MONTREAL -- Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole appeared to backpedal on his party's pledge to repeal the federal ban on so-called "assault-style" firearms, but the Tories later clarified that wasn't so, prompting the Liberals to accuse him of using "weasel words" to deceive Canadians.

In May last year, the Liberals banned some 1,500 firearm models of what it called "assault-style" weapons, including the popular AR-15 rifle and the Ruger Mini-14 used to kill 14 women at Montreal's Ecole polytechnique in 1989.

The government introduced the ban weeks after a mass shooting in Nova Scotia where the shooter used illegally obtained guns, including two semi-automatic rifles with overcapacity magazines.

At the time, Conservatives slammed the "assault-style" firearms ban as they accused the Liberals of trying to politicize the tragedy, and punishing law-abiding gun owners while failing to address the issue of illegal weapons being shipped over Canada's borders.

"Assault" or "assault-style" firearms are colloquial descriptions, and what falls into either category is debated among gun users.

The Conservative election platform promises to scrap the May 2020 order-in-council that banned the wide variety of guns and review the Firearms Act with input from police, gun owners, manufacturers and the public.

O'Toole seemed to backpedal on the pledge in the French-language debate on TVA Thursday night, and again on Friday, by saying the party would "maintain the ban on assault weapons" when pressed about his platform pledge.

Chelsea Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Conservative party, later said in an emailed statement that O'Toole does promise to repeal the May 2020 ban but not the prohibition of full-fledged "assault weapons" -- distinct from what the Liberals call "assault-style" weapons. That ban has been in place since 1977.

O'Toole did not get into the specific details about his choice of vocabulary at a news conference in Montreal on Friday, but groups on different sides of the gun debate in Canada took notice.

The Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, a pro-gun group, wrote on Twitter: "O'Toole gamed Trudeau hard by vowing not to repeal the actual assault rifle ban from 1977."

Gun-control group PolySeSouvient, which includes students and graduates from Ecole polytechnique, said the Conservative leader is "lying to Canadians," and purposely talking about the '70s ban when he's been asked about the more recent one.

"O'Toole is not stupid," it said in a statement. "He knows that these weapons are commonly referred to as 'assault weapons' -- the same weapons used in mass shootings around the world including the United States."

Liberal candidate and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair also accused O'Toole of deceiving Canadians with his answers, and said the Conservative leader is beholden to the country's gun lobby.

"Canadians deserve to hear the truth from Mr. Mr. O'Toole. He unfortunately attempted to deceive Canadians last night by using weasel words suggesting that he's going to maintain an assault rifle ban, but when questioned about what guns he was talking about, he's not going to say," he said at a news conference Friday.

At a campaign stop in Mississauga, Ont., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Friday that O'Toole's answers about the federal "assault-style" firearm ban shows he's willing to say one thing to one audience, and something else to others.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2021.