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saying it with bullets

Kieron Tierney, who lost a family member to gun violence, writes a message on a poster outside the Toronto Eaton Centre before a vigil on Sunday June 3, 2012 for the people injured in Saturday's shootings.Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

Federal cabinet minister Julian Fantino, a former chief of the Toronto police and the Ontario Provincial Police, said on Sunday the fatal Toronto Eaton Centre shooting underlines that there is a criminal element willing to fire guns in public without concern for who might be caught in the crossfire.

Mr. Fantino, now the associate minister of defence, said the federal government is trying to address gun and drug crimes with stiffer sentences.

Twenty-four-year old Ahmed Hassan was gunned down in the shopping centre's food court early on Saturday evening, and several others were wounded. On Monday morning, Toronto police said they had a suspect in custody, reportedly after he turned himself in to downtown's 52 Division.

"Some of these people obviously need to be taught a lesson," Mr. Fantino said. "We haven't been able to effectively get their attention. That's why some of some of these sentences, severe sentences and mandatory sentences are absolutely critical."

Immediately after the shooting, Toronto's police and political authorities offered reassurance.

"One idiot with a gun on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Toronto does not speak to the state of affairs of the city," acting deputy chief Jeff McGuire said in a press conference Sunday. "This has an incredible ability to create fear and angst among people ... but please do not gauge this city based on what you saw yesterday."

Mayor Rob Ford made a similar plea for people to carry on as normal. "This is the safest city in the world."

And in many ways, Toronto the Good is still safe – and getting safer: Violent crime has been declining. Homicide numbers are also down.

But Saturday's shooting is a reminder of one of the more persistent aspects of the city's crime scene that many Torontonians would rather ignore: Gang violence in this city isn't new. And it isn't going away.

And, some critics argue, that longevity's a testament to the city's failure to tackle gangs more creatively – the way cities around the world have done, because it works.

"Unfortunately [gangs have] not been eradicated, I guess, is one way to put it," Deputy Chief Mcguire told The Globe. "We're doing the best we can to stay on top of things, but, you know, any large urban environment in North America has some gang problems. And we've certainly never suggested we don't."

Shootings are up so far in 2012, a 43.5 per cent year-on-year increase after years of decline. And, significantly, that uptick in shootings hasn't corresponded with a rise in shooting deaths.

Those bullets are killing fewer people, both in proportional and absolute terms. And they're making for fewer injuries, which could point to an increase in what police call "message" shootings – incidents in which someone shoots into a car or house intending to scare, not to hurt.

A recent spate of these "message" shootings has police analysts looking for potential connections to Saturday's killing.

Ultimately, Deputy Chief McGuire said, "community cooperation is what's going to make the difference for us." If people are more willing to trust the police and come forward with information, "maybe we can prevent more of these things."

But criminologist and author Irvin Waller argues that what Toronto and Ontario law-enforcement is missing is gang crime prevention that thinks outside the box.

The idea of tackling the "root causes" of crime – including income, education, health and family circumstances – sounds air-fairy until you look at the numbers. Such cities as Glasgow, Scotland and Boston, MA have reduced crime and saved millions by pursuing strategies as simple as getting different agencies to talk to each other.

"We're obsessed with enforcement. And, particularly in Ontario, we have not really looked outside at what works," Prof. Waller said. "We can't arrest our way out of this sort of violence: We have to look at where it comes from. … Which means getting young men out of these gangs."

Some Canadian police forces, Toronto's included, are beginning to experiment with the kind of strategy pioneered in Glasgow.

Deputy Chief McGuire says he hopes "people are rattled every time someone gets shot, no matter where it occurs. But … when it happens in a completely open public place, where all of us can take our children, where you can sit down and have a hamburger and have nothing to do with these people and you get caught in their messy lives, that's very unfortunate for all the citizens of Toronto.

"For all Torontonians who are shocked," he added, "I'm glad you're shocked. I hope you're shocked. If we ever get to the point when the shock is not there, then we've really lost the battle."

Shootings (Jan. 1 - May 25)

2011: 69

2010: 72

2009: 97

Shooting deaths

2012: 10

2011: 11

2010: 6

2009: 12

Source: Toronto Police Service Crime Statistics: Shootings and Homicides Year-To-Date (la st updated May 25)