I defend people charged with illegally possessing handguns. Many of them. There is at least one new such case every month; sometimes, there are two or three.
If this crime is like any other, however, the number of people being caught illegally possessing handguns represents only a small fraction of those committing the offence.
Where are all these handguns coming from?
Some are smuggled in from the United States, but almost all of the others come from the expansive caches of legal possessors here in Canada.
Last month, a parent of a young man killed by a handgun called for a complete ban on the private ownership of these deadly weapons. In dismissing his poignant call, Toronto Police Chief William Blair said such a ban would be merely symbolic because police figures show only 30 per cent of the illegally possessed handguns seized in Toronto originated from legitimate Canadian owners.
With respect, the chief's numbers seem incomplete.
Lumped in among the many different charges that can arise out of an allegation of illegally possessing a handgun is very often a charge of possessing one with the serial number defaced. Handgun manufacturers are required to put serial numbers on their products so a record can be kept of who subsequently possesses them. This is how the police trace them back to legitimate owners when they are recovered from illegal possessors. What of the many that have had their serial numbers removed?
Legitimately possessed handguns fall into the hands of illegal possessors in a number of ways. Most are taken in burglaries of the homes of legal possessors. Surely, though, it would be naive not to believe that some possessors have given in to a temptation to illegally sell their guns at grossly inflated prices. Who would have a greater reason to obscure the serial number on a handgun than such a seller?
What if Chief Blair's figure of 30 per cent is correct, however? That's still certainly an incredible number of handguns. And how would reducing the supply of whatever the number of handguns on the streets by almost one-third be merely symbolic? A third less guns will, logically, cause a third less shooting deaths in Toronto each year. That's 10 out of an average of 30 lives lost this way each year saved. Even if increased gun smuggling from the United States made up for half of the drop in shooting murders, that's still a tremendous drop in the murder rate.
Only a tiny percentage of people who are allowed to own handguns are permitted to have them to carry them loaded and on their persons -- presumably for reasons of self-defence -- as opposed to under lock and key. The vast majority, therefore, only possess handguns for target practice. Five deaths a year is a terrible price to pay for a few legitimate gun owners to shoot at bull's-eyes. Furthermore, how can we abide asking police officers to risk their lives recovering deadly handguns that were possessed only for someone's sporting pleasure? Collectors could still have handguns for their historical value if they were first rendered permanently inoperable.
But what if a handgun ban would be only a symbolic gesture? History is replete with examples of symbolic bans powering great social change. When cancer is finally beaten in this country, won't the effort that beat it owe more than anything else to a symbol of a one-legged man running across the country?
As a criminal lawyer, I have always been stunned by the way one young black man can gun down another young black man as if he was worthless. To be frank and honest, that's what we are talking about when we speak of handgun murders in this city: one young black man shooting another (although, like this past terrible week, others are sometimes tragically caught in the crossfire).
From working with many of these young men, I wonder if this could happen unless so many have come to believe society as a whole thinks of them as worthless. The symbolism of coming together to say we will do everything possible to eliminate the means by which any of our young people are destroying each other would send a powerful message that we do think these young men have great worth.
We really don't have to live with handgun violence. It does not have to be part of life in the big city. We can evolve past it. The fewer the number of handgun deaths, the more each one will shock us like only the particularly horrific events of the past week do now, spurring us to even greater action.