. The Yukon government was forced to ask the club to leave in 1994 but not before offering about $100,000 to help build a big new clubhouse on nearby Grey Mountain.

The accommodating attitude that allowed the range to operate in the school for so long remains strong throughout the vast Canadian west, making this area the focus of a civil disobedience movement that is extraordinary for a country as law-abiding as Canada.

The catalyst is a sweeping new gun-control law, one of the toughest and most comprehensive anywhere. The law, which took effect Dec. 1, requires all 3 million gun owners to be licensed and every one of the estimated 7 million rifles and handguns in Canada to be registered. Sales or gifts of easily concealed pistols are banned, though current owners can keep the ones they have, and officials are given broad discretion to deny licenses and to search homes for weapons.

It is no surprise that such a bill, long advocated by gun-control forces in Canada (and in the United States), would bring out civil libertarians who see a government plot to confiscate private weapons.

But the remarkable aspect is that thousands of normally dispassionate Canadians are proclaiming their intention to break the law. Mostly older gun owners who were exempt from previous registration requirements, they are refusing to register before the Jan. 1, 2003, deadline.

"It's time for Canadians to stand up to government and say, 'This is an unjust and immoral law, and we're not going to obey it,' " said R. Bruce Hutton, a former officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who founded a group called the Law-Abiding Unregistered Firearms Association. Since its first meeting in November, the group has grown to 7,000 members, mostly in the west.

Here in Whitehorse, an old mining town on the Yukon River, gun owners who have never been involved in anti-gun-control politics before say the new legislation is forcing them to take a new look at things. Lyle Thompson is one of them.

"There's a terrific resentment here against registration, and the biggest reason for that is that people don't trust the government," said Thompson, 57, who owns a local Shell gasoline station and who has been hunting since he was a child. "I know that sounds radical, and 10 years ago I would have said it will never happen because this is Canada -- people here can vote. But I've changed my mind."

Although polls routinely show that most Canadians, including gun owners, want some form of control, opposition to the new law is strong.

Federal officials in Ottawa and gun-control advocates across Canada insist that while the law will make it costlier for some Canadians to acquire arms, it will not hinder the right of most to own a gun.