Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he opposes a handgun ban in Toronto because it would penalize legal gun owners, but vowed to help tackle gun violence in the city by pledging $25-million over four years for police and the courts.
Toronto has witnessed a number of high-profile gun crimes this year, including a shooting that left a teenager and a 10-year-old girl dead on the Danforth strip last month and a shooting in a playground that sent two young girls to hospital in June.
Following the Danforth shooting, Toronto City Council voted to ask the federal government to ban the sale of handguns in the city and sought a similar ban on the sale of ammunition from the province.
“I wouldn’t support a ban on handguns. There’s lots of legal, responsible handgun owners,” Mr. Ford said on Thursday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair have said they are considering Toronto council’s request for a handgun ban. Council also asked for millions from Ottawa and the province to fund new community programs and hire more police officers.
Ruling out new funding for community programs aimed at curbing violence, Mr. Ford said the province would send $18-million to Toronto police to buy new digital and investigative tools, while allocating $7.6-million to staff seven of Toronto’s courthouses with a legal team dedicated to denying bail to people accused of gun crimes.
Toronto Mayor John Tory and police Chief Mark Saunders warned in an Aug. 3 letter to Mr. Trudeau that bail is too easily accessible for repeat gun offenders.
“It’s time to get serious about fighting guns and gangs. It’s time to get serious about fighting gun violence – no more talk, no more grandstanding,” Mr. Ford told reporters on Thursday at Queen’s Park. “Tell the bad guys out there, ‘Heads up, we’re coming to get you.’”
However, critics, including the New Democratic Party Official Opposition, say his plan doesn’t address the root causes of violence and could violate the rights of the accused.
Mr. Ford said certain city councillors, “activists,” “so-called experts” and “special interests” had used shootings to demand spending on what the Premier called “layers of bureaucracy” and “handouts,” instead of on policing.
“We need to deal with the issues of poverty," said NDP MPP Gilles Bisson, who warned the government’s recent move to cut in half the expected increase in social-assistance rates could make the situation worse.
“We’re not investing in housing. We’re not dealing with any of that stuff. If you really wanted to deal effectively with guns, you’ve got to look at everything," he said.
Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a former Ontario attorney-general, said the province’s new courthouse teams are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
“This is all a mirage. In the hundreds of bail hearings I have personally attended, I have never, ever seen a Crown attorney agree to bail being granted for somebody charged with a gun offence,” Mr. Bryant said.
Under the government’s current policy, prosecutors must oppose bail for gun crimes in all but “exceptional circumstances.” On Thursday, Ontario Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney confirmed that policy would not change.
The configuration of the new teams remains unclear. Seven courthouses in Toronto currently hold bail hearings for gun cases. The $7.6-million investment over four years comes out to roughly $270,000 a courthouse a year. With experienced senior Crown prosecutors earning annual salaries of more than $200,000, the money won’t fund sizable teams.
If the new prosecutors mean that bail hearings will take more time and resources, costs could balloon quickly.
“The question is where are you going to put them? Will this take additional court staff, additional court rooms, more judges? Has anybody thought that through?” asked Laurie Gonet, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association.
Crown offices are already staffed with dedicated guns and gangs teams, established following a rash of gun crime in 2005. Securing bail for those accused of gun crimes presents a stiff legal challenge.
In 2007, the federal Conservative government brought in reverse-onus bail hearings for those accused of serious gun offences. In such cases, the court operates under the presumption that the accused should be locked up pending trial, an inversion of the normal procedure.
The reverse-onus hearing was one of several measures, which included longer mandatory minimum sentences, the federal Conservative government imposed to deter gun crime.
“What we’ve seen is that harsher sentences and reverse-onus bail, none of these things [has] had an impact on crime in the city,” criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown said. “The stats show that crime-prevention programs works. If we had constant forest fires, we wouldn’t say the best approach is just to hire more forest firefighters. No, we would say, ‘How can we stop these fires from happening in the first place?’ That’s prevention. That’s what works.”
Mr. Tory’s office thanked the Premier for the funding. He pledged to ask council to match the province’s funding if he is re-elected this fall.
With a file from Jeff Gray