Politicians need to partner with their communities to prevent gun violence

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News Writer
Daily Brew

Little 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was shot in the chest as she cleaned up her lemonade stand on Wednesday night in Chicago.

She became the 253rd murder victim in the Windy City this year.

Heaven's story is one that's becoming all too familiar, with innocent bystanders getting caught in the middle of gang-related gunfire.

"This is not about crime. This is about values. Take your gang conflict away from a seven-year-old," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters.

That same evening, a 13-year-old Cincinnati girl got caught in the crossfire of a street-gang fight and was shot in the leg. She became that city's fourth child shot this year by bullets meant for others.

Appealing to gang members' values will fail as a violence-prevention strategy, says Randy Town of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

"I don't think gang members really care one way or the other where those stray bullets go," Town said following the shooting of a bystander at Seattle's Folklike Festival. "We've had several people killed over the last several years as a result of stray bullets, innocent people."

In Seattle, three innocent bystanders were shot within a 5-week span this spring. Again, gang violence was to blame.

Two weeks ago, a woman in Toledo was shot in the foot during a shootout between two men.

(In response to the spring of gang violence, Mark Foresth of the Baltimore Post-Examiner provided gang members a tongue-in-cheek "Gun safety for gang bangers" guide.)

Queensland, Australia, is experiencing some of the worst gang violence in its history.

In London, a 5-year-old girl was shot and paralyzed by a stray bullet as she danced in the aisles of her uncle's small store.

Closer to home, recent Toronto shootings tell the same stories:

In Little Italy, a bystander was shot in the stomach in the June 20th shootout that killed an alleged target.

[ Related: B.C. man arrested in Toronto slaying ]

"He just happened to be sitting there," Constable Victor Kwong, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, said of the injured victim. "He was not the intended target."

The Little Italy shooting followed the June 2nd Eaton Centre tragedy in which Christopher Husbands, 23, opened fire in the mall's food court, killing two and injuring a half-dozen others, including a 13-year-old boy. While Toronto police aren't calling the shooting gang-related, Husbands and the two dead men all belong to the street gang known as the Sic Thugs. The motive was likely personal.

It is believed that the Sic Thugs emerged out of the gang associated with 15-year-old Jane Creba's Boxing Day murder in 2005.

Just as police cracked down on gun and gang violence following Creba's death, they're increasing downtown presence in an effort dubbed Project Post.

[ Related: Toronto police step up patrols against gangs ]

"When there is a high-profile shooting the public demands results immediately. Politicians want to deliver results, and unfortunately the only organization available to do something is the police," Professor Wortley, lead researcher for The Prevention Intervention Toronto project, told OpenFile's Bronwyn Oatley.

"Many of the most effective crime prevention programs take at least a decade to bear fruit — the real question whether or not we have the social and political patience to wait that long."

The Globe and Mail reports that Toronto's gangs are smaller and more disorganized than they've ever been. They're also more armed.

"Guys would duke it out in the parking lot, or a knife may get pulled," Andrew Bacchus, who grew up in Toronto's notorious Jane-Finch area in the '90s and now works with street youth in the city, said. "The odd guy might have a gun…But today, guns are a bigger problem than any gang. There's just too many damn guns out there."

Bacchus now works with street youth in the city.

"In the last four or five years I've attended 14, 15 funerals. And not once have I seen a politician from any level of government come out and make a statement," he told the Globe and Mail. "Incidents of gun violence happen in inner-city communities all the time. It's a shame that we don't rally the same way as when it happens on Yonge Street."

The problem of gang violence isn't one that's easily solved — and often requires long-term solutions like community development programs to build into disadvantaged youths.

OpenFile shares a solution from Sandra Costain of the Dixon Hall Youth Centre: "focus on prevention and intervention, she says, encourage systematic and broad-scale community change, develop partnerships with local organizations and promote early-intervention programs for at-risk young people."

Funding becomes a challenge for long-term solutions to gang violence, with expiry dates often attached to projects. Donors often opt to fund shorter-term projects, forcing organizations to continually seek funding from other sources.

Earlier this month — and after the Eaton Centre shooting — Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was the sole councillor to vote against a motion to accept $350,000 in federal funding — "free money" — to extend one of Toronto's only youth gang prevention and intervention programs currently helping 300 young people "at high risk of gang attachment."

"Isn't that so disgusting? It's just sad, it's embarrassing and it's disheartening. This is a man who has contact with young people who play football. So, c'mon," Costain said.

Last year, Ford voted against $7.2 million in grants to community groups.

Yes, we need to get guns off our streets. Harsher sentencing might help a bit, too. But for long-term results, maybe we need to invest a little more time and cash into prevention.

If politicians want to eliminate violence, they're going to need to partner with their cities to help prevent it.

[ Related: Handgun ban sought by Toronto victims' families ]