Toronto in Trouble II: Guns, Gangs and Poor Mental Health

Toronto skyline with gun and chain

Last week a lone gunman walked along the west end of the Danforth, a lively street of shops and restaurants in the Greek part (my old neighbourhood) of Toronto, and randomly shot 13 people. He killed two. A few minutes later, he shot himself in the head. Dead. His anguished parents issued a statement later, indicating their son struggled with psychosis and had serious mental health problems his whole life. The next day there was a shooting in Etobicoke, part of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). In early July a rapper and his colleague were killed in a shoot-out. Weeks before that two little girls, 5 and 9, were hit with stray bullets while playing in a playground, innocent bystanders in the middle of a gang firefight. This year, to date, there have been 30 deaths by guns in Toronto Between January and June in Toronto there were 199 shootings and 22 deaths. By the end of July there were 30 deaths—more than in all of 2017. Of course, these numbers are small compared to American cities, but it has made many residents fearful in what was once considered a very safe city. It seems to me there are three interrelated problems: guns, gangs, and poor mental health. There should be a three-pronged solution.

Guns

Depending on who’s counting (Toronto’s Chief of Police Mark Saunders, former Toronto police chief and now federal Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, Bill Blair, and various others in the know), 50-70% of illegal guns are obtained in Canada, leaving 30-50% smuggled in from the United States. I heard an estimate of 4,000 illegal guns kicking around these days. The gun used in the Danforth shooting was traced back to our southern neighbour. But trying to keep the guns out of the city is “a daunting task,” said Saunders, “when you look at the United States, and they have over 300 million firearms that are out there.” In June he authorized a great deal of overtime for police officers to execute 53 search warrants for illegal weapons. More than 70 guns were seized, 75 people were arrested and more than 1,000 charges were laid.

Mayor John Tory is calling for making Toronto a gun-free zone, which sounds good, but would be a shame for lawful gun owners who like the sport of target practice in safe, controlled environments. And the feds are looking at strengthening our gun laws. We do have a rigorous procedure for acquiring a gun, but background checks aren’t always made. And in addition to being stolen, some guns have been purchased legally but then sold under-the-table to those who do not have a legal right to them.

I think Saunders has the right approach though. “We need to sit down and have these candid conversations from a multi-layered perspective to get it right,” he said recently. “There are some huge benefits that can occur as a result of this [tragedy] if we’re really brave enough to have the fulsome discussions, and not to say ‘Police, fix this.’”

Gangs

Peter Donnelly, the head of Public Health Ontario, would agree. He advises that Toronto treat gun violence as a public health emergency, as they did in Glasgow during his tenure (2004-2008) as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the Scottish government. Ten years ago, Glasgow was deemed by the World Health Organisation to be the most violent city in western Europe—the “homicide capital.” It’s hard to get a gun in Scotland because of the mass school shooting in Dunblane in 1996, so the weapon of choice was the knife. And gang members used knives because they believed their destiny was endless poverty and violence.

The government recognized that police enforcement alone was not going to solve the problem. Therefore, many agencies worked together to create an “alternative pathway for the young guys who were involved with gangs and in crime” which involved targeted help in social services, health, education, and job training, preparedness and experience. “When these young guys got a job and began to take part in the regular economy, it was life changing,” said Dr. Donnelly. The result was a 47% drop in homicides, and an 85% reduction of carrying a weapon by those who participated in the program. What a difference genuine hope can make in a young person’s life!

However, yesterday the new Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, Lisa MacLeod, announced the Doug Ford government was scrapping the Basic Income Pilot Project, which was testing a new approach to reducing poverty. This, despite promising not to do so during the election campaign. Her reason was that it “wasn’t working” though she could not give any evidence of that. She also announced that the budgeted 3% increase for welfare and disability would be cut in half. So much for helping people out of poverty!

Poor Mental Health

I listened to a phone-in radio show about what could be done to prevent random acts of violence by those with mental health issues. It was so sad and disheartening to hear the despair of parents who knew their young sons—for it’s mainly males who commit these acts—were not coping well with life. The parents had tried for years to get them the help they need, but system is over-burdened and in many ways broken.

After the Danforth shooting Ontario Premier Doug Ford sat down with Blair, Tory and Saunders and said that some of the province’s $1.9 billion earmarked for mental health and addiction support would instead “be going to the police.” So much for dealing with mental health problems! But not surprising.

Violence breeds violence. We all live together on this planet, in our various countries and communities. How many more needless deaths will it take before we are “brave enough” to have some “fulsome discussions”, put money behind proven solutions, and live in harmony?

I put the Elliott tartan as a backdrop to Toronto’s skyline (above) as a nod to Scotland. Though my birth name is not Elliott, I am descended from a very long line of Elliotts, going back at least to the 10th Chief of the Clan, Robert Ellot (correct spelling), who died in 1497.

 

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