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gun crime

Police cars set up outside the Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, Saturday, June 2, 2012. Shots were fired at Toronto's downtown Eaton's Centre Saturday evening and at least two people were taken out on stretchers, local media outlets were reporting.Victor Biro

Some events are shocking without being surprising. It was shocking, of course, that someone should open fire with a gun in the busy food court of Toronto's most famous mall. But, sad to say, it was hardly surprising that one man should brazenly gun down another in what police say was a targeted killing. It happens all too often in the streets of Canada's biggest city.

Nor was it surprising that it occurred in such a public place, in the heart of the city amid a crowd of innocent people. This shooting took place only minutes from the site of another infamous crime: the killing of Jane Creba on Boxing Day 2005. An innocent, wide-eyed 15-year-old, she was struck by a random bullet unleashed in a shootout between rival gangs on a busy street. Saturday's shooting "harkens back to that terrible moment," said Police Chief Bill Blair.

That it should happen again in such a frighteningly similar manner makes Torontonians question their sense of the city as a secure and orderly place. Whether or not we like to admit it, Toronto has a grave problem on its hands.

It has been clear for some years that a tiny minority of the population caught up in a brutal subculture of drugs and gangs is causing an extraordinary amount of havoc. We have seen gunfire and knifings in the schools, drive-by shootings, innocent people struck by stray bullets – the whole panoply of urban violence.

Shootings are way up this year, to 99 so far compared with 69 by this time in 2011. The number of victims is up even more, to 121 from 76. Gun violence and gangsterism are persistent sores that never seem to heal despite intense attention from police and social agencies.

Yes, Toronto is in general an exceptionally safe place, with a low murder rate for a major city. In fact, the number of murders was down sharply last year to 49. Chicago had 50 in the month of March alone.

But it won't do just to say that we could be Chicago.

"This is the safest city in the world," says Mayor Rob Ford. Not strictly true and not very helpful. "One idiot with a gun … does not speak to the state of affairs of the city of Toronto," says acting deputy police chief Jeff McGuire. True, but there are plenty of "idiots" with lots of guns, and they seem to have no trouble at all arming themselves with more.

This soothing talk rings hollow after the horror – for once, the cliché does not seem overblown – of what happened at the Eaton Centre on Saturday evening. A man with a gun. The "pop, pop, pop" of shots ringing out. People trampling each other as they flee. A 13-year-old boy severely wounded. The mind struggles to grasp such an event. How could this have happened in the heart of a peace-loving, successful, caring city?

While it is understandable that civic leaders should want to be reassuring – it would be tragic to see people succumb to fear and hesitate to go out in public – we need to ask them some hard questions.

Is the city's vaunted anti-gang strategy, lead by the admirable Chief Blair, really working? Are we doing enough, at all levels of government and law enforcement, to control firearms? Are we being generous enough – more to the point, smart enough – about addressing the social ills like fatherlessness that seem to breed the hard cases that are doing so much damage to our social fabric?

We need answers, not reassurances.