Why gun violence is still high in Toronto, even amid the pandemic lockdown

Why gun violence is still high in Toronto, even amid the pandemic lockdown
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Fifteen-year-old Jeremiah Ranger had just been shot dead, the third high-school-aged boy killed by gun violence this year. Within two days, yet another young man would be gunned down , Toronto’s 15th gun death in 2020.

As a group of bereaved mothers and community advocates working to end gun violence gathered for a virtual meeting last week, the urgency of their objective was apparent — and for some, too close to home.

“When stuff like this happens my immediate thought — especially when it’s the younger ones that are 15 and 16 — goes to the mothers,” said Evelyn Fox, the mother of 26-year-old Kiesingar Gunn, who was killed in 2016 by what police believe was a stray bullet.

“When there’s shootings that are like my son’s, it just brings you right back in the moment.”

In recent years, politicians at all levels of government have announced plans and funding to combat growing gun violence within the Greater Toronto Area, although some efforts have not proven successful . But this year, as money and attention have been diverted to the fight against COVID-19, violence-prevention experts, youth workers and advocates worry the issue has fallen off the radar.

“The attention that this would usually get — it’s not happening,” Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, said in response to a question from the Star during the meeting, in which people took turns speaking by video over a Zoom chat.

The concern is especially acute as the city approaches the summer months, when gun violence has typically increased. And because the shootings are still happening throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, even as other types of major crime have dropped.

As of May 1, shootings are up 18 per cent compared to last year, and 15 people have been fatally shot, the highest year-to-date number since 2016 and up from 14 by the same date in 2019.

And although the federal government moved last week to ban military-grade assault-style weapons, critics including Ontario Premier Doug Ford say . Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada confirms the first allotment of the $250-million to fight gun crime promised during the 2019 election has not yet been distributed.

“I’m not sure how many lives we have to lose to make a change to gun violence,” Sureya Ibrahim, co-founder of Mothers for Peace and a community leader in Regent Park, said during the meeting.

“Young people are dying.”

Why are shootings still happening during the pandemic?

Criminologists say the impact of COVID-19 on crime trends will not be fully apparent until longer-term data are available. But preliminary Toronto statistics show that while some crime categories have dropped amid the pandemic — including some robberies, assaults and auto theft — shootings have not.

More than 60 people have been shot in the city this year, , and police have recorded more the 135 incidents of a gun being fired. This is up compared to last year and is about in line with the averages over the last five years.

March, when social-distancing efforts began, saw most shootings in a month this year; incidents of gun violence dropped slightly in April.

“These are very unusual times and it wouldn’t be surprising if, because of the pandemic, there might be significant changes to crime patterns,” said University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, adding that crime fluctuates for a variety of reasons.

One major factor impacting gun violence may be changes to the “illegal economy” amid COVID-19. With violence often linked to the illegal drug and firearms trade, Wortley said the closure of Canada’s border with the United States may have heightened the stakes.

“Has it shrunk the illegal economy and, therefore, is there more competition for the limited resources? And in this case, are there more ruthless participants in that economy?” he asked.

Roderick Brereton, a community advocate and youth worker, said the answer to both is an adamant yes.

For the crime-involved youth he works with from Brampton to Oshawa, a decrease in the availability of drugs means there’s little access to money — and debts are being collected.

“It’s very, very precarious at this point in time in the streets,” Brereton said.

Despite the closure of the U.S. border to all non-essential travel, criminals are still attempting to smuggle guns. According to data provided to the Star by the Canadian Border Services Agency, the total number of firearms seized in February, March and April of this year dropped from the same months last year — to 99 from 129 — but border agents nonetheless still confiscated 23 guns in March and 18 in April.

Toronto police chief Mark Saunders said it is too early to tell how the closure of the U.S. border has impacted the flow of guns into the city. Last year, Toronto police traced 80 per cent of handguns used in crimes back to the U.S., he said in a written response to the Star’s questions.
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