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Canadian trauma surgeons called for gun control. Gun groups had an NRA-style response.

Trauma surgeons Najma Ahmed (right) and David Gomez are pushing for stricter gun control as members of Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns. They have drawn stiff opposition from the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights. (Moe Doiron/For The Washington Post)

TORONTO — Najma Ahmed figured she knew a thing or two about gunshot wounds.

As a trauma surgeon at a downtown Toronto hospital, she sees them up close, toiling elbow-deep on the front lines of torn human flesh.     

But when she spoke out in favor of tighter gun control in Canada, a chorus of voices told her to pipe down: She wasn’t qualified to comment — not on this.

An upstart Canadian gun group urged its members to file complaints about Ahmed to a professional board. And she was told on Twitter to “stay in your lane” — a slogan the U.S.-based National Rifle Association has aimed at American doctors.

“We were shocked by the ferocity of the response,” she said.

The exchange says much about where the Canadian gun debate is heading.

Canada is often cast as a foil for the United States, a place separate and distinct, untouched by the social and political currents swirling to the south. That’s increased since the election of Donald Trump.

But on guns, Canada is in many ways moving toward its louder and more populous neighbor, and away from its peaceful, prosperous Commonwealth peers AustraliaNew Zealand and the United Kingdom.

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Though the United States remains an outlier among developed nations on gun violence and gun laws, the American debate is shaping the way Canadians think and talk about the issue.

Watching mass shootings in the United States and seeing the response of the American medical community helped inspire Ahmed and her colleagues to form Canadian Doctors for ­Protection from Guns.

The group that confronted them for speaking out is called the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights. The name is striking: In Canada, unlike the United States, there is no constitutional “right” to guns.

“New groups are using the language of rights in an effort to move talk toward talking about ‘gun rights,’ ” said Blake Brown, a historian at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Brown is the author of “Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.” In the past, he said, Canadians who supported private gun ownership didn’t want to be seen as anything like  American groups. Now, some are adopting NRA tactics and tag­lines.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Rod Giltaca, theexecutive director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, denied a direct link to the American group. He called the use of NRA hashtags “an accident,” but was proud to tout his group’s assertive social media strategy.

“We are a public relations organization,” he said.

In Canada, there is no gun lobbying group equivalent in size or power to the NRA, largely because gun control has not generally been a mainstream policy issue for the country.

Giltaca’s group, for example, has three paid employees, according to its website, and otherwise relies on volunteers. It said it is funded entirely by Canadian firearms-owning individuals, families and small-business members. Membership prices range from $20 for a student to $100 for a business. It declined to provide a copy of its annual report.

Pro-gun groups say restrictions don’t work because criminals won’t obey them — an argument familiar to the American gun debate. Some argue that hunting is central to Canadian culture.

Buying guns is harder in Canada than in the U.S. A new bill would tighten gun laws even more.

The Toronto doctors hope to shape the conversation, albeit in different ways. They’re focused on guns and public health.

“This is an opportunity to ­inform the public discourse,” Ahmed said.  

Canada’s gun debate is changing in part because Canadians are hearing a lot more about guns.

The country has restricted ownership of handguns and automatic weapons since the 1930s. The rules were expanded to include rifles and shotguns after a 1989 mass shooting in Montreal.

But more-recent efforts to control gun access, including a bill currently up for debate in Parliament, have drawn substantial pushback, and the conversation has become uncharacteristically polarized.

Ahmed and her colleagues at St. Michael’s Hospital, like many Canadians, have watched in horror as the United States was hit by shooting after shooting, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Las Vegas to Parkland.

But while Canada was watching gun violence in the United States, it was becoming more common at home. 

When Ahmed was a resident in the 1990s, young doctors in training would rush to the emergency room to watch gunshot wounds get treated because they were rare.

Now they’re less novel. ­Firearm-related violent crime in Canada has increased by 42 percent since 2013, according to ­Statistics Canada.

Mass shootings here have galvanized gun-control advocates. In 2017, a Canadian man carrying a licensed weapon fired 48 shots into a Quebec City mosque, killing six. Last summer, another shooter opened fire in Toronto’s trendy Danforth neighborhood, killing two and wounding more than a dozen.

For Ahmed, who treated victims of the Toronto shooting, it was a turning point.

She and her colleagues, citing a growing body of medical research that treats gun violence as a ­public-health crisis, are now calling for a ban on handguns and assault rifles. 

They want Canadians to ask why the country compares its violent-crime rates to those of the United States, a country with exceptionally high gun-related mortality, rather than places where regulation is stricter and rates are relatively low.

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David Gomez, a trauma and acute-care surgeon at St. Michael’s, says the frequently cited response of Australia to a mass shooting in 1996 is worth considering. After 35 people were killed in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur, the country sharply tightened restrictions on firearms and launched a buyback program that netted hundreds of thousands of weapons.

And after a shooter killed 50 people in March at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the country banned military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles within days.

Gomez said Canada “is 30 years away from where we could be.”

Lynn Wilson, the vice dean of the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, co-chairs the doctor’s group with Ahmed. She said comparisons with the United States have clouded the discussion in Canada.

“People were getting desensitized to all the shootings,” she said. “The horror happening there made people think, ‘We are not so bad.’ ”

Their campaign will be met with opposition from conservative lawmakers and gun groups, including the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights.

Duck hunters and sport shooters don’t commit “drive-by’s in downtown Toronto,” the firearm rights coalition says in a policy paper.

Gun-control advocates stress that it’s not just about drive-by shootings. In Canada, as in the United States, many of the deaths and injuries by gun are intimate-partner violence, or suicide.

Giltaca’scoalition wants to expand access to firearms. And the group wants new protections for concealed carry and shooting in self-defense — issues central to the U.S. debate.

In response to the doctors’ call for a handgun ban, Giltaca posted a video on the coalition website describing how it might be enforced. He outlined a hypothetical scenario in which authorities in full military gear with “semi-auto” rifles come to seize weapons from Canadian homes. He warned that they might mistake a child’s phone or a remote control for a gun and shoot the child “through the neck.”

He said Ahmed and her colleagues have waded in over their heads.

“I think they must have got talked into this and are probably thinking, ‘Holy smokes, how did I get into this?’ ” Giltaca said. “But now that they are into this, this is never going to end.” 

The doctors said they won’t be intimidated from speaking out.

“The implication is that we don’t understand,” Ahmed said, “but we do.”

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