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Change My Mind: Can Government Solve Toronto's Gun Violence Problem?

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Barely a day goes by in Toronto, or any other large city, without some reminder of the pain and damage caused by gun violence. While most agree it's a serious issue, the best way to address it remains a topic of considerable debate.

Do we need more police? Better grass-roots community programs? Stricter gun control laws?

Is our government doing enough to protect us? Or is government the wrong place to look for a solution to what is at heart a social problem with deep roots in changes in family structure and dependence?

In this latest installment of our popular series "Change My Mind," Huffpost asked two panelists from today's Direct Engagement Show "Putting the gunz down" town hall to debate the statement: Government can solve Toronto's gun violence problem.

Arguing for the "agree" side is Cheri DiNovo, the Member of Provincial Parliament of Parkdale - High Park. She is also a former United Church Minister and currently the Chief Whip of the Ontario NDP.

Arguing for the "disagree" side is Solomon Friedman, a criminal defence lawyer who specializes in firearms law. He has testified before Parliament about gun control measures and writes frequently on the topic.


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Government can solve Toronto's gun violence problem

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Who makes the better argument?

Cheri DiNovo MPP of Parkdale – High Park, Chief Whip of the Ontario NDP, Critic to Community and Social Services as well as Women’s Issues

The issue of gun violence, or murder rates overall, is tied to income inequality in North America. As inequality grows, so does death from violence.

Obviously we must hold individuals responsible for their actions but the question looms: When will we hold governments responsible for their inaction?

Ontario, for example, saw the highest jump in inequality between 1980-2010 of any Canadian province, and we have the worst record of investment per capita in housing and in social programming. By 2010 the poorest 10% saw their incomes fall by 30%. The wealthy neighbourhoods may not have noticed much difference because 90% of the gun violence happens in the poorest areas of our cities -- a proven statistic since the year 2000. Those same poorest neighbourhoods have increasingly turned to guns over the same period.


Let me tell you the story of "Jack" -- it's a fictitious name but a true story from my days as a United Church Minister in a congregation that included many of those who suffered from mental health issues, addictions and poverty.

Jack grew up in one of our poorer areas to a single mother who suffered from a disability. He lived with his brothers and sister on his mother's extremely meager ODSP check. Most of the kids in Jack's school did recreational drugs, as did most of the kids in wealthier areas. The difference was that the wealthy kids could afford them.

Jack remembers working at fast food restaurants while helping his mother, babysitting and trying to focus on homework. "All I did was smoke a little weed and deal a little weed to pay for it" Jack said. He remembered being exhausted all the time and increasingly (as his mother's schizophrenia progressed) unable to concentrate. He felt -- as the eldest -- responsible for everything and doesn't remember anyone to turn to for help. His marks suffered and the prospects of university dimmed. Then he got busted.

Jack couldn't make bail and ended up with a record as well. "I always thought I might want to be a lawyer," said Jack "But that blew it!" Instead his friends, many with similar stories, found that drug dealing was the only way they could provide for their families without using food banks. "We were all pretty unemployable" Jack commented. He was young, African Canadian, had no high school diploma but did have a prison stint on his record. "Even if I did work full time at the jobs that would hire me -- my salary barely made our rent and food. I'd never get ahead, never go back to school."

Problem was, of course, that his drug dealing -- at first weed only -- soon became dealing methadrine because that's what folk wanted. Methadrine meant hanging with people with guns. Jack got a gun. "Never even loaded it -- just wanted to look tough."

Apparently he looked too tough one fateful day and another dealer shot him in the leg.

When I met him about ten years after those events, Jack had been in and out of psychiatric care and jail, but proudly told me he was completely sober and off drugs and dealing for good. He was also poor enough to have to come to our Church for dinner and to live in a shelter.

Of course, there will be those who say Jack deserved everything he got -- that others with horrible childhoods grow up to be successful and never commit crimes. I'm sure that is true. But it is also truly rare. Many more become the statistics that the World Bank pointed to when it showed Canada with its far greater inequality with 2.8 murders per 1,000, whereas Norway and the Netherlands with far greater equality have .92 and .94 murders per 1,000, respectively. Needless to say the U.S. provides the starkest example of the phenomenon, with Chicago leading in gun violence and leading in income inequality. Prof. Ichiro Kawachi and his co-authors' groundbreaking study showed that income inequality alone explained 74% of the variation in murder rates.

Had Jack come from a more affluent family, he would have had the benefit of better lawyers, the money to pay for college (even with his grades), tutors, rehabs and like. He said, "The rich kids that bought from me didn't have to deal -- they just partied, grew up and went back to their lives. I had to bring home money." If the jobs he could get paid a living wage and his family had access to affordable housing that might have changed everything. In Sweden McDonald's is unionized and though it pays at the lowest rate, it still pays enough for its employees to get by. Then again, in most of the Scandinavian countries, post secondary education is free. They wince at our system where the rich get a degree while only the most brilliant of the poor gain access.

Governments create the conditions that lead to income inequality and poverty. Inequality and poverty lead to violence (it's proven). If punishment were the best recourse governments had, the U.S. would be the safest place to live. It's not. Neither is Ontario. It's time we start taking the responsibility we so happily preach about to our children and move toward a society where Jack, and those like him, have a place.

Solomon Friedman Criminal Defence Lawyer

With every highly publicized incident of gun violence, a fresh cycle of soul searching and introspection inevitably begins. Pundits and politicians race to the podiums, cameras and editorial pages.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the causes of crime, that is, the factors which underlie the commission of these terrible offences, the usual refrain reappears: "More gun control!"

These efforts usually take the form of two distinct, but related, initiatives.

The first is prohibition. There are sometimes calls for complete prohibitions on firearm ownership. Sometimes, certain classes of firearms are singled out for prohibition. This week, it might be semi-automatic rifles. Last week, it was handguns. Next week, it will probably be magazines that hold more than a certain number of rounds. And so on.

The second is increased regulation of gun owners. Politicians promise to make gun ownership even more difficult, and even more expensive. New transportation and safe storage laws are passed. It is no longer sufficient for handguns to be trigger-locked when stored in the home. They must be trigger-locked and stored in a safe. When taking your gun to the shooting range, it has to be completely disassembled, instead of merely locked up.

These types of laws are easy to pass. They don't require any new government spending. And, since gun owners are a small minority (roughly 2 million Canadians, at last count), they are rarely in a position to block the passage of these measures.

In the wake of a tragedy, like Toronto's recent Eaton Centre shooting, for example, the public wants to feel like their politicians are doing something to prevent these terrible events from happening again. Gun control is usually that "something."

In this regard, gun control is the last refuge of the lazy legislator. It is a public policy pacifier - it addresses the imminent need for government to act , or to appear to be acting, in the public interest.

However, these types of gun control proposals all have one thing in common. And that common denominator, by its very essence, dooms them all to failure.

Gun control targets those who are, by definition, already law abiding. That is, the only people who will respect and abide by new gun control measures are people who are law abiding in the first place.

Let's consider prohibition first. Prohibition has been tried before, in many different areas of the criminal law. Government has long tried to legislate out of existence certain substances, practices and behaviours.

Drugs are prohibited. Prostitution is prohibited. For a time in this country, alcohol was prohibited.

As a criminal lawyer, practicing in our provincial courts on a daily basis, I can state with certainty that prohibition is a miserable failure. It is simple free market economics: When people want something badly enough, there will be suppliers. This is true with drugs and it is equally true with guns.

Take cocaine and heroin for example. Since the early 20th century, these drugs have been absolutely prohibited. Unlike firearms, which can be obtained by law-abiding individuals, following a rigorous background check, there is essentially no legal method for obtaining hard drugs. And yet they continue to flood our streets. Why would guns be any different?

The same holds true with regards to increased regulation of gun owners and gun ownership. There is no link between these types of measures and any significant public safety outcome. By simply saddling the already-compliant with more restrictions, government does nothing to address the core causes of crime and violence in our society.

That is not to say, however, that government has no role in addressing the problem of gun violence.

First, stop focusing on the "gun" at the expense of the "violence." The real concern, particularly with regards to urban shootings, is not the use of the firearm per se, but the fact that young people are drawn to gangs and the casual use of violence that goes along with membership in a criminal organization.

Second, look at the broader picture. Violent crime is a function of numerous complex social factors. Be it poverty, inequality, social disaffection, mental illness or addiction, there are reasons why people turn to violence and sometimes, homicide, to solve their disputes.

Yes, these problems are difficult. Yes, they are expensive. And yes, we may ultimately fail to successfully tackle all of these complicated issues.

But legislators owe it to their constituents to do more than engage in symbolic gestures which do not address the fundamental causes of crime and violence in our society.

Gun control is not crime control. It is crime control theatre. And when politicians engage in theatre, eventually the curtain will come down, and we will have to leave the performance and walk out onto the street outside, still facing the same problems of crime and violence that we did before.

When it comes to violent crime, Canadians deserve more than theater.



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