Najma Ahmed is a Toronto-based trauma surgeon.
The U.S. National Rifle Association recently tweeted that “someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” The NRA’s position is that health-care providers should be silent about our experiences, and about the horrors victims and families endure from gun violence. They feel that the dead and voiceless victims and their shattered families should not have an advocate in this debate.
In response to the tweet from the NRA, American health-care professionals published an open letter, making it abundantly clear that this is our lane.
The gun debate is the centre of my professional highway. I was on call on July 22, 2018 – the night that two people were killed and 13 others injured in a mass shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. I am a trauma surgeon, having worked for nearly two decades at one of the country’s busiest trauma centres. I know of what I speak. From my lane, my team and I have resuscitated, operated on, cared for, consoled and attended funerals of far too many victims of horrific gun violence.
Our lane is the lane from which we will do the research that helps us to understand how to prevent gun deaths in Canada. From our lane we will ask questions about what the proliferation of guns in Canada means for the health of our families, towns and cities. From our lane we will treat the victims of gun violence and quite literally sew back together the shattered organs, vessels and lives torn apart by bullets fired by guns.
In Canada, the Trauma Association of Canada and the Canadian Association of General Surgeons have endorsed position statements that would limit civilian access to firearms, in an effort to stem the hemorrhage of lives lost and ruined from guns. Other Canadian medical societies are considering taking similar positions.
The tragedy of gun violence is magnified by the young ages of its victims. The horror is intensified by the fact that gun-related injuries and deaths are preventable. Almost all economically developed, democratic countries on Earth, with the notable exception of the United States, have enacted sensible gun-safety legislation. And all of them, again with the notable exception of the United States, have had very low rates of gun deaths and negligible rates of mass shootings over the past decades.
With the exception of the United States and Canada, essentially every country in the world has strengthened its gun-safety legislation over the past two decades. Canada is among a very few countries that has weakened its gun control measures. And what has become apparent is that we now have a gun problem in Canada.
A succession of horrific shootings in 2018 has refocused our national attention on the proliferation of guns in this country. There are now nearly one million legally owned handguns in Canada, and gun-related injuries and fatalities have been increasing steadily.
So what can be done?
Ottawa has called for a period of public consultation to support an appropriate legislative response to the increase in gun crimes and deaths in Canada, with proposed legislation for a ban on civilian ownership of handguns and assault weapons. According to a 2016 report, gun-related mortality in Canada was about eight times greater than in Britain or Japan, notable for their strict laws governing civilian access to guns. If Canadians seek to live in communities where injuries and deaths from guns are as low as possible, then the debate should be focused on the facts, the data, the science and the sociology that informs our understanding of this public-health crisis.
All of these things are smack in the middle of my lane.
The science is very clear: Decreasing civilian access to firearms results in lower rates of firearm-related violence, injury and death. A 2018 report documented the pattern of gun-related deaths in 195 countries between 1990 and 2016. The authors found that 90 per cent of firearm deaths worldwide occurred outside conflict zones in all but one year (the year of the conflict in Rwanda). Globally, approximately 250,000 people die each year of firearm-related causes. Many more are injured and survive with serious and lifelong disability, including the psychological burden of being a victim of gun violence.
Countries with stricter laws governing civilian access to firearms have much lower rates of gun-related homicide/suicide than countries with less strict access to guns. In Canada, many gun deaths are suicides. Repeated studies have shown that limiting access to guns markedly reduces the incidence of suicide.
This is definitely our lane. From our lane, we see and hear and feel the senseless maiming and deaths of our young people behind us and ahead of us and all around us. I have frequently witnessed the tragedy of families ripped apart by the force and velocity of bullets from guns. Action is necessary. Prevention is safer, less costly and far more effective than the heartbreaking cycle of injury and death due to guns.