Bill Blair discusses safety, gun violence in Toronto town hall

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair says Toronto remains one of the safest cities in Canada despite the recent spate of gun violence. However, in a town hall in Toronto on Sunday, the former Toronto police chief stressed that action still needs to be taken. 

"Compared to other large urban centres across Canada, Toronto remains one of the most safest and more liveable cities anywhere, but that should never mean that we be complacent about violence that takes place," Blair said.

"An act of violence is a tragedy for our communities, particularly when it takes place in public space. It affects all of us. There is no greater responsibility for any government than the safety of its citizens."

Blair said in his role in the Trudeau government he will tackle looking at gun and gang violence, not just in Toronto, but in communities across the country.

He added that he would be examining the possibility of a handgun ban and changes in how certain types of assault rifles are regulated, all while respecting the lawful rights of responsible Canadian firearm owners.

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"We will be reaching out to Canadians coast to coast and asking for their perspectives and opinions but also seeking the opinions of people with expertise in this area," Blair added.

"The government is prepared to look at every responsible measure and base their determinations on the evidence available to us and the expert advice that we might receive."

Event borne out of Danforth tragedy

Sunday's event was held just minutes away from the mass shooting on the Danforth that took the lives of two people and injured several others in late July.

Toronto-Danforth MP Julie Dabrusin, who helped organize the town hall, said the event came out of the tragedy that happened on the streets nearby.

"People were wondering what can we do about violence in our community, gun violence in our community, and a lot of questions about all the complexities that go into it," she said. "Getting the experts today to help us to better understand was a first step to figuring out what we need to do." 

Chris Young/Canadian Press

Among the other speakers at the event were Dr. Scot Wortley, associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto and Louis March from the Zero Gun Violence Movement, and Dabrusin says the variety of speakers brought diverse perspectives on gun violence. 

Kelly Whetter of Communities for Zero Violence wore a shirt with the picture of her 22-year-old son who she says was murdered after a 10-second altercation in April of last year. She said she came to the event to hear what people had to say but said grassroots issues like poverty and jobs need to be worked on. 

"It's all young people killing each other. They don't really have a lot of places to go. They don't have any kind of hope and a lot of them are poor," she told CBC Toronto.

Dabrusin said there are many parts to the problem of gun violence and the solution isn't clear cut. 

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"There are a lot of complex pieces and no one piece is a full answer to this situation," she said. "But the important part is we look at all those angles and we take action."

She said she hopes that the town hall would leave people feeling more informed so action can be taken. 

"We've had a history of different gun incidents in this community. It's something we need to tackle and the time is now."

Police committed to reducing gun violence, chief says

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said at a separate event Sunday that the force will continue to do what's necessary to reduce gun violence in the city. He added that the police have made some changes lately and that he has seen some "fantastic results" so far.

"We've had some community members that have turned in their kids with guns," Chief Saunders said to the media. "It's a testament that the community is cooperating with us, working with us, and to me that's a success." 

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Saunders also said that all three levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal — are participating in helping to reduce gun violence. 

"If we're going to get it right, we have to work collectively, whether it's change in law, whether or not it's looking at the mechanisms at the front end to put supports in the various communities that need help," he said.

"I'm glad that all three layers of government have an understanding of that. All three layers of government are participating in that and funding that and resourcing that."

Efforts made

Premier Doug Ford committed $25 million in new funding in August in an effort to combat gun violence in Toronto. That money will in part be used to create what he called "legal SWAT teams" dedicated to stopping those charged with firearms offences from getting bail.

In July, Mayor John Tory also unveiled $12 million in funding for existing city programs focused on preventing young people from turning to guns and gangs.

City staff eventually advised applying for more than $30 million in crime prevention funding from the federal government. Tory and city council approved the application in July.

And between July 20 and Sept. 9, an additional 200 Toronto police officers were deployed on the night shift in certain neighbourhoods as a response to the ongoing gun violence.

However, the additional officers appeared to have little impact on the number of shootings and gun-related homicides in the city.

The period saw a number of high-profile incidents, including those on the Danforth, in Yorkdale mall and at a west-end flea market.

Toronto police statistics show there were 64 shootings during the period the extra resources were deployed, compared to 65 shootings in the eight weeks immediately before the project.

Gun crime, shootings on the rise

The rate of violent gun crime (measured in terms of victims per 100,000 population) has been on the rise in Toronto for the past four years.

However, stabbings and shootings have consistently been the two most common forms of homicide across Canada, with it varying from year to year which one leads the way.

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Shootings have been on the rise for the past few years, and in 2016 there were more people killed by guns than by knives in Canada.

The use of handguns, specifically, has also been on the rise.

There were 130 homicides committed with a handgun in 2016, Statistics Canada said in a recent report, which was the most in more than a decade.​

Mayor Tory has also pushed Ottawa for a ban on the sale of handguns within Toronto. However, the ban doesn't have the support of the premier. When asked if he would support such an initiative, Doug Ford said he would not because it would unfairly punish responsible gun owners.