Health professionals across the country rallied on Wednesday, urging the Canadian government to strengthen gun laws and consider a public health approach to gun violence.

The “National Day of Action” was organized by the Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns (CDPG) and unfolded in 13 cities across Canada, including in Toronto, Ottawa, and London.

The grassroots group says it is made up of frontline healthcare workers who see first-hand the “emotional and physical trauma and devastation caused by guns.”

The doctors and surgeons are calling on the federal government to pass Bill C-71 – a proposed overhaul of firearms legislation that would require more detailed background checks and implement new record-keeping requirements for gun sellers.

The CDPG also wants a country-wide ban on handguns and assault weapons, something the federal bill does not include.

In Toronto, dozens of doctors, physicians, nurses and people victimized by gun violence stood outside United Church on Queen Street East shortly after noon and voiced their concerns. Many of those standing behind the podium wore white lab coats while others carried signs that read “we can do better” and “protect people not guns.”

Among them was Dr. Najma Ahmed – a trauma surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital who treated the victims of the deadly mass shooting on Danforth Avenue last summer.

“Injury and death from guns is nearly a daily occurrence in Canada now. It doesn’t have to be this way,” she told the crowd.

“Femicide, suicide, homicide, intentional injury, accidental injury… We see it all. We see these stories play themselves out day after day, night after night in emergency departments and operating rooms and ICUs and doctor’s offices all over the country.”

Ahmed implored the government and the public to view gun violence as a public health crisis.

“We have learned that public health approaches to preventable health problems and disease are the most effective way to improve the health of populations and prevent harm. This is true for vaccinations, for concussion treatment, for auto safety and seatbelts, for nicotine,” she said. “The American Medical Association agrees, the Canadian Medical Association agrees that a public health approach would be useful in reducing harm and injury and death from guns.”

Ahmed spoke about the lasting effects of gun-related violence, noting that the health implications don’t end after ambulance doors close. She said the effects often become a “chronic illness,” either physically or mentally, for both the victims and their families.

Claire Smith, whose daughter was shot in the leg that July 22 night in the city’s Greektown, knows the effects all too well.

Wearing a shirt that read “protect kids, not guns,” Smith said Ahmed treated her daughter at St. Mike’s that night. She said gun violence should be seen as an epidemic.

“Call out the situation around gun violence for what it is – an epidemic, a matter of public safety and a matter of public health. A great circumstance that does not have to be,” she told the crowd.

“That is why we, the victims and the families of the Danforth shooting, and I’m sure other victims of gun violence all across Canada, stand today with the medical community to drown out the misinformed voices that do not take responsibility for this epidemic.”

Since that tragic day, Dr. Ahmed has been a voice in the fight for tighter gun laws. Her advocacy, along with that of CDPG, has become a target for gun rights activists, the group said.

Dr. Philip Berger, the co-founder of CDPG, claimed the group has been subjected to “vicious attacks by the big gun industry” since forming, but asserted that they will not be silenced.

“As doctors we are expected to expose and have for centuries any danger to health and life, whether contaminated water or smoking. Guns are one such danger,” Berger said at the rally.

“Make no mistake about it, we’re here to stay, we’re here to speak loudly about the escalating public health calamity caused by guns.”

The CDPG cites a Statistics Canada report that found firearm-related violent crime has increased in the country 42 per cent since 2013. Another Statistics Canada study found that more than half of firearm-related violent crimes in 2016 involved handguns.

Since August, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, Bill Blair, has been reviewing ways to get handguns off the streets in Canada. Blair has supported Bill C-71, which is currently before the Senate.

Dr. James Byrne, a general surgery resident at the University of Toronto, said the government’s interest in evaluating firearms laws is “heartening” but that more public awareness on the impact of gun violence is needed.

“Many people may not know that in Canada, the number of firearms owned in the public domain has been increasing steadily. There’s approximately one million classified as restricted firearms, and these are not hunting rifles, these are handguns as well as semi-automatic rifles. We’re concerned about that,” he said.

“In general, people are listening. We’d really like the public to become more informed on this issue so when the time comes, they can make the decision that’s right for them.”