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Matt Gurney: Toronto doesn't have a gun-control problem

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Toronto on Tuesday. He met with Mayor John Tory and said his government would have more to say about gun control as part of its election campaign. This is after a recent spate of shootings in the city. Up until a few weeks ago, shootings in Toronto had actually been trending down, after a very bloody 2018. The recent series of incidents has erased that decline. The city now has more shootings this year than it did at this time last year (these figures come from the Toronto Police Service, and are current to Monday of this week). Interestingly, it has fewer dead — but shootings themselves are up.

What the Liberals intend to propose during this fall’s election is anyone’s guess. A crackdown on certain kinds of rifles is expected — likely “assault rifles,” in the common parlance, though that term hardly applies in Canada, where true military-style firearms have long been almost totally banned. But the Liberals have gently backed away from the notion of a full handgun ban; as I’ve written here previously, it would be a political winner for them, but they seem to have rightly concluded after a long public consultation that it wouldn’t make an impact on shootings in Toronto or Canada more broadly.

What the Liberals intend to propose during this fall's election is anyone's guess

“We look forward to the very next time Parliament is sitting,” Trudeau said at his meeting with Tory, “hopefully under a Liberal government, where we will be able to introduce further measures to strengthen measures against guns.” So, stay tuned, I guess.

But, as ever, the problem remains obvious. It’s not the collectors and target shooters who comply with Canada’s generally strict gun control laws. It’s criminals. And we were reminded of that this week and last. We should listen.

Mark Saunders, chief of Toronto’s police, is generally a soft-spoken guy. He’s thoughtful and polite. But he hasn’t minced words about these shootings. The chief has, just in the past few days, gone out of his way to say what the problem is — gangs.

Toronto Mayor John Tory looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from journalists following their meeting at Toronto City Hall on Aug. 13, 2019. Chris Young/CP

At a press conference last week, the chief lamented the fact that some of the individuals the police believe to be responsible for recent shootings may have been out on bail for previous shootings. More than 300 people currently believed to be residing in Toronto are out on bail awaiting trial for firearms-related offences, the chief said. He also said that the majority of shootings in Toronto are directly linked to gangs, blaming the recent spate of shootings on tit-for-tat retaliatory attacks by gang members. He made that point again on Monday, in a statement and on Twitter. “We know that most gun violence in Toronto is directly connected to street gang activity,” he wrote, adding that the police have “a comprehensive plan to address the issue” that they will soon be rolling out. 

This isn’t hard to understand. Toronto is not the first city in the world to have a problem with gang violence. The police are saying clearly that they know that the violence is linked to the gangs; they have said recently (and many times before) that the majority of handguns being used in crimes in Toronto are smuggled into the country illegally. I’m not going to suggest for an instant that solving these problems is going to be easy. But they aren’t mysterious. We know what the problem is: retaliatory violence between street gangs armed with weapons mostly smuggled in from the United States.

In other words, this is not a gun-control problem.

We know what the problem is: retaliatory violence between street gangs

I support gun control. Always have. I own firearms and am fully compliant with the laws — including some that are stupid and cumbersome and generate needless paperwork hassles while contributing nothing to public safety. If I had a magic wand to fix Canada’s gun-control laws, I’d cut back on some of the silly red tape but also get tougher in some areas. The system isn’t perfect and can be improved in ways that would satisfy both the left and right (not at the same time, mind you).

But before we can have that conversation, we need to understand what problems we’re trying to address. And shootings in Toronto and our other large cities really aren’t it. Those shootings are problems, of course, but not ones with Canada’s gun laws. They won’t be solved by changing those laws, either.

But we’ll have the same debates over and over again. Millions of Canadians, including a dispiriting numbers of our elected officials, will continue to pretend that cracking down on a well-regulated group of law-abiding private gun owners is a meaningful response to a real but unrelated gang-violence problem. These proposals will continue to be popular because they’ll sound good to the majority of Canadians who don’t know the first thing about how our gun-control laws actually work and whose knowledge and opinions on the subject have been informed by their exposure of news of tragedies in the U.S.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders responds to questions about the city’s gun violence at a press conference on Aug. 9, 2019. Behal/Postmedia News

I get that impulse. I truly do. America’s steadfast unwillingness — perhaps it’s better to say the dysfunctional U.S. political system’s total inability — to take even modest measures on gun control is enormously frustrating. I essentially abandoned any interest I had in U.S. gun-control debates after Sandy Hook. If a bunch of kindergarteners getting mowed down couldn’t bring change, what will?

But the honest and sincere frustration, not to mention a healthy dollop of bafflement, Canadians feel when they look at the repeated massacres in the U.S. shouldn’t colour how they perceive our laws and challenges in Canada. Gun control is functioning generally well in Canada. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do. The other problems will require their own solutions — and we won’t ever find those if we keep looking in the wrong place.


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