Another weekend, another shooting death. Toronto’s crime news has become drearily routine. As I write, the latest victim is 25-year-old Karim Hirani, smiling cheerily at me from my morning newspaper. I feel terrible for his mom. He seems to have been targeted. He was shot at an apartment complex with a long history of gun violence.
As the weather has heated up this summer, so has the gunplay. As for the rhetoric – you’ve heard it all before. “It’s not a blip,” Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, declared to The Toronto Sun. So far, the updated count is 26 gun deaths, as opposed to 17 gun deaths in all of last year. John Tory, the mayor, called the gun violence “shocking,” while a local blog pointed out that Toronto’s homicide rate is now higher than New York’s (but only if you count the 10 victims of the April van attack).
Before you start cowering beneath your bed, perhaps a little perspective is in order. Compared with my old hometown, Chicago, Toronto looks like the Peaceable Kingdom. Last year, Chicago, a city roughly the same size as Toronto, racked up a staggering 670 murders. Toronto had just 66. Between 2010 and 2015, Chicago averaged 16.4 murders for every 100,000 citizens. Toronto’s homicide rate in 2016 was 1.55, below the national average of 1.68. The Economist recently ranked Toronto as the safest city in North America, and the fourth-safest in the world.
In both cities, crime is highly concentrated by geography. As Rafael Mangual, deputy director of legal policy for the Manhattan Institute, points out, if you don’t hang out in notoriously gun-infested neighbourhoods and aren’t known to gang-bangers, you’re not likely to be a gun victim. Mr. Tory has gone out of his way to stress that many gun-crime victims are perfectly blameless. That’s true. But many others are not.
This is why the calls for social reforms to attack the “root causes” of crime are generally misguided. As Mr. Mangual contends, socioeconomic factors such as poverty, unemployment and underfunded schools are at best loosely associated with Chicago’s crime problems. For example, Chicago’s education spending is 30 per cent higher than the U.S. median. The unemployment picture has also improved; recently the unemployment rate among young black men has dropped almost 20 per cent. Gun violence “is not, by and large, motivated by economic issues,” says criminologist Barry Latzer, as quoted by Mr. Mangual. “Murder and assault are in the main precipitated by anger, sexual jealousy, perceived insults.”
In other words, youth mentorship programs and night basketball are definitely good things. But if we want to reduce gun crime, we should target the bad guys, rather than spreading our resources far and wide. The number of violent criminals is quite small, and violent crime – as awkward as it is to say so – is generally restricted to a few neighbourhoods and population groups. Seventy-five per cent of Toronto’s shootings are gang-related, according to the mayor. Go after the guns and gangs, and you’re going after the biggest root causes of all.
You won’t hear these things if you talk to social justice activists. Nor will you hear that Toronto’s unemployment rate is a relatively modest 6.3 per cent, or that Toronto’s schools, even in poorer areas, are relatively good. Since 2003, school funding in Ontario has increased 68 per cent, to a not-unstingy $12,100 per pupil.
Everybody likes to politicize gun crime, and the law-and-order crowd are no exception either. The problem (they invariably say) is not enough resources. Also, we need to go back to the good old days of random street checks (also known as carding), even though low-crime New York City does just fine without it. “All we’re really doing now is reactive policing,” griped the police association’s Mr. McCormack. It’s true that the police force has been steadily shrinking, and perhaps in some instances a bit too much. But those cuts are deliberate. The force was bloated. It is being modernized and streamlined. It’s about time.
I’m with the law ‘n’ order crowd in one respect: Our catch-and-release system lets too many criminals out on bail despite their previous convictions for gun crimes. I’m also with the mayor when he says there’s no one big fix, only little ones – precision policing, improving police-community relations, keeping the bad guys behind bars. Meanwhile, don’t listen to the fearmongers. Compared with the rest of the world, we’re still Toronto the (Pretty) Good.