Spiking Toronto's guns
January 4, 2006, A17
Political candidates frequently declaim about crime because doing so exploits everyone’s fears they are in imminent danger, and the promises that quell those fears attract voters. People fear crime because the media’s focus on sensational crimes makes it seem that violent crimes rates are rising. From the beginning of time crime has seemed on the rise.
But that belief ignores crime statistics.
According to Statistics Canada, the homicide rate in Toronto, and Canada, has been decreasing since 1991. So, as the population of Toronto has increased, the total number of homicides has generally gone down. Toronto also has a lower homicide rate than that of Canada overall since at least 1991.
In 1991, there were 103 homicides in Toronto. By 2001, the number fell to 78. It spiked in 2002 and 2003, with 90 and 95 homicides, respectively. In 2005, there were 78 homicides, according to the CBC, which matches the number committed in 2001, so the rate is still going down.
Fifty-two of the 2005 homicides were committed with a firearm. Disturbingly, that raises the proportion of shootings to 66 percent. Between 1998 and 2002, the proportion was 23 to 54 percent. That there were fewer homicides in 2005 is encouraging, but that more were committed with firearms indicates that there is still a serious problem in the city.
Numerous politicians, including the major party candidates, have denounced the gun violence in Toronto, so it is good to know that Canada’s leaders are against people shooting each other. But it is shameful that they would use the shootings to further their political objectives, by trying to appear tough on crime, without providing meaningful solutions.
For instance, the Conservatives intend to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offences – and drug trafficking, which, under Canadian law, includes passing a joint.
The Liberals, realizing mandatory minimum sentences already exist, intend to double them. The NDP think the penalties are too soft in general and need to be increased.
Under the current criminal law, anyone who commits a serious crime with a gun, whether it is fired or not, faces a minimum sentence of one year in prison for a first offence, three years for subsequent offences, and up to 14 years maximum, on top of the penalties for any other charges.
Promising to increase sentences makes for a good sound bite because it seems like a candidate can fix crime, and it appeals to the listener’s sense of retribution.
Though punishing criminals is a valid role for the justice system, increasing the punishment does little to decrease gun violence.
Severe punishments are meant to deter behaviour on the theory that people think through crimes before they commit them, all the way to if and when they will be caught and what their punishment would be.
So do gang members shoot at each other and innocent bystanders because one to fourteen years for unlawfully firing a gun, or a minimum life imprisonment for homicide, are not long enough sentences? Unlikely.
Research shows that most people are not familiar with the criminal law well enough to know the sentence for a particular crime, and that most violent crimes are committed impulsively. So increasing the penalties would do little to deter shootings.
For those who do think through their criminal behaviour, minimum sentences can ironically incite more serious crimes.
Punishments need to be reasonably associated with the severity of the crime so that criminals do not commit more serious crimes with similar penalties to facilitate their original crime.
If all firearm offences carried high minimum sentences, then an individual familiar with that aspect of the law who simply pointed a gun would be less reluctant to assault a witness to escape the inevitable prison sentence. That is to say, if criminals know they are going to get prison time whether they fire a gun or not, they will likely think that they may as well fire it.
The same three parties also have plans for strengthening border security to prevent illegal guns from entering the country. Smuggling to Canada should be prevented, but the guns are a symptom of the problem and focusing on them misses the point.
Many of the shootings were caused by gangs. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has said that recent gang violence was triggered by young gang members trying to establish credibility by wielding guns. Therefore, even if no guns were available in Canada, gang members who wanted to engage in violence could do so with knives or sharpened sticks.
If the parties want to decrease gun violence in Canada, they need to address the reasons young people join violent gangs, including unemployment, lack of education, and a sense of belonging.
Paul Martin mentioned that the shootings were the “consequences of exclusion” and the Liberal platform involves supporting youth programs for skills training and diversion from crime, so they somewhat address the issue.
The Conservatives’ platform on the causes consists only of supporting community programs for at risk youth.
NDP leader Jack Layton brought up “poverty, unemployment, and social exclusion” in his statement about gun violence, so the NDP’s rhetoric is the most relevant to the root causes of gun violence. But fixing poverty, unemployment, and exclusion is no easier than promising to fix crime.
For whichever party comes to power, reducing violence in Toronto and the rest of Canada will require more than getting rid of handguns.
Philip Kolba is a Toronto freelance writer who is studying criminology at the University of Toronto.