Dr. Najma Ahmed
The trauma surgeon and co-founder of Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns says yes.
It’s Friday around 11 p.m.. My pager beeps. I hurry to the trauma bay. The team is already at work. The patient is not much more than a child. The figure of a young, slender body barely fills the trauma stretcher. His blood spills onto the floor as we open his chest to resuscitate his heart. Our hands grasp his young heart to coax it back to life, but to no avail. It is torn apart, the perfect chambers shredded. What is this killing machine, so perfect and precise? It is a bullet from a handgun.
The federal government should ban handguns. These weapons should not be in our homes, schools and communities, so that their victims do not end up in our ambulances, hospitals and morgues.
With the sad exception of our Indigenous population, Canadians have access to the cleanest water, best healthcare and best education almost anywhere in the world. Conversely, we rank very poorly on gun mortality rates, much closer to the US than to other developed countries. This is because other nations have acted on the incontrovertible evidence that more guns make us less safe. Japan. The UK. Australia. All ban handguns (and semi-automatic weapons). All have very low or otherwise dramatically reduced gun violence.
Canadians seek a stronger approach to gun violence in this country, including a clear majority favouring a ban on handguns, as multiple public opinion polls show. This is also the consensus in the medical community. In fact, 14 prominent medical associations have endorsed our call for stronger gun restrictions. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that a gun not be kept in places where children live or play.
When considering a handgun ban, or stronger gun control in general, we must look beyond the headlines. While handguns dominate urban violence—60 per cent of shooting homicides were perpetrated with a handgun—they’re also used frequently in suicide, femicide and accidental injury and death. Nor can we accept the argument that only smuggled guns are the cause of violence. More than 3,600 guns were reported stolen in Canada in 2017, including many handguns. One of these was used in the 2018 mass shooting on the Danforth in Toronto.
Gun violence and gun suicide rates are now rising, after a long period of decline. This follows a loosening of regulations in the previous decade. The rise shows no sign of slowing down. In 2019 Toronto had 490 shootings. Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are all experiencing a similar trend.
Statistics, however, are not people: someone’s child, sister, brother, friend or parent. A person with hopes and dreams, fears and aspirations. Blown away by a bullet from a handgun.
How many stories are enough? How many grief-stricken families must we abide? How much more evidence can we overlook before we compel our governments to act? Handguns are a public health crisis, and governments should address this crisis comprehensively, including by banning handguns.
The CEO and executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights says no.
Likely few topics in our society are more polarizing than the private ownership of firearms. To make matters worse, mainstream conversations about firearms are dogmatic and rife with misinformation. Most people who are vehemently opposed to private handgun ownership, for example, are incapable of answering the simplest questions about Canada’s current (and extensive) regulatory system.
Regulation around handguns in Canada is remarkably strict. To be qualified to legally own a handgun, you must pass a two-day safety course, apply for a Restricted Possession and Acquisition Licence (RPAL), pay fees, provide personal references, have your spouse sign the application, provide contact information for every conjugal partner you’ve had in the last two years (if you have no spouse), disclose personal medical information and any criminal history, and provide a photo. To make false statements in this process is a serious criminal offence. You’ll spend on average $450 and wait four to six months for an RPAL. It will still be two to four weeks before you can fire your first shot at a gun range. First you must buy a club membership, prove to the RCMP that it’s valid, buy a handgun, and wait until the transfer is approved and the registration mailed to your home. Then you can transport your handgun unloaded, with a trigger lock installed and in a securely locked container, to the range or your home.
Every 24 hours, for as long as you hold an RPAL, you will be electronically investigated for interactions with law enforcement. This program is called “Continuous Eligibility Screening.” Handguns are registered in Canada, so you will need to produce the handgun for inspection upon demand from the Chief Firearms Officer if required.
The Canadian government recognizes three primary reasons why most people acquire and possess a handgun: target shooting, collecting and inheritance. In addition, and with special permission, handguns can be possessed and carried for protection of life. These are all valid reasons to own a handgun, and in a free society, or one striving to be free, it’s incumbent on the state to demonstrate why these reasons are insufficient, not the other way around.
In short, handguns are among the most tightly regulated property in Canadian society, and their owners are continuously vetted and uniquely qualified.
As well, guns are extremely important to those who own them; they’re not just some dispensable hobby as some would suggest. Banning handguns, or any firearm for that matter, requires the government to show, with complete honesty and transparency, that licensed gun owners and their property represent a disproportionate risk to public safety justifying such extraordinary actions as bans and confiscations. If everyday Canadians had a better understanding of this topic, little or no support would exist for a handgun ban.
Dr. Najma Ahmed responds to Rod Giltaca
In medicine we are confronted with complicated cases. Successful treatment requires a targeted, multi-pronged approach. A patient may require first resuscitation and imaging, then antibiotics and surgery followed by chemotherapy.
I think about treating gun violence much the same way. We have a sick patient—admittedly now in better shape since the banning of assault weapons—and we have work to do. The next “treatments” involve public education about the risks of firearms proliferation, investments in reducing poverty and racism, and much-needed mental health supports. Additional treatments must include “red flag” laws to remove guns from a person at risk of harming themself or others, smarter law enforcement to prevent guns from illegally crossing the border—and legislation to ban handguns.
The case for banning handguns is clear: A review of scientific literature from around the world demonstrates that more guns results in more deaths. Jurisdictions where guns—including handguns—proliferate and laws are weaker have a greater risk of death, including from suicide, domestic violence and accidental shootings.
Meanwhile a July 2020 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal’s open-access edition demonstrates that gun deaths are only part of the story. “Data suggest that mortality statistics underestimate the effects of gun injury because many patients do not lose their lives, but [do] lose their livelihoods.”
A report on handguns by Dr. Chethan Sathya, a Canadian-trained pediatric surgeon working in the US, demonstrated that an “explosion of handgun purchases” in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the risk of suicide. He cites a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded: “Handgun ownership is associated with a greatly elevated and enduring risk of suicide by firearm.”
There have likewise been reports in Canada of a spike in gun and ammunition purchases during the pandemic. Mental health experts have warned of increased risks of anxiety stemming from the health and economic situation. In Canada, suicide accounts for 75 per cent of gun deaths, and suicide attempts by gun result in death in about 90 per cent of cases. It is critical that we do more to restrict access to guns.
The gun lobby argues our laws are strong enough and that handgun violence in Canada is an issue of “illegal” guns from the US. This is not the whole story. For example, Canada recently marked a sombre second anniversary of the Danforth shooting that killed two—including a 10-year-old girl—and injured 13 others. The gun used was a “legal” gun that had been stolen in Saskatchewan. Indeed, Regina Police Service superintendent Corey Zaharuk has said that the majority of guns seized from crime in that community are domestically sourced, with a major increase in guns having been reported stolen.
When reviewing evidence and arguments we must also measure the credibility of sources. In a video released last year by the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, executive director Rod Giltaca claims that a handgun ban could result in thousands of Canadian children being shot and killed by police tactical teams (sent to seize handguns from citizens who don’t voluntarily surrender their guns) and that doctors would “own” responsibility for it. This type of rhetoric diminishes the CCFR’s credibility as a serious contributor to the public discourse on gun violence. The US gun lobby should also serve as a cautionary tale.
Canadians have already deduced from the evidence that a handgun ban is the right choice for our society. Recent polls show support for such a ban is consistently at or near a two-thirds majority, including: 71 per cent (Ipsos, 2020); 67 per cent (Angus Reid Institute, 2020); 62 per cent (Research Co., 2020); 61 per cent (Angus Reid Institute, 2019); and 67 per cent (Nanos, 2018).
Now is the time to act. My colleague Dr. John Kortbeek, a veteran trauma surgeon in Calgary, tells this story:
“This happened years ago but continues to weigh on me. All my thoughts were on the upcoming Christmas season and spending time with family and friends. But then my pager went off and the briefing came. Multiple gunshot wounds south of the city. The trauma team gathered and made preparations for the imminent arrivals. Several young students and athletes had been travelling to the airport to fly home for the holidays. Doubtless they were cheerful and anticipating the joy of the season. Then things changed suddenly. They pulled over to avoid a crash and confront the then-unknown driver. A young man emerged wielding a handgun. He quickly shot all of the students before taking his own life. Only one of the young students made it to the hospital that day. The others all died at the scene. Young lives full of hope and promise cut short. The sole survivor endured weeks in the ICU and acute care before returning home to family. A young life forever changed. Families whose lives will never be the same. Why?”
Rod Giltaca responds to Dr. Najma Ahmed
In my opening argument on handguns, I mentioned the misinformation and dishonesty that saturates this topic. Becoming interested in the gun debate myself roughly 15 years ago, I quickly discovered that the most common anti-gun arguments are emotional appeals, stories of shattered lives and families destroyed. Those stories affected me just as they would anyone. But as an analytical person I realized that bad policies make poor memorials, and that responsible decision-making requires honest determination.
Dr. Ahmed’s argument rests heavily on these emotional appeals and follows closely the modus operandi I’ve been opposing for a decade. This includes false claims, such as that Canada’s firearm mortality rate (the total deaths induced using firearms, including suicide, homicide and accidents) is “much closer to the US than to other developed countries.” This couldn’t be less true. The firearm mortality rate of 40 countries with lower rates than Canada averages roughly 1.1 per 100,000 citizens. Canada’s rate is roughly 2.2/100,000. The US rate is 12.21/100,000. Rates do change depending on the year, but not so much as to place Dr. Ahmed’s claim in the realm of possibility. This is a real problem, as many Canadians are inclined by default to believe a group of doctors.
She goes on to reference “incontrovertible” evidence, such as the paediatrician’s study on firearms. Both the Canadian Paediatricians Association and this study itself were severely criticized, mainly by doctors, for claiming that people up to 24 years old are “children and youth” and representing “gun-related” injuries comprised over 85 per cent by pellet guns and other non-firearms. Its recommendations were all firearms-related, and asked for firearms regulations that have been in place in Canada for decades. The study’s authors couldn’t be bothered to check. This group pushed this study into the media as “A Child is Injured by a Gun Every Day in Ontario.” Dr. Ahmed herself echoed this phrase when testifying in the Senate on Bill C-71, a bill that further regulates actual firearms. As the public generally understands the term “gun” to mean a firearm, this phrase is intentionally misleading.
Dr. Ahmed says that Canadians are united in calling for more gun control. Hardly, but if Canadians are interested in the truth, look no further than Statistics Canada. Depending on the year, an average of roughly 160–190 firearm-related homicides happen annually in Canada. To compare, 140–160 Canadians are injured by lightning each year. Roughly 10 Canadians are killed in firearm-related accidents per year. Roughly the same number are killed by lightning. The media, and now a small group of doctors, would have you believe you can’t leave your house without being killed by a firearm. Of course, many Canadians (when polled) would agree with any measure suggested to them by people they are conditioned to trust. Would they if this StatCan data were shared with them first?
Does any of this mean that if someone is unjustifiably harmed or killed with a firearm, their loss is meaningless? Of course not. The question and its solution is a matter of considering the scale of the problem, the range of appropriate responses available, weighing the risks, costs and benefits. This is how reasonable and effective people approach complex problems.
Two additional fallacies in Dr. Ahmed’s piece draw concern. First, that because criminals sometimes break into our homes and businesses to steal guns, law-abiding, licensed Canadians shouldn’t be allowed to own guns. Apparently, these victims of crime are somehow responsible for the acts of criminals. Secondly, she suggests that gun laws have been dangerously loosened and that rising homicide numbers are the result. Nothing could be easier to disprove. Officials from StatCan say that the entirety of the increase of firearm-related homicide since 2013 is gang-related. There was another spike as large as the recent one in 2005 during the peak of gun control in Canada. How would Dr. Ahmed explain that?
Concerning domestic violence, StatCan reports that less than 1 per cent of police-reported domestic violence qualifies as “a firearm present.” A firearm wasn’t necessarily used to kill, injure or intimidate; it was only “present.” Meaning it could be locked in a safe or even belong to the party who called for help. Are men and mainly women sometimes killed in domestic violence in Canada? Yes. But wouldn’t you want to focus on reducing all domestic violence if you truly cared? You can find this info by searching StatCan “Family Violence: A Statistical Profile.”
Emotional appeals do not solve real-world issues, though they are effective tools to guilt or bully people into agreeing with you. To use them to mislead people is unproductive and disingenuous. To use your profession to do it is worse. If Canada eliminated its gang problem, our firearm mortality rate would be within the margin of error of countries that have banned guns. Canadians should consider this thought-provoking fact.