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Opinion Taking aim at doctors on gun control highlights firearms as a public-health issue

Canadian gun owners – or, more precisely, the small minority of National Rifle Association-wannabes who claim to speak for them – have a new target: Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns, a group that has the audacity to say gun violence is a public health issue.

The CDPG, whose members are mostly emergency room doctors and trauma surgeons who see the devastation wrought by guns first-hand, have come out in support of Bill C-71, proposed firearms legislation that is being debated in Parliament. They have also called for a ban on handguns and assault rifles.

In response, the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights and TheGunBlog.ca have lashed out, arguing physicians have no business taking a stand on guns and they should “stay in their lane.”

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(This is a parroting reference to an infamous tweet by the National Rifle Association in the U.S. back in November that said: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”)

Toronto trauma surgeon target of complaints by gun-rights advocacy group

Doctors responded to that self-righteous snarkiness with an impromptu online campaign with the hashtag #ThisIsMyLane and the creation of new advocacy groups like the CDPG.

But the online world is, in many ways, a cesspool. The group’s founder, Najma Ahmed, a trauma surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, has been subject to barrage of misogynist and racist attacks, along with wildly inaccurate claims that she and her colleagues are “urging the government to ban and seize guns from federally-licensed hunters, farmers and sports shooters.”

Let’s be clear about one thing: Physicians have every right to advocate for gun control, just as they have done in the past to lobby for anti-smoking measures, tougher impaired driving legislation, seat belt laws and so on.

In fact, one could argue, as the dean of the faculty of medicine of the University of Toronto Trevor Young does, that: “Advocacy has always been an essential part of the practice of medicine.”

While not everyone agrees that stricter gun laws are needed in Canada, what CDPG is advocating is hardly radical, and they present some compelling evidence about the horrors of gun violence that back up their anecdotal experience.

There were 266 gun-related homicides in Canada in 2017. That pales in comparison to the gun-mad U.S., with 14,542 gun-related homicides, but it isn’t insignificant.

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There are also close to 700 gun-related suicides in Canada annually and a dozen or so deaths by accidental discharge, most of them children who find improperly stored guns. And for every death there are 10- or 20-fold the number of injuries.

That said, the vast majority of Canada’s 2.1 million registered gun owners use their firearms responsibly, for hunting, pest control and target shooting; they are not violent criminals or hapless Elmer Fudds. Most of them also accept, though perhaps grudgingly, that regulations and laws about transport and storage of firearms are necessary or, at least, justifiable.

Is there too much bureaucracy? Probably.

But paperwork is a symptom of modern life in risk-averse times, and it is not a burden felt solely by gun owners. Gun ownership is a privilege not an unfettered right, and filling out some forms is a fair price to pay.

Bill C-71, if enacted, would result in some modest legislative tweaks related to background checks, record-keeping requirements for retailers and restrictions on carrying a firearm.

And let’s not forget that the previous Conservative government abolished the long-gun registry, so firearms legislation has actually been watered down.

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The other positions of the CDPG are not in the cards for political debate. A ban on assault weapons is, arguably, already in place. There are three classes of firearms in Canada – non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. Assault weapons – meaning automatic and some semi-automatic arms – are prohibited already, for the most part.

The doctors’ call to ban handguns is the most intriguing of all. There are an estimated 900,000 handguns in Canada, and close to 500,000 registered owners of these restricted weapons.

Yet, there isn’t a lot of hunting with handguns – except of humans. About 60 per cent of gun-related homicides are with handguns. As one of the Western countries with the highest rates of gun violence, we should ask ourselves if there is a place for handguns in Canada, other than in the hands of law enforcement officials.

When you reframe the debate as being about public health rather than uniquely about property rights, the discussion becomes richer and more nuanced. And that’s just what the doctor ordered.

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