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Police tape covers an entrance at Yorkdale shopping mall in Toronto after a shooting took place. Police said the shooting stemmed from a "minor confrontation" between two groups of men.Christopher Katsarov

Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre – one of the busiest malls in the country – was packed with back-to-school shoppers when gunshots rang out Thursday afternoon, sending thousands of panicked customers ducking into clothing racks and running for safety.

Police said the shooting stemmed from a “minor confrontation” between two groups of young men, near the Starbucks in the southeast corner of the mall. There were at least three men on each “side.” One man pulled out a handgun and fired at least two shots before both groups fled.

No one was hit. But the brazen nature of the midday shooting – just before 3 p.m., in a busy public shopping mall – comes at a time when the city is already grappling with a surge of gun violence and as the country considers banning handguns altogether.

Niki Azarshahi, who works at cosmetics store Sephora, was just coming back from her lunch break with headphones on, when she said the gunfire rang out behind her. At first, she thought it was her music.

“I turn around and I see a gun,” she said. Immediately, people started running and stores started closing up.

On the other side of the mall, Anna Silva – who works in an office near Sporting Life – did not hear the gunshots. She was confused when she saw people running down the hallway. But as soon as she realized what was happening, she and her co-workers followed suit.

“We just grabbed our stuff and left,” she said.

Kelly Freeman was similarly confused by the sudden chaos. She was back-to-school shopping with her family when children started running past her and her husband. She thought it was some sort of game until she saw adults running in her direction as well.

“I started yelling at them, ‘Why are you running?’” she recalled in the parking lot afterward. They told her there had been a shooting.

She and her husband hid inside a Rolex store – but her 14-year-old daughter was off shopping with a friend. The two teens were locked inside the Brandy Melville store until the mall was evacuated and the shaken family reunited in the parking lot. Outside, Ms. Freeman said she was shocked. It was supposed to be “just a nice afternoon.”

This is the latest in a string of shootings in Toronto this summer – many of which have taken place in high-traffic public areas. According to TPS data, there have been 273 shootings and 365 shooting victims so far this year. In August alone, police have recorded 39 shooting occurrences and 47 victims.

Toronto Mayor John Tory issued a statement on Thursday afternoon after he was briefed on the incident by police. He said he was relieved to hear that no one had been injured.

“Whether it is Yorkdale Mall or anywhere else in Toronto, people should not have to worry about gun violence breaking out – at any time,” said Mr. Tory, who has called for a ban on handguns in the city, something the federal government has said it is considering.

Bill Blair, the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, has been tasked with studying the possibility of a full ban on handguns and assault weapons.

On Thursday, Mr. Tory lamented that there are “too many guns available to criminals in the city" and said he is determined to end that with the help of police and government partners.

With TTC bypassing service to the mall – which spokesperson Brad Ross said was done at the request of police, and is typical after such an event – the parking lot was chaotic. It took an hour for some people to get out of the parking lot as traffic jammed up in the area and along the nearby Highway 401.

The mall remained closed on Thursday evening as investigators canvassed witnesses and gathered surveillance and cellphone video. Police said they are looking for at least three suspects.

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