On Sunday, three kilometres from my house in the east end of downtown Toronto, two heartbreakingly young people were killed and 13 others shot in one of the city’s largest mass shootings yet.
Last month, not even a kilometre from my childhood home in north Scarborough, where my parents still live, two even younger girls were shot (though thankfully not killed) while at a playground, of all places.
And since 2018 began, people all around the city have been forced to reckon with the aftermath of bullets in their neighbourhoods – the funerals, the injuries, the grief, fear and shock that remain long after public attention has moved on.
The first thing to do about it is rid Toronto of guns.
Other solutions, many of which I support, can be complicated. It’s often hard for longer-term measures to receive funding because the causes and effects aren’t straightforward, or fast. Eliminating weapons – particularly handguns, which are designed to do nothing but murder people – has the immediate effect of less murder. That’s the place to start.
We know this. We know it because Canada has far fewer guns than our immediate neighbour, the United States, and as such a dramatically lower rate of gun crime. But that relative comparison is problematic when it makes us complacent about making sure that our own relationship to guns doesn’t change.
We’re so busy feeling better than the U.S. that we don’t consider that our standing among other wealthy countries isn’t that great: Canada has 10 times more firearm deaths than Britain, for example (do note that most British police don’t carry guns. No guns, please). Homicide deaths by firearms have been rising in this country for years, even as crime over all has decreased.
It seems clear that we’re experiencing the effects of a steady erosion of gun control laws under the last federal government – in particular, the elimination of the long-gun registry, which was being checked by police upward of 11,000 times a day before it was scrapped. The Conservatives also destroyed its records everywhere but Quebec, and got rid of the requirement that licensed firearms be tracked.
The result is that at least half the guns used in Toronto’s crimes were originally bought legally in Canada, meaning we can’t entirely blame our southern neighbours for the shots on our streets. Detective Rob Di Daneli of the Toronto police told CTV that he believes many Canadians are getting licenses specifically to become traffickers, and that such people are now harder to track. This fall, the federal government will pass Bill C-71, legislation to amend the Firearms Act, over to the Senate, but it has specifically said it does not intend to reintroduce the registry.
Targeting urban violence isn’t easy. Many approaches and solutions have to come into play, but reducing access to guns supports them all.
For example, mental healthcare: According to his family, Faisal Hussain, the 29-year-old who opened fire on Danforth Avenue Sunday evening, had long struggled with stubborn, treatment-resistant mental illness. Premier Doug Ford’s Monday announcement that the $1.9-billion he had promised would address health services in Ontario will now be shifted to policing is bad, reactive policy. This tragedy shows how urgently so many people need reliable access to appropriate, expert care.
But gun control could also help address the connections between mental distress and violence – which is important, because 80 per cent of gun deaths in this country are suicides. That’s a heartbreak that crosses rural and urban lines: in Saskatchewan and Alberta, significant gun control efforts are being led by the families of two men who were able to legally buy rifles and handguns despite long histories of mental illness, and eventually took their own lives.
Bill C-71 suggests expanding background checks, which currently consider just the five years immediately before a potential purchase, to include all relevant information from a potential buyer’s history. That’s good, but irrelevant if the weapon isn’t being purchased legally. Reducing the sheer number of guns out there is crucial.
Successfully tackling gun violence is possible: check out efforts in Minneapolis, New York state and California, if you need hope. Without a doubt, it necessarily involves improving mental health care and public health strategies, anti-poverty efforts, and leading young men away from various hateful ideologies, not to mention imagination.
But every time I consider the complexities, I come back to the first thing we need, which is courage. The courage to get rid of guns.