As we head into another weekend – just the second of the summer – Toronto will brace itself for both large-scale Canada Day celebrations and potential headlines informing residents that the city has lost another life to gun violence.
Sadly, such headlines have become a regular occurrence as of late, especially since the warmer weather started to roll in.
After five people were murdered in Toronto just last weekend – four by gun and another the victim of a physical altercation – alarm bells are now impossible to ignore in a city historically known as safe and welcoming. Gun violence has left virtually no corner of Toronto untouched this year, from North York, to Yorkville and the Financial District – several neighbourhoods have seen their share.
Violence in downtown Toronto has been heightened since the start of the year when January kicked off 2018 with bloodshed. Toronto’s total homicide count is now 48 people (as of June 28), a figure that’s increased an impossible-to-ignore 104% from last year, when the city had a total of 23 homicides by July 1.
Fatal shootings alone are up 38% from this time last year.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that a handful of the shootings appear to be completely random – perhaps a case of a gang initiation, as Det. David Dickinson said in a news conference on June 24 for drive-by shooting victim, 31-year-old Jenas Nyarko.
“It would appear this is a case of individuals coming from one neighbourhood into another and shooting the first person they see,” said Det. Dickinson.
Aside from random shootings, the possibility of innocent bystanders getting hit by stray bullets, especially after two little girls were shot in a playground earlier this month, is now a legitimate concern.
While increases in shootings are typical in the summer months (data dating back to 2005 shows a consistent spike in homicides in the month of July), with murder largely a crime of opportunity, the current situation has many questioning if we are in for a repeat of 2005’s “Summer of the Gun” in Toronto.
During that year the city saw an all-time high of 52 gun related homicides throughout the year, many of which occurred in the summer. Right now, we are at three more shootings than we were at this point in 2015. Should we still feel safe at a time of heightened gun violence? Are we dealing with a crisis?
It’s important to look at long-term trends in crime before drawing conclusions that the current state is – or isn’t – catastrophic. The numbers need to be put into context, especially at a time when fear is brewing in a city left shaken by not only perpetual gunshots, but the Bruce McArthur serial killer case, and rampant criticism of the police force’s competence.
While the murder count is inarguably disturbing and definitely worthy of concern, it is important to keep in mind that there are different ways of considering the homicide statistics. For example, April’s horrific Yonge Street van attack marked a mass causality (an extreme rarity in Toronto’s history), adding ten names to the list of the city’s 2018 murder victims. While Toronto homicide numbers soared to 86 in 2007 – just two years after the hysteria-filled Summer of the Gun – in the past decade, they fluctuated in the 50s and 60s before climbing to 74 in 2016. In 2017, however, this figure was down to 66.
Of course, we aren’t necessarily talking about homicides in general – we’re talking about guns specifically. Their prevalence, the ease at which they can kill – even at random – and the potential of getting caught in the crossfire now has the city on high alert and has left its residents questioning everyday decisions.
Police Chief Mark Saunders has encouraged Torontonians not to be alarmed by the spike in shootings, stating that the city’s gun violence comes in peaks and valleys – something that is actually clearly visible when looking at fluctuations in the Toronto crime stats. Of course, we saw a spike in 2005 – 52 gun-related murders out of 80 murders in total – but that spike didn’t continue throughout the years. In 2006, gun-related murder figures had dropped nearly in half, down to 29. While this number shot back up to 44 in 2007, between 2008 and 2012, Toronto experienced an average total of 33.6 shooting deaths, with numbers fluctuating mildly.
We have, however, seen a notable increase in shooting deaths between 2013 – when a low 22 people died as a result of shootings – and 2017, when 39 people died from gunshot wounds. On the (slightly) positive, this figure, however, was down from 41 in 2016.
The point is that, while the current state of the city is alarming, it does not mean that it is beginning to enter an inevitable spiral into chaos. The figures could easily drop next year.
It’s worth pointing out that a 2017 ranking of 60 cities by The Economist named Toronto as the fourth safest major city in the world and the safest major city in North America, taking into account digital security, health security, infrastructure security, and personal security. As the report discusses, size matters when it comes to security. It also matters when it comes to the stats. Compared to other Canadian cities, while Toronto has high homicide numbers, we also have the highest population in a city that keeps increasing in core density – something that must be taken into account.
While gun issues seem to centre on our friends south of the border, we certainly aren’t immune to gun violence – or gruesome violence of any nature, for that matter.
We do have a problem in Toronto. Is it a crisis that should send the city into a frenzy and cause its citizens to opt against things like music and food festivals or walking home on a summer night instead of calling an Uber? No. Right now, it shouldn’t be considered naïve to still feel safe this summer in Toronto – a time when the city shines its brightest.
The good news is that we are addressing the gun violence and taking action in everything from the recent police raids to the growth of safety conversations involving everyone from politicians and journalists to the concerned public. Naturally, the gun debate remains as hot a topic as any as we head into a sizzling summer weekend.
And, as always, let’s hope for a weekend free of gun-related headlines.