It would require mental gymnastics to find anything in common between the tragic mass shootings in Toronto and the United States this week beyond the obvious: that innocent people died and guns were involved. The shootings do, however, reveal a shared simple truth: that as much as we might wish otherwise, there is no magic formula to end gun violence.
In the Denver, Colo., suburb of Aurora, a heavily armed man walked into a movie theatre early Friday morning and opened fire with multiple weapons, killing 12 and wounding 59 more, some of whom may not survive. It’s impossible to overlook that the killer chose an opening-night screening of The Dark Knight Rises, the heavily hyped new Batman movie. Whether his deranged motive was linked to the alluring symbolism of lone vigilantism in the Batman series, or he just wanted to be sure the theatre would be packed, the film does not seem to have been chosen randomly.
Toronto’s mass shooting took place on Monday night at a large block party on an otherwise quiet suburban side street – a setting that may also have been deliberately targeted. The killing of two young people and the injuring of more than 20 has been linked by police to gang violence – and to a growing trend in gang rivalries to settle scores in public places filled with innocent bystanders. The echo of a shooting at the crowded Eaton Centre in early June that killed two and wounded five bystanders is impossible to ignore.
The public on both sides of the border is left with feelings of outrage, sadness and helplessness; they sense there will be much talk about the causes and what must be done, and then little will change, thanks to competing agendas, and another tragedy will occur. Politicians do their best to respond to this despair. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been particularly vocal, suggesting that people convicted of gun crimes be deported or, if they happen to be Canadian, exiled from his city. If only it were that simple.
In the search for answers, perhaps the place to start is to round up what we know. We know that the U.S. has a politicized gun culture that allows people to own high-calibre, rapid-firing automatic weapons, to bring holstered weapons to political rallies and, in many states, to shoot first and ask questions later. We know there is no political will in the U.S. to scale back its gun madness. We know this plays into the hands of disaffected, angry people who see carnage as a means of vengeance or self-expression. We know that most are not postal workers.
We know that American guns routinely find their way into Canada and that the flow is increasing. We know it is almost always men who use them illegally and that their use is often related to the illicit drug trade. We know that there are inequities in our society that marginalize young men in black and immigrant communities and that carrying and using a pistol are connected to their sense of masculinity and give them status among their peers.
Ergo, we know we it would be easier to stem handgun violence if there were fewer handguns being manufactured and sold in the U.S., but we know that’s not going to happen. We know that we could try to stanch the flow of illegal guns at the border, but that wouldn’t stop gang members from wanting them. We know we could use repressive measures to curtail gang activity, but that wouldn’t address the reasons young men join gangs in the first place. We know we could build new recreation centres and give target neighbourhoods better resources, but that wouldn’t stop the drug trade, and illegal guns would still be cascading across the border. We know we could toughen immigration rules and deport immigrants convicted of gun-related crimes, but that wouldn’t prevent the crimes from happening in the first place. And so on.
In short, any serious response to the issue of gun violence must avoid focusing on single issues aimed at a political or ideological base. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was right when he said this week that now is not the time to divide ourselves into polarized camps, one calling for tougher laws and more policemen to enforce them, and the other insisting the answer lies in better social services in at-risk communities.
Neither one alone will solve the problem, and together they may not be enough either, if handguns are readily available and the culture that produces gun-toting gangs and mass killers is unchanged. Still, that does not mean we must throw up our hands. Politicians should meet, experts should be consulted, and communities – and indeed individual families – need to reflect. All have a role. We do not want to live in a world where block parties and movie theatres become shooting galleries.