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Canada weighs handgun ban, as violence rises

Brian Mann

Canada has tighter gun laws than in the United States and suffers much less gun crime. But this summer, that country's largest city Toronto has seen a sharp rise in the number of shootings and gun homicides. Some people are calling it the "summer of the gun."

That's challenging Canada's sense of itself as a safe, relatively gun-free society. Even some conservative politicians say handguns should be banned outright.

Stacey King meets me in a playground in a working class neighborhood of Toronto. Her girls were playing here in June, across the street from their house, when the shooting started.

Two daughters, a shooting

"The shooters were over by the condos and the target that they were looking for was in the playground with the kids, and they just started shooting," she recalled. 

Bullets struck her two daughters. They needed surgery but survived. "They’re traumatized, they’re having nightmares, they’re scared."

Statistics show the number of gun crimes in Toronto rising steadily since 2015 and this summer, shootings have led the news again and again. 

A mass shooting in Toronto

Credit Brian Mann / NCPR News
Danforth Avenue in Greektown is a popular destination for tourists and families in Toronto. In July, a gunman killed two people and injured more than a dozen others.

I went to Danforth Avenue, in a part of Toronto known as Greektown. It was a beautiful evening. People were out shopping, eating in outdoor cafes. But earlier this summer, this part of Toronto was transformed by violence.

The chilling video shows how quickly a gunman can turn a best-loved neighborhood into five blocks of carnage," reported CBC News.

The mass shooting in July left two people dead, more than a dozen injured. The gunman later took his own life. On this night, Helen Cherry is out walking. She says her sense of her city is changing.

"It’s always been Toronto the good. You walk down the street and always felt safe," Cherry said. "But yeah, certainly in the last couple of years I feel – like even tonight, when I came out, I thought hmm, okay, gotta walk down the street."

Safer than the U.S. but moving in the wrong direction

Compared with American cities, Canada is really safe. Chicago sees ten times as many gun homicides as Toronto. Jooyoung Lee is an American who studies gun violence in Canada. He teaches here at the University of Toronto.

"Even though we have seen an uptick this year and more specifically this summer, Toronto still remains one of the safest cities around," he explained. 

But Canada actually sees much more gun violence than, say, Australia or Britain. Lee says the sense of Canada as a safer, more gun-free society than the U.S. is eroding.

"Any time there is a shooting, what happens is that that event disrupts how people see a place. It changes a person's sense of safety in that place."

More police and talk of a handgun ban

Credit File Photo / WBFO News
Toronto Mayor John Tory

After this summer's violence, Canadian politicians have committed to spending tens of millions of additional dollars hiring new police and on gang-reduction efforts. But there’s also a new debate here over gun control.

"I’ve said for a long time that the city has a gun problem in that guns are far too readily available to far too many people," said Toronto Mayor John Tory speaking at a press conference after the Greektown shooting. 

He’s a leader of one of Canada’s center-right conservative parties. As you can hear, the discussion of gun violence in Canada sounds very different than in the United States. There's no second amendment here guaranteeing gun ownership as a right. There's no powerful gun lobby comparable to America's NRA. 

Canadians hoping to buy a firearm already have to go through detailed background checks, waiting periods, they need letters of reference. But now there's a call across the political spectrum in Canada for even tighter restrictions.

"You’ve heard me ask the question of why anybody would need to buy ten or twenty guns which they can lawfully do under the present laws," Tory said. "And that leads to another question that we need to discuss. Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?"

Calls for an outright ban on handgun sales have grown in recent weeks. The city council in Montreal passed a resolution unanimously supporting the policy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government agreed to launch a new national study to review the idea.

Jooyoung Lee at Toronto University says historically, a lot of gun crime here has been tied to weapons smuggled illegally from the United States. But a study by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that more violence in Canada now involves weapons purchased here that fall into the wrong hands.

"The fact that there are more occurrences suggests that we could be looking at a situation where there are more firearms readily available on the streets, young people who are at risk are getting their hands on guns and using them to settle disputes. So that data to me is troubling."

There are also calls here for more community revitalization efforts and programs designed to keep young people — men in particular — from taking up those weaapons.

This week there was another shooting at a Toronto shopping mall, with two groups of men trading gunfire. 

While the debate continues over how to respond to the summer's violence, a lot of people I talked to here say their big fear is that gun crime will keep getting worse and will come to be seen as normal, an accepted part of life in Canada, as it already is in big cities in the United States.

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