This has been an especially deadly year in Toronto, with the city notching 95 homicides so far, amidst a spate of brazen shootings and calls for a handgun ban.

Toronto has 50 homicides by guns so far this year. As of the end of Thursday, Dec. 20, Toronto saw 406 shooting incidents in 2018.

The numbers eclipse the previous record of 89 total homicides in 1991 and 80 in 2005, which was dubbed the “summer of the gun.” This year’s homicide stats are boosted by what police believe is the work of a serial killer and by a horrific van attack on the busy sidewalks of Yonge Street on a beautiful spring day that killed 10 people and injured 16.

But a number of shootings have also shocked and outraged the city.

Two sisters, 5 and 9, were shot and wounded in mid-June while playing in a playground in Toronto’s east end. Two weeks later, one man was killed and two others were critically injured in a daylight shooting on Toronto’s bustling Queen Street West. A few weeks later, gunfire erupted on a crowded street in Greektown in July, killing an 18-year-old woman and 10-year-old girl and injuring 13 others.

It all led Toronto city council to call on Ottawa to ban handguns, amid worries that gun crime is spiking.

“It’s shocking and it should remain shocking,” Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said of the city’s 2018 numbers. “It can’t become normal. We can’t just process it as another story of yellow tape. That attitude worries me. If we become complacent, those who experience it daily are just left to fend for themselves.”

A youth violence report in 2008, in the wake of Toronto’s so-called “summer of the gun” when 52 people were killed in shootings, focused not on gun supply but the roots of the problem, including poverty, racism, poor housing, “culturally insensitive education systems and limited job prospects combine to create hopelessness, alienation and low self-esteem among youth that all too often explodes into violence.”

The study commissioned academic research, consulted with hundreds of organizations and individuals, and visited disadvantaged communities across Ontario to hear first-hand of the effects of violence and to understand why it occurs.

Critics say that report, commissioned by then-premier Dalton McGuinty, laid out an action plan that was never fully implemented.

Click here for full-screen version of 2018 homicide map. Click on arrow on top left for map legend.

‘It’s staring us in the face’

“We can’t think about the roots but about the seed,” said Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement. “By the time it’s roots, it’s too late. We just keep putting money into policing but if that was the solution, we wouldn’t have the problem today. It’s staring us in the face. It’s socio-economic conditions, mental health and pathways of guns.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times this summer, University of Toronto sociologist and California native Jooyoung Lee said brazen shootings this year had him and many Torontonians questioning the Canadian “sense of exceptionalism. Mass shootings are no longer a uniquely American problem,” he wrote.

Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement (Source: Facebook / Zero Gun Violence Movement)

March says he’s running out of patience. He attended three memorials for gun-crime victims in one week this year. The victims were 15, 16, and 20.

His group is a coalition of 40-plus agencies, programs, organizations and individuals aimed at the idea that the solution to gun crime lies in fixing neighbourhoods where people feel no hope.

“The first word in community safety is community. That’s where it has to begin and end. That’s where the answers are. Our approach is advocacy and engaging with people who no one else is talking to,” said March, including the victims of gun crime and those responsible for it.

“In some communities in Toronto, at 5 or 6 p.m., the life on the street is gone because people fear coming out at night. I know a mother with three teens who won’t let them out of the house even to put the garbage out. This is Toronto in 2018. There is fear and despair in these neighbourhoods.”

He says the narrative around gun violence needs to change, especially the idea that it can’t be solved or that it is an inevitable product of Toronto’s most challenged neighbourhoods.

“Why is gun violence OK or expected in Regent Park but not High Park?” he said.

“When we set a goal for zero gun violence people said it was impossible. My answer is that in many parts of the city it is already happening. So what makes it impossible everywhere?”

The solutions are in community programming, empowering neighbourhoods and investing in early school interventions for troubled kids, says March. But instead, he says, there has been a “lack of leadership and the courage to confront this in a meaningful way.”

Community investments and interventions had an impact after 2005’s spike in gun violence. By 2013, gun deaths fell to 22 but then the level of attention fell off, he says.

“There are people who never thought it could happen here. There was a comfort zone after 2005 when the numbers came down that that year was an aberration. But they are going back up. If we continue to hope and pray this problem will go away, nothing will happen.”

Vaughan, the Liberal MP who represents Spadina-Fort York, says another crucial step is calling on the young leaders of challenged neighbourhoods to participate on community boards and civic agencies.

“The kids there are extremely resilient, and the most creative, smart and invested kids in the city. Families take care of each other. More of those voices need to be leading the city,” he said. “It’s not a matter of how we respond to community leadership but how we build it and let it lead us to a safer city.”

Social media and the gun

But March says most politicians are stuck back in 2005 and don’t understand what is happening in 2018. Guns are much more plentiful today and shooters are getting younger, he says. Much of the violence today isn’t targeted responses to neighbourhood beefs or gang turf, instead it’s brazen shootings on the streets or even playgrounds aimed at building reputations or images on social media.

Putting more police on the street is not the answer, he says. The federal investment of $328 million to battle guns and gangs is mostly going to the RCMP and border agencies. March says there needs to be a matching investment in neighbourhoods where too many people are left behind.

“We know money is not being spent smartly because crime is still climbing. The programs in place are not the solution if the right people aren’t taking part. Communities aren’t underserviced, they are poorly served.”

Lee, the sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies gun crime, says the volume of shootings and gun deaths in Toronto is on a different scale than large U.S. cities, but what is in common is that those most likely affected are young men of colour and the neighbourhoods most affected are disadvantaged.

Those communities have high rates of unemployment, joblessness, poverty, and incarceration, and lower high-school graduation rates.

What is often forgotten in discussions of gun violence is the ripple effect in communities and the circular nature of impact. Lee has studied how gun violence transforms the social worlds –and health of black men in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Toronto. He says shooting survivors experience extensive emotional, psychological and physical wounds that extend to family, friends, neighbours, and coworkers. They are often left with disabilities, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress and depression and turn to drugs for relief.

“It changes the course of their life and compounds to a sense of hopelessness, nihilism, and the feeling there is no safety net.” Some eventually resort to violence themselves.  

Lee says determining whether a shooting is gang related has become problematic and feeds a narrative around gun violence.

“Police often are operating on the assumption that because someone has had past involvement in a gang, that a shooting must be linked to that. But that’s not always true and it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As well, there is an assumption made that when a shooting is in a high-crime area involving people of colour, that it must be related to a gang.”

A different assumption is made when a shooting happens in a middle-class, mostly white community, says Lee.

“There is disbelief and a presumption of innocence of the victims. There is no assumption that a shooting is linked to poor life choices.”