From crime in big cities, to fear over mass-shootings, to concerns about rates of firearm-related suicide, Canadians generally agree that something needs to be done about gun violence. But a consensus about what specifically that “something” should be is much more elusive.
Some polls suggest two thirds of all Canadians want more controls to address gun crime and preventable violence, and Justin Trudeau campaigned on it during the last federal election.
The Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime, Bill Blair, travelled the country in recent months to hear what Canadians think about gun control and possible solutions to reducing gun crime, including a handgun and assault-style firearms ban.
As the government ponders what to do with the information he’s been gathering, it’s stirring up renewed debate as people make their voices heard.
Among them are physicians, who have been vocal in the past on issues like seat belts and tobacco, and who are now turning their attention to firearms.
“We believe that this is very much a public health issue, and just like any public health issue, should be informed by the best medical evidence and the lived experience of physicians who treat these people every day,” says Dr. Najma Ahmed, a trauma surgeon at St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
Ahmed was one of the surgeons who treated victims of the Danforth shooting in Toronto in July 2018. She helped found the group Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns (CDPG) last year, which advocates for a ban on handguns and assault-like rifles.
The latest figures from Statistics Canada show that in 2017, the number of firearms-related homicides in urban areas was 0.71 per 100,000 population, compared with 0.82 in rural regions. Ahmed says the numbers make it clear that guns are not only an urban issue, and her group is pushing for a total decrease in the number of firearms in the country.
“When you look carefully at this problem, we see that there’s been an increase in the number of gunshot victims in urban centres like Toronto, but also in rural settings,” Ahmed says. “And a lot of people don’t really appreciate that the per capita death rate from firearms is higher in rural settings than it is in urban settings.”
Ahmed also testified at a Senate Committee examining Bill C-71 and proposed changes to firearms legislation on the public health impacts of guns, saying that she too often sees gunshot victims due to cases of domestic violence and that the majority of gun deaths in Canada are by suicide. She say access to firearms only creates more risk.
But others maintain that stricter gun controls proposed by the government would do little to stop criminals, and would put unnecessary limitations on responsible gun owners and enthusiasts.
According to the 2017 Commissioner of Firearms Report, there are more than 2 million licensed firearms holders in Canada with firearms ranging from shooting rifles to handguns or assault rifles.
“I totally understand why people in downtown Toronto have more of a fear or dislike for handguns or guns in general than someone in rural Canada. And the difference is understanding, and that’s the rural-urban divide,” Owen Sound, Ont., Conservative MP Larry Miller explains. “They don’t give a damn about our way of life as long as their way of life is being looked after, and that bugs the heck out of us.”
Miller has spent his 15-year political career fighting gun control. He calls firearm ownership a way of life in his riding.
“Their goal is ultimately to take guns out of people’s hands … they’re making us law-abiding people feel like criminals.”
Miller says he has fond memories of his father, his brothers and children hunting together. He says the majority of firearm owners in Canada are honest citizens who are thoroughly vetted and who use firearms to enjoy the sports of hunting or shooting.
Miller was part of the Conservative Government that repealed the long-gun registry in 2012. And in January this year he brought Minister Bill Blair to a town hall meeting in Durham, Ont., to face a crowd of hundreds who are worried the current government will impose strict regulations on ownership or an outright ban.
Their feelings were clear.
“There is no way you will ever tell the Canadian people they cannot have guns. We will keep them and we will hide them,” one man told Blair.
“This legislation will do nothing to curb urban crime, but will only create a deep divide between urbanites and rural residents,” said another person in the audience.
Minister Blair listened, making it clear that he’s seeking input from the public, but also pointing out that there’s no right to bear arms in Canada. “The reality is that firearm ownership is a privilege. It’s a privilege earned because you obey the rules you follow the law. But it is not a right to carry a firearm in this country.”
The intensity around the gun control debate has increased in recent weeks.
On April 3, Ahmed and her colleagues held a day of action across Canada in favour of tighter controls. Victims of gun violence spoke at the rally, as well as medical students who have witnessed violence in their communities and doctors who say they treat gunshot victims on an almost daily basis.
“There is a very strong, very vocal, very well-organized lobby of people who own firearms, and perhaps even a smaller group of people who speak on their behalf. And they’re very loud, and they have, in my view, dominated the conversation and dominated public policy in this area for a long time,” Ahmed says.
Others are not happy the medical community is involving itself in the debate.
The Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights released a video several months ago criticizing doctors like Ahmed, and echoing the U.S. National Rifle Association (NRA) when it told doctors to “stay in their lane.”
“It’s not likely to happen that I’m going to shut up or that physicians are going to shut up on this matter. Everyone has the right to engage in this debate,” says Ahmed.
Miller, meanwhile, thinks the debate is not addressing the real issue with guns.
“There’s bigger fish to fry,” Miller says. “Go and deal with how guns are coming in. And you know, they’re just not willing to do that because it is hard.”
Minister Blair has completed his report, compiling perspectives from all sides of the debate, and is submitting it to the federal government. It will be up to Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale to make any changes, but with a federal election looming this fall, it’s not clear when — or even if — any changes will happen.
Regardless of which perspective people take in the debate, it has more people thinking seriously about the future of firearms in Canada.
“I feel like things are changing, potentially. I feel that people are engaged,” Ahmed says.