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Getting to the real root of gun violence

Politicians, police officers and Crown prosecutors have not been serious about fighting guns and gangs — at least according to Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

 "It's time to get serious about fighting guns and gangs," said Ford earlier this month, as if this was an issue of trifling importance prior to the election of the Progressive Conservatives.

How is Ford getting serious about guns? Part of his answer is to spend $7.6 million to create a “legal SWAT team” in each Toronto courthouse. Apparently, if there is a problem with guns, it only exists in Toronto.

Each of Ford’s SWAT teams will be led by a Crown attorney and will be mandated to focus exclusively on ensuring violent gun criminals are denied bail and remain behind bars.

If anyone needs to get serious about gun violence it is Doug Ford and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney because this new plan has no basis in reality and it won’t move the needle a centimetre toward making our communities safer.

Ford’s announcement throws some backhanded shade at Ontario’s prosecutors. He implied that prosecutors are part of “a system that lets far too many criminals convicted of gun crimes out on bail and back on the streets the very next day.”

Does Ford think prosecutors are pushovers when it comes to gun crimes? Does he hold Crown attorneys responsible for this year’s spike in gun crimes? I suppose it falls to a criminal defence lawyer to stand up for Ontario’s Crown attorneys because the fact is that they are skilled advocates who forcefully prosecute gun crimes and are hyper-aware of public safety. I can’t imagine what more prosecutors could do to get serious about guns.

There are already specialized Crowns who deal with gang and gun charges, and all prosecutors are already directed to take gun bails very seriously. But don’t take it from me — it is in black and white in Ontario’s Crown Prosecution Manual, which says: “In all cases involving firearms, the Prosecutor must seek a detention order, absent exceptional circumstances, to ensure the safety and security of the public. If exceptional circumstances exist, the Prosecutor must obtain prior approval of the Crown Attorney or designate before recommending or consenting to any form of judicial interim release.”

So, prosecutors almost always contest the release of anyone charged with a gun crime. Ontario’s prosecutors are hyper-vigilant when it comes to guns and, take it from me, they are very skilled in the courtroom. The fact is that it is difficult to secure a release for any serious firearms offence and when, over the Crown’s objection, bail is granted, the conditions of release are always restrictive.

And then there is a problem with the logical connection between bail for gun charges and reducing gun crimes. It is basically a settled proposition, if you care to actually look at the evidence, that severity of punishment doesn’t deter crime. So, Ford’s posturing about cracking down on bail won’t stop gun crime.

Is it Ford’s contention that the recent spate of shootings has been committed by people who were already on bail for a prior gun allegation? This would be cause for concern, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. And spending millions of dollars in the absence of any evidence is wasteful and counterproductive. Ford’s announcement was not about actually achieving results or making our streets safer — it is all about creating the mirage of action.

Spending money on programs designed for political damage control is not only ineffective,it comes with opportunity costs. As Ford has constantly reminded us, there is not an unlimited amount of money for the province to spend. Just think what Toronto could do with almost $8 million to actually increase community safety: addiction treatment, anti-poverty measures, affordable housing, mental health supports, job training and youth gang exit programs. Funding these types of programs may not be the thing of blustering-tough-guy press conferences, but it would actually produce results.

But, instead of investing in preventing crime and keeping our streets safe, Ford plans to cut many of these programs — programs that actually do reduce crime.

The reality is that police, prosecutors and politicians have been serious about reducing violent crime.

Sadly, it is Ford and Mulroney who are not serious about keeping our streets safe, and one only needs to scratch the surface to come to that conclusion. They seem to be more interested in optics than in reality and results. Their short-sighted approach to the very serious issue of gun violence will end up costing much more than $7.6 million.   

  • A cautionary note from BC

    Richard Berrow
    This is a good, sensible contribution to the current debate. One cautionary note -- in BC where I practice, we have a serious problem with gun violence perpetrated by drug gangs too. Here, the violence is, reportedly, mostly among the drug gangs themselves. They kill or injure relatively few innocent bystanders. That's one difference from what seems to be happening in Toronto. Another difference is that, in BC, nobody's maintaining that drug gang violence is rooted in racism or poverty. Here, it's quite clear that other factors (thrills, money) seem to be drawing young men, from intact, economically secure families, into the gang milieu. BC drug gangs appear to be quite diverse both racially/ethnically, and in terms of their members' economic strata. This is a commonplace observation, in BC, although I don't recall ever seeing it appear in Ontario-based media. I hope this fact from BC doesn't signify that the good people of Ontario might spend many millions of dollars on anti-racism and anti-poverty programs without reducing the incidence of gang violence in Toronto. They might just wind up with what a cynic would describe as a better class of drug gangster. I have to wonder why the Toronto drug gangs are so much more indiscriminately violent than the BC variety. It would be interesting to hear someone competent comment on why that is so. Perhaps the effect of racism and poverty in Toronto is to make the violence that much more cruel, indiscriminate, and chaotic. Any thoughts on this?