Toronto Wants More Gun Control. Will It Work?
After the Danforth mass shooting, Toronto politicians have made moves to curb gun violence. But experts believe many of their proposals will be ineffective.
Danforth shooting suspect Faisal Hussain killed two people Sunday. Photos via family handout/Flickr user Zorin Denu
“Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?"
Those words have been repeated by Toronto Mayor John Tory in the days since a mass shooting on the Danforth left a 10-year-girl and an 18-year-old woman dead. Now Tory and fellow politicians are taking aim at Canada’s gun laws.
Accused gunman Faisal Hussain, 29, died shortly after firing a handgun into crowds of people Sunday night. There are many things we still don’t know, including Hussain’s motives—his family said he struggled with mental illness—and how he obtained the gun.
Canada has strict regulations for handguns, and those who apply for a gun licence here must disclose mental health issues, as well as provide personal references, although the system relies on self-reporting.
It’s also possible he obtained the gun illegally. A police source reportedly told the CBC the gun may have come from Hussain’s brother and that another gun was found in Hussain’s apartment. Hussain’s brother Fahad was previously arrested for allegedly selling drugs and is currently in a coma.
Toronto police have said about half of the guns used in crimes were sourced domestically—and that more Canadians are buying guns legally only to sell them to criminals.
Regardless of the particulars of the Danforth shooting, there’s no question this has been a violent year for Toronto, with 29 of the city’s 58 homicides attributed to guns.
Toronto City Council passed a host of motions Tuesday night as part of a $44-million plan to curb gun violence in the city. Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has also stated the government would consider an outright ban on handguns. But gun experts don’t necessarily think these efforts are going to curb criminal activity.
Here’s a deeper look at some of the main gun control reform measures being touted:
Ban on handguns/handgun and ammo sales
Toronto city council passed a motion to ask the federal government to ban the sale of handguns and handgun ammunition in Toronto and to consider banning the sale and possession of handguns and semi-automatic rifles among civilians.
Because guns are regulated federally, a city doesn’t have the authority to ban them.
Calgary lawyer Greg Dunn, a gun owner who frequently represents clients charged with firearms crimes, told VICE it’s possible the city could refuse to issue business licences to gun stores. The province of Ontario could also potentially not give out Authorization To Transport permits, which allow owners of restricted guns to travel with them. The effect of the latter would force handgun owners to keep their guns at home. But Dunn said doing those things would likely be grounds for a legal challenge. “Essentially, you would have constitutional issues in doing that,” he said. “You have a right to own a firearm under federal law as long as you have the requisite licence.”
As for effectiveness in cutting down gun crime, A.J. Somerset, author of Arms: the Culture & Credo, said it would be “utterly futile.”
“There is no border around a city, there is no checkpoint that people have to pass.”
Chicago, often touted by pro-gunners as proof that gun control doesn’t work, banned handguns in 1982, a move that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2010. But, many have pointed out the ban didn’t cut down on the city’s gun violence problem because people simply brought in guns from neighbouring jurisdictions. However, the UK banned handguns in 1997 and gun deaths have since dropped dramatically.
Somerset said an ammo sales ban would run into the same issues.
“These gangs distribute drugs internationally, I think they can figure out how to go to Mississauga to buy ammunition.”
Toronto approved implementing Shotspotter technology as part of its plan. The technology, used in cities like Chicago and Cincinnati, claims to be able to detect the precise location of gunfire in less than 60 seconds and alert police. According to its website, it works by using acoustic sensors “strategically placed in a coverage area.” Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has argued the technology will keep the city safer and at council Tuesday, Mayor Tory said “This is what I want to give the chief because this is what he says he needs in order to do the job.” But there doesn’t appear to be significant data showing ShotSpotter reduces crime.
Jooyoung Lee, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies gun violence, told VICE he lived in Philadelphia when a similar program was rolled out.
“There are very ambivalent results,” he said. “It’s certainly not preventing gun violence.”
Lee said he agrees with concerns of black activists and scholars in the city who believe ShotSpotter will simply amount to more surveillance of an already over-policed population.
Increased record keeping for gun sales
As part of Bill C-71, the Liberal government wants to require gun retailers to keep records of all sales for 20 years. Because sales of restricted guns (e.g. handguns) are already tracked, this would only apply to long guns. Police could then access those records with a warrant.
“It’s opposed by the firearms community because they believe it to be a backdoor registry,” said Dunn. The long gun registry was scrapped in 2012.
But Dunn pointed out most criminals use handguns anyway because they are easy to hide. The majority of gun homicides in Canada are committed with handguns. In 2016, 58 percent of gun homicides were committed with handguns, according to Statistics Canada, and 54 percent were related to gangs.
Somerset said the record keeping will likely have a “negligible effect on gun crime itself.” He said it may give police the opportunity to check and identify the original owner of a firearm, but if that person has since sold it and not kept a record, that information wouldn’t help.
Lee told VICE he’s not sure the impact increased record-keeping would have on crime deterrence, but given that cops often have issues tracing the origin of a gun, having an additional database could prove useful.
“Having a more robust database would at least on the surface provide police with some other resources .. to understand how the gun is getting from vendor into the hands of people who are using it to kill or harm someone.”
Limit on number of guns
Mayor Tory expressed concerns at the number of guns licensed Canadians can purchase at a gangs and guns summit in Ottawa in March.
“You can be a person who has the requisite permit… and buy dozens of guns, in Canada, legally, without any red flag being shown as to why you would want to buy dozens of guns like that,” he said at the time.
As previously mentioned, police have said more legal gun owners are buying guns and selling them to criminals.
Under the Canadian Firearms Act, you’re considered to be a gun collector if you have 10 or more guns and police are entitled to inspect your collection, as long as they give you notice beforehand.
Somerset said the government could look at changing the legislation to make it easier to flag people who are making out of the ordinary gun purchases—for example a new licensee who drops $4,000 on handguns in a month.
Tougher punishments for arms dealers
One of Tory’s motions called for the federal government to include mandatory minimum jail sentences for arms traffickers and increased resources directed at domestic traffickers.
Both Dunn and Somerset said purchasing restricted guns legally and selling them to criminals is extremely risky, because the guns will be traced back to the original owner.
“If I go buy 50 handguns under my name, now they all show up in a drive-by shooting, where are the police going to come?” said Dunn. “it’s an incredibly foolish criminal business plan.”
Somerset told VICE that because of how risky it is to make “straw purchases” (use a licence to obtain guns for the black market), it’s likely straw buyers are either being coerced or offered a tremendous amount of money.
“Although the severity of punishment for a crime is not usually much of a deterrence, it seems in this case the probability of being caught is very high,” he said. “It would make sense to look at what the punishment is and possible increase the maximum punishment in order to make it even more expensive.”
Dunn, noting he hears about gun thefts more often than straw purchases, said police should perhaps be more rigorous in following up on reports of stolen guns.
Toronto police have already launched their plan to deploy 200 additional officers in the city between the hours of 7 PM - 3 AM, the time period they say shootings most often take place.
Saunders told reporters the intent isn’t to saturate neighbourhoods “but to have our police officers focused on those very few who are motivated to have access, and to use, guns across the city.” But in a city plagued by racist carding, many are skeptical.
Lee told VICE these measures only further erode trust in police and “destroy community life.” But he said they don’t address root issues like poverty and lack of opportunities for young people.
“I think the longer term solution is really reducing concentrated poverty in racialized communities, supporting at risk youth, making sure they have access to mentors and people who can help them get placed into career paths that can help them lead good lives.”
As part of the gun violence reduction plan, council earmarked more than $3 million for youth initiatives.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.