LORINC: What We Talk About When We Talk About Guns

In the wake of the Eaton Centre shooting, The Sun’s Joe Warmington declared predictably that Toronto is “a dangerous city.” The rebuttals – statistical, official and political — began to flow fast and furious, including one from Mayor Rob Ford.

Nevertheless, Councillor Adam Vaughan, of all people, decided he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pander to the cheap seats and warned (as if he were still in Citytv commentary mode) that Toronto could be facing another “summer of the gun,” given the general uptick in shooting incidents (though not homicides) this year.

After the guns and gangs taskforce crackdowns of 2006 and 2007, as Vaughan elaborated in an interview with The Sun, “the number of people that got sent away on what appeared to be sort of a pattern of five and six-year sentences and this may be the echo of the Summer of the Gun.”

Toronto Police Service officials categorically denied the implication.

So Adam, what’s with the fear-mongering?

To my ear, the phrase “summer of the gun” — first used in print by a National Post reporter in August, 2005 — has always had the sound of coded language, certainly capable of summoning very specific associations in the minds of middle class residents. Which are: young brown men with handguns who have the temerity to bring their violence out of those dark recesses of the city that the rest of “us” don’t frequent and, by and large, don’t think about. And “we” don’t like it when their bullets fly in the places considered to be emblematic of Toronto’s urbanism.

A few years ago, Toronto Life assigned me to write a feature about Toronto’s “gun culture” in the aftermath of several well-publicized downtown shootings, one of which killed a much-loved father, John O’Keefe, who was heading home after a beer with friends at a pub on Yonge Street. I spent weeks interviewing people whose lives had been torn apart by guns, but it quickly became apparent that most, though not all, of the violence was happening in forlorn pockets of the inner suburbs, where such killings barely register with the media, much less the broader public. (By contrast, the murders of Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin, shot in their SUV late one night near Trinity Bellwoods, warranted a solid week of mournful media coverage.)

Toronto Life’s intention, however, was to make ominous predictions about another “summer of the gun,” and also to alarm downtowners that the gun violence could intrude on patio season and the gentrified inner city. The editors even removed official statistics about shooting incidents that ran counter to the thesis. As it turned out, however, there was no reprise of the summer of the gun in 2008.

With this latest shooting, I think it’s important to acknowledge some important subtexts:

There’s no Jane Creba in the story of what happened at the Eaton Centre, and no one, save a circle of friends and family in the Somali community, is mourning the death of Ahmed Hassan. We will quickly forget his name, although his tale — war, migration, and the subsequent descent into crime — is surely every bit as tragic, especially in this city of immigrants.

Because this story lacks an anointed martyr, it will have far less political and policy impact. The 2005 Boxing Day shooting on Yonge Street, coming on the heels of that terrible summer, precipitated an awful lot of change. Creba, innocent in every conceivable way, galvanized the political classes in a way that compromised figures like Ahmed Hassan never will.

The Conservative government’s hasty and opportunistic overtures last week – an off-the-record chat with Somali leaders, followed by a cheque for $350,000 for one-year extension for a gang prevention research project – will accomplish very little, if anything.

Last, the much-hyped redevelopment of Regent Park has not, and will not, halt the gang-related turf wars that led Christopher Husbands to allegedly exact his revenge on an apparent rival in the middle of a crowded food court. Remember: for all the cultural spaces and new food stores and award-winning urban design that went into this project, the reality is that Regent Park’s low-income tenants have been carefully segregated from the affluent condo owners. The new Regent Park is a pastiche of a mixed income neighbourhood — a detail, I’m sure, Adam Vaughan has at the top of his mind as the revitalization of Alexandra Park continues apace.

To the extent that anyone genuinely wants to draw lessons from the Eaton Centre shooting (or was it actually a Regent Park shooting?), it is impossible to ignore the fact that this particular episode occurred in a city-region that has, since 2007, invested substantial energy and resources in reforms like community policing, guns-and-gangs enforcement, priority neighbourhood services, public housing redevelopment, arts and recreation facilities, stay-in-school programs, and other measures to prevent “at risk” youth from falling through the proverbial cracks.

Despite all that effort, Husbands and Hassan fell through nonetheless.

So, summer of the gun? Let’s not go there. Indeed, the grinding, increasingly concentrated poverty [ PDF link ] that can give rise to the drugs, the guns and the internecine gang warfare isn’t seasonal. It’s perennial. And as far as I can tell, no one seems especially able to find meaningful solutions to that particular problem.

photo by Gadjo Sevilla


  1. Truly, a good article. A whole lot of us don’t care, even a lot among the political class. But then, look how they behave and how we tolerate it. What can we expect?

  2. “By contrast, the murders of Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin, shot in their SUV late one night near Trinity Bellwoods, warranted a solid week of mournful media coverage.”

    By contrast indeed. Two innocent men caught in an unsolved robbery/murder. It’s hard to muster sympathy for gang-related crime.

    Problematic, worrying, concerning… yes. But I don’t feel sympathy for Husbands.

  3. John your point about fighting poverty as a way to fight crime is very true but one also has to accept that there are young men who choose to live the gangster lifestyle because they want to. Its part of what Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson (who is Black in case anybody is asking) calls the “poverty of the mind” created by a fixation on “respect culture” instead real achievement. There is a huge difference between Creba, Martin and Ellis and and two thugs who put my family at risk by pulling out guns for so called “respect”.

  4. @Scott D

    I absolutely do not dispute your last point. But my question is this: what underpins “respect” culture, or indeed any subculture that promotes random violence? I’d argue that if you scratch the surface, you will find troubled social conditions that cause a very small minority of young men to embrace this lifestyle. Why? Perhaps it’s because other choices are not available to them, or do not pose any realistic promise of a better life. 

  5. John,

    I live in a Regent Park condo with my partner and my baby and we have not been “carefully segregated” from low income tenants. I am overwhelmingly proud of what is happening in this neighbourhood and the relationships that are being built between all residents — low income and condo owners. I am inviting you to come over to visit my family for a tour of the neighbourhood as we experience it. If you still agree we’re a “pastiche” of a mixed income neighbourhood (although I’m not even 100% sure I know what you mean by that) and you’re panning the project, I’ll buy your coffee at the Tim Horton’s. But if you like what you see or you learn anything new and positive about the revitalization, will you consider a re-blog on Regent Park? My email will be available to you from spacing mag — please get in touch this is a genuine offer of a tour.

  6. “Remember: for all the cultural spaces and new food stores and award-winning urban design that went into this project, the reality is that Regent Park’s low-income tenants have been carefully segregated from the affluent condo owners.”

    Exactly. I lived in St. Lawrence and watched all the young families move out just before their child had to go to the local school, which has some of the lowest outcomes in the city: Market Lane. Then I lived in Cabbagetown and watched the home owners drive off with their kids to private schools, so they did not have to go to the same school as the kids from Regent Park. I’d fault the parents, except I’d do the same, to the extent I have the means. I am a public school teacher, and have taught in different schools and know how the economic status of the neighbourhood determines the chances the kids have, and what even the most motivated teacher can achieve. I’m far to ‘the Left’, but not willing to sacrifice my child on the alter of my politics when the rest of society couldn’t care less.

    I taught in a neighbourhood in the 905 where the kids from the low-income housing often did as well as their peers in $600K homes. Why? Simple. The kids in housing were fewer than 10% of the class, and challenged themselves to keep up with the rest of the class, and most often succeeded. If we were serious about poverty, and we are not, what we’d do with low-income housing is build more where the poverty-rate is below the city’s average: Rosedale, Lawrence Park, etc. Not holding my breath.

  7. The comment about Regent Park as a “pastiche” of a mixed neighbourhood is a bit of a logical non sequitur in context of the overall article. You can’t fairly invoke a fairly brutal metaphor of spatial or architectural “segregation” as conclusive of in/visible social relationships that have begun to form in the space of less than two years. Dare I use a brutal metaphor of my own, but such drive-by editorializing doesn’t do justice to a place that a lot of new residents are proud to call home, and who are doing the hard work of building community links across cultural and class divides where such links never before existed.

  8. Ok, I’ll bite. Now I may be wrong, and please go ahead and prove me so if you have the data, but is it not true that although Toronto is an exceptionally safe city statistically, there is a glaring issue with the public/downtown nature of gun violence compared to big, bad US cities that supposedly are much more dangerous?

    i.e. if you look at a map of homicides in Toronto, you will note a considerable number happening in the downtown areas. There are little diamonds (firearm homicides) on this map of 2006-2012 all over what would be considered the tourist and entertainment parts of our city core:


    Now, if you look at a map of homicides in Chicago, there was only one inside the Loop in 2011 and 2012. One. And yet Chicago has a murder rate TEN TIMES as high as Toronto. People pretty much get shot up in Chicago everywhere except downtown:


    Midtown Manhattan is similar — a city core much larger than downtown Toronto, with only three homicides in the last two years combined, and I’m not even sure if those were firearms.

    As for Boston, not one homicide in the tourist-friendly downtown since 2008:

    So I’m wondering:

    a) is this hypothesis true? Does Toronto really have an actual, statistical outcome showing a high percentage of murders that happen in public places that are as John puts it, emblematic of our urbanism?

    b) why? Do we lack ghettos to contain violence? Is it a symbol of the 24/7 livability of our downtown that criminals hang out at the Eaton Center too, in a way that they would not be at Rockefeller Center or on the Magnificent Mile?

    I think the above is what feeds the media frenzy when shootings happen in Toronto. Yes, the stats show that Toronto has a low murder rate, but how come I never hear of anyone getting shot at on 42nd St or State Street?

    This is what I think needs to be figured out if you really want to address whether people are fear-mongering or raising a legitimate point about public displays of gun violence.

  9. @iSkyscraper

    I think the reason why there’s a perceived “glaring issue” is much more to do with people being offended by the thought that someone would invade their space with something that is understood to be not a “downtown” issue.

    Why we see guns is specifically because our rate of violent crime is so low; every time a murder happens in the downtown its newsworthy.

    gunpolicy.org is a great site for comparing violent crime and gun crime with gun ownership between countries. Canada is ranked 13th in per capita gun ownership at ~24 guns per 100 civilians, with 5.42 of those people owning them. The rate (per 100k people) of (gun) homicides in Canada is low and getting lower, and 1/6th that of the US… just go to the site and play with it a little- very well designed tool for comparing stats. The general feel is that there are a lot of guns and Canada, and we’re comparatively pretty friendly with them.

    Banning bullets is a silly thing since they can be ordered online, not to mention I’m sure that most street ammo are ‘reloads’ and purchased privately… on the street. They are criminals, after all; do you suppose not being able to buy bullets at Crappy Tire is going to slow them down? Banning handguns… are we really discussing this? Every time something tragic happens to a white person we have to go changing laws. Why can’t we accept that its not just poor black kids that get accidentally killed by stray bullets?

    I’m only against the idea because its stupid, not because I have any real fondness for handguns.

  10. Adam, you are making general comments whereas I made specific, factual arguments. It’s not that people are “offended”, it’s that gun crime is actually statistically happening in high-profile tourist and business areas where it does not happen in other, supposedly more dangerous cities. See yesterday’s targeted shooting on College St for another example.

  11. Hi I’d like to address your first question.

    Is there a meaningful solution to the problem? I believe this common question and misunderstanding of humanity is part of the problem.
    There is an apparently a not so obvious solution: ban the creation of handguns worldwide – the price will shoot through the roof and make it increasingly hard for inidividuals to acquire, guns, period. The price of a gun on the street is relatively high and ”criminals” have an obvious motivation to acquire them, if the price doubles or triple will they still pay? I believe so. However, Americans are hell bent on gun creation and violence and Cananda is well, America’s little bitch – Stephen Harper is in bed with the powers that be, for better or worse, as much to my dismay, this is better for our country.

         There is no cure to man’s desires for worldly things; sex, respect, money, power, and mankind’s pursuit of these things are endless. The fact that egos will always be large enough for people to murder eachother is not unique to Toronto, it is a human trait. American exports include gun culture, entertainment and not much else, much of which has an influence on us and we’re more American than we think. However, it appears most murders are done by cultural groups not born in Toronto, thats a fact, we have wide immigration policy and theres a big cultural difference between kids raised in Canada and elsewhere – I believe many of the murders have to do with pride, jealously and drugs.

         You want to stop some violence and crime? Legalise illegal drugs and provide safe using areas and supply to users; as long as drugs are illegal there will be a black market, and large profit for dealers, meaning there will always be a criminal culture of money, violence and crime. Drug addicts have a health problem, they’re not necessarily criminals, but criminalizing them in our society leads them to the outskirts of society and a variety of theft is committed daily to support addicts.Hell, even oxycontin and many painkillers are ”legal” forms of heroin, they are derived from the poppyseed and processed in to ”safe” forms of pharmeceuticals, destined for addicted patients to receive their drug from a doctor, how convenient. 

         Our society thrives on violence, drugs and suffering. I’ve provided solutions, unfortunately none of which will see the light of day in our lifetime until we face seriously social change – not that Barak Obama style of false change and faceless lies we endure.

  12. @ Anonymous: Please stop blasting Obama and blaming him for whatever progressive policies did not succeed in society at large; the man is not your dump or receptacle for that. He was elected to carry out a centrist agenda, and that’s what he’s carrying out domestically and internationally. If what you want isn’t happening, maybe you need to rethink how you and other ‘progressives’  accomplish goals.

    Because it bears repeating, especially in this election year;

    There is a rising chorus of impatient progressive bloggers, some on these pages, calling Obama a failure and a do-nothing president only nine months into his first of four years as president. SNL’s “do-nothing skit” on Obama may well have empowered some on our side to start playing on the fringes of the Limbaugh sandbox. While the charges and name-calling are not as vicious as the Limbaugh Lemmings, it has started nonetheless.
    So what has our newly-minted asshole president been doing for nine months?
    Let’s start with what he has not done. He has not found a cure for cancer, reversed climate change, ended poverty, brought peace to the Middle East, ended all wars, created enough new jobs, or created a single-payer healthcare system. These are big ticket items that no president will ever accomplish, so it is a little disingenuous to suggest a standard for Obama that does not apply to all past presidents or to future presidents. As Princeton economics professor Alan Blinder says in assessing what Obama has accomplished so far, “If he seems to have achieved little, it’s partly because he set out to do too much.” To which I would add, and we created an unrealistic agenda for what we wanted him to accomplish.
    Let’s continue with what he has done. First and foremost, none other than the Wall Street Journal, in an assessment titled, “Democrats Quiet Changes Pile Up”, says he has accomplished more in nine months than George Bush did in his first nine months.
    Let’s be specific:

    1. Significantly, he buried the Imperial Presidency of George Bush and restored the Constitutional balance of government by respecting the equal standing of the legislative branch of government. As a former constitutional law professor, this is a major matter of change of tone and style that he promised during the campaign, and he has delivered. (Not pretty or necessarily effective given the Reid-less leadership in the Senate, but we are a constitutional democracy.)

    2. Passed and signed the stimulus package, the biggest piece of legislation–ever–in blinding speed, thus being able to start to stabilize the economy, with GDP now projected to grow at the rate of 3 percent by the end of the year. Check the comeback of your 401K since Obama has taken over.

    3. Stabilized the top 20 banks without federalizing them.

    4. Reduced the rate of foreclosures inherited from the Bush administration.

    5. Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that makes it easier to sue for wage discrimination, a dramatic reversal of the bill’s fortunes under Bush.

    6. Granted regulatory power to the FDA to control tobacco products, another dramatic reversal of the Bush years that industry has lobbied hard to prevent.

    7. Signed the Matthew Shepard Hate Act that expanded federal hate crime protection to categories of sexual orientation and gender, to the major consternation of the Religious Right.

    8. Killed the F-22 fighter jet program, a popular program with Congress, saving billions of dollars.

    9. With a stroke of a pen, enacted, by executive order, (see correction below in comments, it was a bill signing) the largest conservation measure in 15 years, spanning the Bush and Clinton records.

    10. Implement an electronic medical record system before any healthcare legislation was introduced. This new technology will be singularly responsible for saving lives and reducing the high administrative costs of
    healthcare, a key element of reform.

    11. Extended a $2500 tax credit to 5 million families to help with college

    12. Cooperated with Japan in bringing a $5 billion stabilization package for Pakistan.

    13. Engaged the Muslim world in a dialogue, beginning with his unprecedented speech in Cairo, followed by an interview with Al Arabiya, and face-to-face discussions with Iran, a total reversal of the Bush years of Muslim baiting and hate.

    14. Dramatically reversed the reputation of the United States around the world, with now most nations looking favorably on the US, and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize as one consequence.

    15. Agreed to plan for bringing the troops home from Iraq, at a slower pace than what he promised, but based on knowledge that commanders-in-chief, not candidates, have.

    16. Brought the White House online, doing for the White House what he had done for political campaigning. There are now online Q&A’s with the administration, and a White House blog.

    17. Released the names of all visitors to the White House, a total reversal of the secret Bush years.

    18. Told Mexico that the US is responsible for some of their drug problems, a no small, but truthful admission.

    19. Restored the rights of states to regulate the medical use of marijuana without fear of federal law enforcement intrusion.

    20. Banned the use of torture, and he has begun a complete review of the torture policies under Bush.

    21. Appointed the first Latina to the Supremes: Imagine what would have happened to the Supreme Court under four more years of radical Republicans. Obama has thus averted a long-term dramatic swing to the extreme right on the court, and appointed a progressive to keep matters in check.

    In summary, and to those on these pages and elsewhere who see things differently, I say this feels a little like Waiting for Godot. Let’s recall one thing that Samuel Beckett said in the mischievous play: 

    “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased.”

  13. Simon,

         First of all, what does your this have to do with the gun/crime/violence problem in Toronto? This leads me to my second point: you’re mad, and what is a centrist agenda? Do you mean he’s towing the line for the central bank in American which is the fed?

        I’m not a ”progressive,” whatever that is, and based on such a claim I’m assuming you yourself are divided and conquered by the two party political system. Dem. Vs. Repub. / Coke vs. Pepsi, which one tastes better to you? The ingredients are the same – cheap constituents that are bad for your health. As long as the masses consume one or the other, the game goes on.

        I assume you’re referring to those that are unsatisfied with Obama’s work, whatever that was supposed to be, ie. ”YES WE CAN!”   (Yes We Can)…”Steal the taxpayers money while you do nothing!!!

         Many are unsatisfied as a president’s term unfolds, the same people probably voted him in to office  – why not point the finger back at him? Is this surprising given that the same people who’d rather subjugate the responsibility of governing society to a chosen delegate would be unsatisfied after buying in to vague motivational speeches and hypnotizing promises? What were they expecting after all?They didn’t know what to expect, that’s the point – it was false hope.

         Personally I think Obama has been groomed for his role to ensure the bank bailouts occurred. JFK’s demise ensured future presidents wouldn’t screw around with the fed’s ability to print fiat money. Anything else you mentioned is water under the bridge, so as to why you did a google search for ”Obama’s accomplishments” and copy and pasted the results, was, um, cute?

        Also, hiding behind the words of others doesn’t give you credibility and doesn’t help anyone understand your post. Your first paragraph was like something my old lady would cook, a bit of this, a bit of that, put some words here, SNL skit there, Rush limbaugh and Godot (lol, who?) reference over there, put words in the mouth of the progressive bloggers there (who are they?). Lord of the rings, Samuel adams and kazaam!: YOUR POINT!!

    Wait, what was your point?

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