With Toronto’s gun-related murders already at 31 this year, the city’s smoke and mirrors approach to combating gangs and guns — including a handgun ban — won’t stop the bullets and bloodshed, law enforcement sources say.
And until civic leaders start having honest conversations about the roots of gun violence and how to deal with it, little is likely to change.
Like other major North American cities, Toronto is struggling to cope with a deadly mix of gangs, guns, crime and poverty, made terrifyingly real by recent gangland shootouts and the tragic mass shooting on the Danforth.
How are we responding?
Toronto Mayor John Tory and Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders have suggested the city has enough cops, even though there are nearly 800 fewer on the job than in 2010.
They’ve also pledged to hire 200 new officers this year and another 200 next year, but fail to mention as many or more cops will be lost through attrition by the time the new hires hit the street.
Now, the city is pushing for a ban on handguns and the sale of handgun ammunition in Toronto — both of which, sources say, are only sold in a few shops in the city.
And council also recently passed a series of motions asking senior government to implement tougher minimum sentences for gun traffickers, tougher mental health screening for those seeking gun permits and permission to kick thugs and criminals out of public housing.
Those latter measures may make a difference, a gun ban seems unlikely to do so.
“A handgun ban is ridiculous and doesn’t address the actual problem of criminals shooting up the city,” retired Staff-Insp. Mike Earl — who headed up the Toronto Police Holdup Squad until last year — told the Sun recently. “If those people aren’t obeying the laws that are already in place, why would they obey a ban?”
“Tory is looking for an easy answer, but there is no easy answer,” he added.
Throughout the debate, gun ban proponents — including the mayor and the chief — have claimed some 50% of the guns taken off the streets by cops were legally purchased in Canada.
It’s become gospel through repetition.
In reality, data supplied by Toronto Police to the Sun shows the 50% figure only refers to firearms deemed “crime guns” that are traceable.
In fact, only about 20% of the crime guns seized last year were domestically sourced and less than 9% of all the firearms seized in 2017 were sourced to Canada.
The misleading 50% figure is based on the total number of traceable “crime guns” seized by cops between 2014 and 2017, which on average accounted for 31% of all firearms seized.
“Of these crime guns, investigators are able to determine the source of about half (46%),” police spokesman Meaghan Gray said, explaining many firearms, such as air guns or starter pistols and guns with no serial numbers, can’t be traced.
“When the source of a crime gun can be determined, there is a roughly 50-50 split between guns sourced from the United States and guns sourced in Canada,” she said.
Police data for 2017 shows 1,740 firearms were seized but doesn’t specify how many were long guns and how many were actually handguns. Of those seized firearms, 726 were deemed crime guns (about 42%) and less than half of those (45%) were able to be traced.
Of the 328 crime guns seized, 180 were traced to the U.S. (55%) and 148 were from Canada (45%).
“It would be nice to know how many seized restricted or prohibited handguns that have been deemed ‘crime guns’ were actually sourced to Toronto, either through thefts or purchased by straw buyers,” Earl said. “City council hasn’t answered enough questions or provided enough evidence to support a handgun ban.”
Domestically sourced crime guns are typically either stolen from licensed owners or gun shops, or purchased legally by straw buyers — people with clean records who obtain a PAL or an RPAL (Possession and Acquisition Licence or Restricted Possession and Acquisition Licence, which is needed for handguns) to buy guns for someone else or sell the legally purchased firearms on the street for a tidy profit.
An example of the latter unfolded in 2014 when Toronto cops found a handgun tucked under a child’s car seat during a vehicle search and a month later discovered a second handgun in a suspect’s backpack.
Graham Jovanovic, a former licensed gun owner now serving eight years in prison for gun trafficking, later admitted in court he sold 10 handguns on the street — one he already owned and nine he purchased from gun shops three at a time — to feed his drug habit.
Licensed firearms owners complain a handgun ban unfairly targets those who obey the law instead of those who don’t.
“Gun owners and collectors are soft, easy targets,” said Ron Kurelo, an author and Canadian Armed Forces veteran who legally owns firearms.
Another gun collector, who supplies armaments to the film industry and the military for foreign weapons training and asked not to be named for security reasons, said those who support a handgun ban are “ignorant of the facts.”
“Handguns are already illegal, unless you have an RPAL,” he said, adding a ban will do “absolutely nothing” to stop the gang bangers from obtaining guns and ammunition and opening fire with reckless abandon in public places.
Several gun owners and cop sources said most of the ideas put forward so far by the city, province and police service are medium to long-term fixes.
In order to have an immediate impact on gun violence, they said police need more boots on the ground in at-risk neighbourhoods and a return to community engagement.
“Nobody wants to talk about proactive policing, but it’s already proven to be effective,” said one frontline cop, who asked not to be named to avoid damaging his career. “Right now, we’re more like firefighters, responding to calls as they come in instead of preventing crime.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose government recently pledged an additional $25 million to fight guns and gangs in Toronto, has said he won’t support bans on handguns or ammunition sales in the city.
“We have to refocus all our resources on going after the bad guys – not the good guys but the bad guys,” he told reporters at a recent news conference.
The mayor’s director of communications said Tory “remains determined to do everything possible to stop gun violence in Toronto.”
“The mayor firmly believes that we need a wide variety of the strongest methods possible to deal with gun violence, including a ban on the sale of handguns and urging the federal government to tighten the current rules to fight gun trafficking,” Don Peat said, pointing out Tory led council in approving a more than $30 million plan to invest in anti-violence and anti-gang initiatives.
“There is a growing recognition that we all need to take steps to dramatically reduce the supply of guns in our society,” he added.