Criminal behaviour, not guns, at the root of Toronto’s problems

In the wake of Sunday’s horrible shooting spree in the popular Danforth Avenue — the latest incident in an upward spike in gun-related crime — Toronto’s mayor and council are calling for bans on handguns and on ammunition sales across Canada’s largest city.

Such a move would require federal government oversight as the Criminal Code is in its jurisdiction. That would be a time-consuming, emotionally charged process and, while the optics of such a ban may bring peace of mind, one can argue it is not worthy of the exhaustive effort.

A majority of Canadian citizens, including gun collectors and those involved in gun-related sport, would likely agree there are necessary limits to accessing firearms and ammunition. It makes sense that potential owners are required to submit to thorough background checks, attend training sessions, and agree to safe storage procedures that would keep firearms out of the wrong hands. There’s also an argument to be made that a well-run registry program could help alert law enforcement of the potential for weapons to be used in dangerous situations, though it’s not a fail-safe guarantee by any means.

The problem with introducing a ban is that the largest group of people it affects is those who would buy their firearms legally and submit to the restrictions in place. The problem brewing in Toronto, and the problem in many American cities, is not caused by those gun owners. It is caused by a criminal element that smuggles firearms in from the United States and other jurisdictions, that operates outside the law in transactions involving guns, and it generally has little regard for the safety and well-being of others. A ban alone likely isn’t going to root out that problem. It also isn’t likely to eliminate handguns bought legally, nor is it reasonable to think Toronto can effectively stop people from making purchases in other Ontario communities and travelling across its borders.

Governments can limit legal access to handguns and other weapons as much as they wish, but the problem simply will not just go away. Instead, the focus must be on stamping out the behaviours that lead to gun violence and improving the effectiveness of controls on smuggled guns and off-the-books transactions.

Another resolution from Toronto council calling for increased investments in anti-gang education is a wise step, but it must also come part-in-parcel with efforts to address the root causes of isolation and desperation that might lead to crime. By working to reduce poverty and stressing early intervention to address determinants of health and mental health, criminality can be reduced. Unfortunately, that’s not an easy process as public resources are severely stretched and there’s much ground to cover.

Effective enforcement is also a big part of the equation. Policing agencies must have the resources, legislative backing, and manpower to make their presence known and to quell the flow of illegal handguns. At the same time, they need to continue to build trust in the communities they serve regularly. As more officers are hired, it is hoped those officers can become part of their communities so that both they and civilians can work together to improve safety.

Bolstering community and changing learned behaviours will have a lasting impact on gun violence. Rather than the guns themselves, that should be the focal point.

-Adam Bramburger