When Dr. Rod Wilson first heard about the mass shooting that started in Portapique the night of April 18, and ended the next morning when police finally caught and shot the gunman in Enfield at the end of a 13-hour rampage through three counties in Nova Scotia, painful memories flooded in.
“It took me back to a double murder suicide I was witness to as a first responder, health care provider in a rural remote community in the spring of 1989, something I had not thought about in years,” he told the Halifax Examiner in a telephone interview.
Wilson is a physician who works one day a week at the North End Community Health Centre in Halifax, two days a week in Chester, and during non-COVID-19 times, he also flies every five weeks to a community in northern Ontario to work there.
He said his memories of the double murder suicide then triggered recollections of the 1989 Montreal massacre at École Polytechnique, when a man went into an engineering classroom, separated men from women, and then opened fire on the women using a legally obtained semi-automatic weapon, killing fourteen.
At the time of the École Polytechnique mass shooting, Wilson, who had been working as a nurse in northern Ontario before that, was in his first year of medical school. So when he heard about the Nova Scotia shooting in April, 31 years later, he wondered to himself, “Why is this still happening, when there is evidence to suggest we can do better? … [Why do] men still have access to assault rifles to use to murder women?”
“And so for me, it was the flashback,” he said. Wilson was also bothered by the misogyny, which he said was an element in the Montreal massacre, in other multiple murders, and then again in Nova Scotia.
That spurred him into action.
In December 2019, he had learned via Twitter about a group of physicians called Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns (CDPG). He had been following the evidence that the group provided that showed gun control could help reduce gun violence. He had also followed the “vicious attacks” by pro-gun advocates on Dr. Najma Ahmed, a co-founder of CDPG and a trauma and acute care surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto (more on those later).
“I had been following Doctors for Protection from Guns on Twitter and was very supportive of them, but not really engaged,” Wilson said.
And I saw that they were getting beat up quite a bit and trolled by advocacy groups for guns … And I think after the shootings and the murders in Nova Scotia, I kind of thought, well, it’s very easy to sit back and just on the sidelines, and if we really want to make change it’s time to get involved.
Wilson said he reached out to CDPG in April. He liked the group’s approach:
It was doctors speaking to evidence that would support changes. And I had respect for Dr. Ahmed in Toronto who was kind of standing alone. I also thought that it was being portrayed as a big-city-doctor issue. And really, gun safety is not just a big city issue. It’s a national issue. And growing up in a small community in eastern Ontario and working in small communities, I also thought that it was being portrayed in the media as just downtown big-city doctors not understanding the world. Really, they do understand the real world.
What I was thinking was how could I help colleagues who were providing evidence to suggest there were options? And again, why would we not try in Canada [what other countries had done] and had success through [gun control] legislation? And how could I help support [efforts to show] that gun violence is not limited to Toronto? Unfortunately we were brutally reminded in April it is a rural issue as well, something we knew.
Wilson also appreciates that CDPG addresses the issue of misogyny in gun violence, and the tools that are used to perpetuate it. He believes that he is not alone in his concern as a physician about controlling guns and gun violence.
I would say that there are many, many physicians who, like many, many Canadians, are supportive of Doctors for Protection from Guns, but are reluctant to get involved because of the concerns of backlash on social media or personally. And [there are] physicians that support this, but don’t want to be public and don’t want their name attached to it because …they’re worried about repercussions.
The rhetoric, Wilson said, gets wrenched up in the community and on social media, and when it comes to the issue of gun control, “Twitter has become vile.”
Wilson is referring to the piling on and sometimes unpleasant, even threatening, responses from some pro-gun people on Twitter whenever gun control advocates post tweets. Tweets from the accounts of Doctors for Protection from Guns (@Docs4GunControl), families of victims of the Montreal massacre (@Polysesouvient), and families affected by the Danforth shooting of July 22, 2018 (@DanforthFSC) invariably evoke a deluge of replies from pro-gun accounts.
Many gun enthusiasts who are opposed to the May 1 ban by the federal government of more than 1,500 “military-grade assault-style firearms,” argue that prohibiting these would not prevent mass shootings like the one in Nova Scotia, where the gunman was using illegal weapons and was not a law-abiding citizen with legal guns. Asked for his reaction to this, Wilson replied:
I think it’s important to separate out two things — law-abiding citizens from assault rifles. I grew up in a small community and I have two brothers that are hunters, and … most men in my family own a gun and hunt. I live and work in communities where hunting is a staple. And none of the men in my community or in my family use semi-automatic or assault rifles for hunting. They are law-abiding citizens …
And the evidence suggests that [when] you take these high-powered semi-automatic assault rifles out of the hands of everyday citizens, there is a positive impact. So my belief is that emotional rhetoric of going after law-abiding citizens is in fact rhetoric that takes away the issue that Doctors for Protection from Guns shows, that the evidence suggests very clearly and strongly that taking assault rifles out of access has a positive impact on a reduction of murder … I’m not a hunter, but I have two brothers that deer-hunt and moose-hunt, and are law-abiding citizens, and I don’t know any hunters that choose to have assault rifles for hunting.
Wilson, who is also a public member of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, pointed to recent polls by Angus Reid and Ipsos that show that the vast majority of Canadians are very supportive of the ban, which the Halifax Examiner reported on here. He believes that the “vast majority of Canadians, including lawyers and physicians, do support gun control.”
Of course, there are doctors who don’t.
“Triggers don’t pull fingers”
If Dr. Michael Ackermann had his way, gun laws in Canada would look very different from what they are today.
He believes the only weapons that should be prohibited are machine guns and artillery pieces, and that anything else is okay to own. This would include the long list of semi-automatic firearms that the federal government banned on May 1.
Ackermann is a family physician and emergency doctor in Sherbrooke on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, whose father bought him his first gun — a single shot air rifle — when he was five years old. He has bought, sold, traded and continuously owned numerous firearms ever since. According to a “Firearms Résumé” Ackermann provided to the Examiner, he is a qualified Civilian Range Safety Officer in Nova Scotia, and an instructor for the Nova Scotia Hunter Safety Course.
In a telephone interview, which began with Ackermann questioning me about my experience “in the firearms’ world,” he said he believes that people should be allowed to have a firearm for personal defence, something that he says is currently not permitted in Canada.
We law-abiding gun owners are all of us very concerned with safety, of course, but we’re also very concerned with basic human rights. And the most fundamental human right is your right to life, right? We all have the right to life. And that right to life can only be assured if that life can be defended against events, animals or people that would harm you. This is where the American mindset and the Canadian mindset differ. The Americans believe that there’s nobody else with you at your moment of peril than you. Therefore, you are your only first defender, your first responder, and you better have the training and tools to allow yourself to carry out that role. This is a view I personally share. Most Canadians don’t share that view. Most Canadians are willing to abdicate that responsibility to the police. Maybe they watch too many police shows. But I can tell you in Canada, the police will not be there in time for you, as absolutely proven by the events of mid-April here in Nova Scotia … So you better have a plan to make yourself safe, OK?
Ackermann’s views echo a statement made a few days after the Nova Scotia mass shooting by Rod Giltaca, CEO and Executive Director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR) in a video called “Message from CCFR concerning the tragedy in Nova Scotia.” The CCFR message under the video said, “Pray for our brothers and sisters in Nova Scotia. Shame on those exploiting this horrific tragedy.”
The video has been viewed more that 82,000 times, has more than 4,300 “likes” and generated many hundreds of comments, nearly all from men, many supporting “concealed carry” laws that would allow people to carry hidden handguns and other weapons on their person. In the video, Giltaca said:
The only thing that could stop someone like this individual [the Nova Scotia shooter, whom the Examiner is calling GW] is citizens being prepared to defend themselves. Directly. Set your ideologies aside for a second and just be honest with yourself. In a situation like this, the police cannot help you.
Ackermann believes there should be no more “restricted” classifications for weapons because:
In my mind, a gun is a gun is a gun. They all throw bullets down range. And what makes them safe or dangerous is the person handling them, not the gun. Triggers don’t pull fingers, to use the cliché.
If Ackermann were appointed to write new gun laws in Canada, he said he would start with education. In elementary school, children would be given the Eddie Eagle program that is promoted by the National Rifle Association of America for “gun accident prevention.”
“Second thing I would do is all kids in high school would receive the Canadian firearm safety course at the grade nine level,” said Ackermann. “In addition, I would teach them the basic functioning and fundamentals of firearms, the history of firearms, etc.” And:
I would go even further. I would encourage high school kids to get into the cadets program. Why? Because what you’re going to do is develop better trained, more confident young people that would form a better recruiting pool for our police and military.
And what would one have to do to get a firearm licence under this hypothetical new legislative regime for guns he was imagining for Canada? According to Ackermann:
You would have already done it. If you pass through the educational program that I was talking about, you would have satisfied the safety training requirements. Right? And you would have the criminal background check just like we already did.
According to the Résumé that Ackermann sent to the Examiner, from 2006 to 2009 he was a member of the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee that reported to public safety ministers Stockwell Day (yes, that Stockwell Day, who just stepped down from his role as a commenter with CBC and from two major corporate boards after denying that systemic racism exists in Canada), and then Peter Van Loan, in the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
Ackermann is also a national vice president for the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), one of the three largest pro-gun lobby groups in the country, and a member of the National Firearms Association (NFA), another of those groups. Another CV he sent to the Examiner shows he is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Ackermann said that it makes him feel “nice and warm” that the four candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party are “listening” to anti-gun control arguments and the pro-gun lobby. But he is skeptical, noting that even though “law-abiding firearms owners worked very, very hard over a 15-year period to try and get the Conservatives a majority government” so they could have “positive change in the gun laws,” they got only “one percent” of what they were working towards.
Rather than completely rewriting the 1995 Firearms Act as he had hoped the Harper government would do, Ackermann said that the only thing it did was get rid of the long-gun registry.
Ackermann said that the Canadians Shooting Sports Association has spoken to all four Conservative leadership contenders, and they are all “very engaging.”
As for the May 1 ban on “military-grade assault-style firearms” that the federal Liberal government introduced by Order-In-Council (OIC), Ackermann said it is “illegal,” “unconstitutional,” and “based on extortion.” He also called it a “racist law” because there are exemptions for Aboriginal people.
Ackermann has received the form letter that the RCMP is sending to gun owners to inform them of how the newly prohibited firearms are to be dealt with. He said he has returned it to Prime Minister Trudeau with a message that “extortion is a criminal act.”
As for what he thought good gun laws would look like, Ackermann said:
… a good law should be constitutional. It should be targeted at the right problem. It should be effective. It should be cost-effective. Which brings me to my next bad point about our current gun laws. They cost billions and billions and billions of dollars, but they have not achieved a reduction in violence. There have been many, many authors all around the world.
Asked for references for the information he was providing, Ackermann provided links to three reports from the right-wing Fraser Institute, and one from the Rand Corporation in the US about the relationship between concealed-carry laws and violent crime, which in fact finds there is “inconclusive” and “limited” evidence on the effect such laws have on various kinds of crimes.
Ackermann is a founding member of the group, Doctors for Firearm Safety and Responsibility (DFSR), which formed in 2019.
Ackermann said DFSR had 44 members. However, when a screenshot (above) taken June 1 of the Doctors for Firearm Safety and Responsibility website shows just nine medical professionals listed on the “Who we are” page. Ackermann explained that these nine were the “most vocal” members and there were “actually 44 members signed up.” (The day following the interview and as of this writing, the DFSR website could not be loaded.)
He said his group was formed “basically as a response” to Doctors for Protection from Guns, because they couldn’t “stand the misinformation” and wanted to “prove to them that we want the [gun] laws to be based on evidence, not on emotional knee-jerkism.”
Ackermann said if he were being “charitable” and “warm-hearted” about Doctors for Protection from Guns, he would say they were “well-meaning but misguided.”
Then he launched into a more “cynical” view of the group, which formed shortly after the Danforth mass shooting in July 2018, in which the shooter used a handgun that had been stolen from its legal owner in Saskatchewan four years earlier, to kill two young women and injure another 13 people.
Said Ackermann of the timing of the founding of Doctors for Protection from Guns:
Somebody has been organizing this for a long time and just waiting for their opportunity. And the people who want to remove the lawful firearms culture from Canada, they’re delighted when one of these disasters happens because it gives them a chance to further their agenda. You know, vampires …
Challenged that anyone was “delighted” by a mass shooting, Ackerman continued:
Let’s just say they’re very quick to take advantage of opportunity without thinking. But I do, I call them vampires because they live in the darkness of deceit and they feed on the blood of victims. That this group would have no relevance whatsoever were it not for these different disasters. They’re living off the blood.
His comment echoes a “cartoon” put out by the National Firearms Association on May 2, 2020, the day after the Liberal government banned assault-style weapons. It depicts blood-soaked current and past Liberal politicians, and former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell, dancing on a grave with a tombstone engraved with the words, “HERE LAY [sic] THE VICTIMS OF CANADIAN GUN CONTROL.”
In Ackermann’s view:
Canada has defined itself as being this modern New Age country where unicorns fly around and sprinkle and spread their dust. And you know, firearms have no such place in such a model. I think that’s what’s driving it.
Ackermann also claimed that Doctors for Protection from Guns had “about 50 members,” and that it was centred in Toronto, with doctors mostly working out of trauma centres where they see the results of gun violence, so they were subject to “selection bias.” He said he got his license in 1988, had been working in emergency rooms ever since, and had never seen anyone with a gunshot injury.
Some fact checking
Some of Ackermann’s claims turn out to be no more grounded than the flying unicorns he says define modern Canada.
Christopher Holcroft, a consultant with Doctors for Protection from Guns, told the Halifax Examiner that the group does not have “about 50 members,” as Ackermann claimed. Rather, he said, it has more than 300 members across the country, and it has been endorsed by 15 medical associations with many thousands of members across Canada, and it is also supported by the National Council of Women in Canada.
Nor is its membership limited to trauma centres in Toronto, as Ackermann suggested. One of its executive members, Kirstin Weerdenburg, is as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and works in the IWK Emergency Department. And of course, Dr. Rod Wilson, who has seen the effects of gun violence up close as a first responder at a horrific double murder suicide in 1989, now lives and works in Nova Scotia.
Ackermann also told the Halifax Examiner that the aim of Doctors for Firearm Safety and Responsibility is to “promote evidence-based firearms law.” However, I could find no peer-reviewed studies on its website (not before it disappeared, and not now that it has to be accessed using Wayback Machine).
Doctors for Protection from Guns, however, provides 165 references on its website, nearly all of them peer-reviewed. For its position statement, which, among other things, claims that “in countries with stricter gun ownership and safety laws, injury and mortality from guns are markedly less than in countries with less strict gun control,” it provides three peer-reviewed references and one from Statistics Canada.
Ackermann complained to the Halifax Examiner that his group of pro-gun doctors doesn’t get mainstream media coverage the way that Doctors for Protection from Guns does.
There are some straightforward reasons for that.
Apart from the fact that Doctors for Firearm Safety & Responsibility lists only nine members on their website, they also have to compete for attention with three large gun lobby groups in Canada.
There is the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), of which Ackermann is a vice president, which he said mostly works “behind the scenes in the political realm, trying to talk to the politicians directly.”
There is also the National Firearms Association (NFA), of which Ackermann is also a member. He described the NFA as “good at organizing clubs for competitions and providing insurance.”
In an article in The Walrus in 2016, A.J. Somerset, sports shooter, former army reservist and author of the 2015 book “Arms: The culture and credo of the gun,” reported that the NFA formed in 1978, and:
… immediately distinguished itself by publishing a government memo revealing a secret plan to confiscate all guns in Canada — which turned out to be fake. The group was born again in 1984, and in the 1990s gained members thanks to Kim Campbell’s and Allan Rock’s gun control bills.
According to Somerset, the NFA “rose from its own cold ashes again” in 2010, this time under Sheldon Clare, who is still president. Today, the NFA board has 11 directors — all of them men.
Then there is the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR) that aims to be “the public-facing voice for Canadian firearms owners.” Tracey Wilson, the CCFR vice president of public relations and a registered lobbyist with the federal government since 2018, is a regular on mainstream media in Canada; I heard her interviewed four times on different CBC programs between May 1 to 3, giving her ample time on the public broadcaster to condemn the federal government ban on assault-style firearms.
Given this amount of lobby-power to argue against gun control laws in Canada, it is not surprising that Ackermann’s small group of doctors doesn’t attract a great deal of media attention.
Doctors in their sights
Some gun enthusiasts do not mince words about Doctors for Protection from Guns who are seeking increased gun control.
In a 2019 video entitled “Gun control battle with doctors intensifies,” CCFR CEO and Executive Director, Rod Giltaca said, “this whole thing with the doctors’ group is blowing up.” He mentioned co-founder Najma Ahmed by name for tweeting about guns, and for becoming “political” and using her medical status to call for legislative change.
Let’s say the doctors got what they wanted, and they were ushered up to this ivory tower and they looked down at all the commoners and they said, “None of you people can be trusted, only us, only the government should have guns, and now we’re banning all these guns so you have to turn them all in.”
Giltaca, a former realtor and the founder and owner of a firearms training company in British Columbia, then goes on to speculate about what could happen if handguns were to be banned in Canada, and if 5% of the half a million people who legally own handguns were to decide not to turn them in.
He then creates a hypothetical situation, in which a family that refused to turn in their handguns suddenly had an Emergency Response Team (ERT) at their door, people in “full military gear, with semi-auto rifles, and handguns, and flash-bangs, meaning distraction devices that they throw in — destroy your hearing and blind you.”
So now you’ve got Joe and Jane Canadian sitting there watching The Bachelor or something, and their two kids, their two teenagers there, and boom, all of a sudden the door comes off its hinges, a distraction device is rolled in there, boom, everybody’s blind, and all these guys, 15 guys, come pouring into the house. And they point guns in the faces of everyone in there, including the kids. Okay, why do they have to do that? Because it’s a gun call, man. They don’t know what’s happening. They don’t want to get shot either. So they have no idea, and I don’t blame them for it. Okay they’re going to go in there, guns drawn, pointing the guns in all these people’s faces, and maybe one of the kids has a cell phone. Maybe one of the kids has a remote control. And maybe they get shot right through the neck and killed by ERT. And that stuff happens sometimes. It’s hard to even say whose fault that is. But it’s an interaction that never needed to happen in the first place. So, that’s what it really looks like. And it’s not just one family. It’s 25,000 people, if 5% of them decide not to comply.
Although the video seems to be aimed at CCFR supporters or members (court documents filed in its challenge of the recent firearms ban say the CCFR has “in excess of 28,300 members,” meaning about 1.3% of all gun owners in Canada), Giltaca also appears to be directly addressing his message to doctors advocating for gun control:
And so it’s really important that you know that, because this is what you’re advocating for. Exactly. So if you’re going to advocate for it, own it.
The insinuation is there. Doctors should be ready to “own” whatever could happen — including the deaths of kids according to the elaborate scenario painted in the video — should handguns be banned.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Najma Ahmed reacted to the message this way:
First, I’m a doctor — and I think for all of us but you’re asking me the question specifically — that we have devoted our lives, our study, and our life, and our practice, to healing people and making the sick well and improving the lives of a community and the population.
She said she finds the insinuation “kind of shocking,” adding:
It’s very alarming, is the word I would use, that people could — [with] such convoluted, poorly thought out, not based on anything logic — come to a conclusion that is so shocking, frankly. And if it’s one person — like there are kooks out there, that’s okay … But [that] there’s a whole following of people that could subscribe to this kind of thinking is alarming. It’s concerning.
In 2019, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario received more than 70 complaints about Ahmed. The Toronto Star reported that the complaints came from people responding to “a campaign led by the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, which posted a step-by-step guide encouraging members to file complaints against Ahmed on its website.”
The College dismissed the complaints as a politically motivated abuse of the system.
Ahmed said she received some “pretty unsavoury emails,” as did her hospital’s communications staff, and for a time, hospital security offered to walk her to and from her car because of “disturbing communications” they were receiving, which she alleges were from people “egged on by the CCFR.”
She regrets that “months and months” of the College’s time were wasted because of the complaints, but she was also heartened by the “outpouring of support” she received from “so many colleagues, physicians, nurses and paramedics,” and also people outside the medical community.
Ahmed told the Examiner that she has been contacted by many gun owners in Canada who say they want nothing to do with the lobby groups. She said there is a strong hunting culture in Canada, involving people who use traditional hunting rifles. And, she said:
… they use them as tools, implements. It’s not a fetish kind of thing. And so that’s the other thing I’ve learned; I’ve learned that these people — the CCFR or the NFA — who say that they speak on behalf of two million Canadians [who own guns], that is not a fact. They’re loud. They’re well-connected. They have a lot of money. They seem to have a lot of time, and nothing else to do. But they don’t speak on behalf of the majority of Canadian gun owners. The majority of guns and gun owners don’t own semiautomatic rifles.
Cover photo: Roadside memorial for Lillian Hyslop on Hwy 4 in Wentworth, who was one of 22 victims of the mass shooting of April 18 and 19, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter
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