By Ken Price
Danforth Families for Safe Communities
I will never forget the call on July 22, 2018. A doctor had recovered my daughter’s iPhone and used it to inform my wife and me that our daughter Samantha had been shot. She was lucky that in her injured state, she was able to scramble to safety in a nearby restaurant, where the doctor was among the patrons. The doctor administered first aid, contacted us, and comforted Samantha until the ambulance took her to St Michael’s hospital. According to the police report, the killer moved on to shoot other victims as he terrorized people on the Danforth, from Logan to Bowden, for about 10 minutes. Then, he took his life as the police closed in. But not before 18-year-old Reese Fallon and 10-year-old Julianna Kozis were killed. And not before 13 others were injured, including an aspiring nurse who now continues her life in a wheelchair. And not before so many others were menaced or bore witness to the tragedy.
We note that our tragedy is a less unique story than we’d like to think. Last weekend (July 16) was the 10th anniversary of the Danzig shooting, which also saw two young lives lost, and 20 others injured by gunfire. The mayor and community leaders there marked that date and reflected on what had been lost to gun violence. To recall anniversaries like these, is a grim activity. But it is necessary for those who can, to honour those we lost, to speak out and to try to convey to others what is at stake when gun violence visits itself in your community and your family.
We have learned that many community groups have been speaking out to politicians and other leaders for assistance. For example, there is Zero Gun Violence Movement, whose founder Louis March, rightly challenges why, in a city as wealthy as Toronto, we can’t have safer communities in all parts of our city. This past weekend saw shootings at Union Station, at Danforth and Main, and on Queen West. Gun violence absolutely should be a concern for all of us in Toronto.
Some of the families affected by the Danforth shooting four years ago formed a grassroots community group called Danforth Families for Safe Communities (DFSC). The goal of DFSC is to share what happened and to also advocate for changes, particularly by our various levels of government, that we think will be helpful in preventing gun violence in Toronto and in Canada.
Our years of advocacy have been a learning experience, and at times a test of will and of patience. For example, experience and time taught us that the physical recovery from a bullet is hard but the mental and psychological recovery is much harder, with fewer supports. We learned that gun violence comes from various motivations, but usually can be traced back to intimate partner violence, or the act of carrying out a crime, or acting on learned and incubatedhatred toward others, as it was in our case. We also learned that Canada is a relatively heavily armed society when it comes to guns, and therefore must take care with such widespread adoption of an inherently dangerous product. Our ownership levels are nothing like the US where guns outnumber citizens, but we have in the order of 10-12 million guns in our country. In terms of handguns - the form factor used in our case, and the one used in a majority of gun related crimes, the growth of ownership of handguns since the mid 2010’s is roughly 55K per year to where 276,000 persons (as of 2021) now hold over 1 million handguns in the name of sport shooting (source: Canadian Firearms Program). Fair enough if these handguns don’t find their way into the wrong hands, but that is simply not true. If you start to follow reporting efforts of journalists you see evidence of two things: diversion of handguns used in crime from legal sources, whether by theft or by intentional illegal acts, and you see licensed gun owners who commit crimes. We certainly know from police reporting that handguns used for violent acts also come illegally from the US, but our domestic supply is a significant contributing factor, as it was in our case.
We also note that the Canadian experience with homicides by gun, compared to other countries like the UK and Australia that have effectively banned handguns (and most assault style rifles) from private/consumer use. As reported at the mass casualty commission in Nova Scotia by the Coalition for Gun Control, “When we look at homicides with firearms, the rate of murders with firearms in Canada is 16 times higher than in the UK. and it’s 6 times higher than we see in Australia…”
Our discovery also led us to meet other groups and individuals that have been working on the problem of gun violence. Many of these groups have been at it for years, showing the complexity of the challenge, and the resistance from industry funded groups that oppose tighter gun control. The input from these collaborations and our own research led us to better understand gun violence in two parts: the root causes (desire, motivation for violence) and the types and sources of weapons used (providing supply and therefore means to act).
We (DFSC) decided to direct our efforts towards the “supply side” of gun control first, communicating and interacting with the federal government especially, about gun control and the need to change some laws. To their credit, even as this has taken years, gun control has been given strong focus by the federal government, since 2015; first in passing Bill C71 in 2019, then by introducing an order in council to reclassify several high-powered military style rifles as prohibited, and then by introducing Bill C21 as of May 30 of this year, the federal government has addressed several issues:
• A prohibition and buy back of assault style rifles
• A freeze on the number of handguns in the country (no new licenses, transfers, imports)
• Further restrictions on magazines (bullet capacity)
• An attempt (still a work in progress) to make it easier for a person who is threatened by a gun, or for a medical professional that sees a person in distress, to “flag” the risk to the police who then must intervene and remove the imminent threat of guns from the suspect’s possession.
• More resources and better technologies for detecting guns that are being smuggled in from the US across our land borders
• Tougher laws and sentencing guidelines for those that traffic in illegal guns
This list and other measures contained in Bill C21, is still to be passed by the federal government (it made second reading and now goes to committee for review) and it still needs to come into force. It is imperfect, but if enacted and implemented, it is a far advance from where we were 4 years ago. And it largely will affect the “supply side” on gun control.
What of the root causes? There is an additional item in the federal government’s announcements as well, and it is really a hook into where we need further action at the provincial and municipal level, and by other NGOs and service groups in our communities. It is the Building Safer Communities Fund - one of those ambiguously defined 250-million-dollar line items in the public purse - but with one with the noble goal of helping communities that are hardest hit by gun violence.
This budget item is an opportunity to promote dialogue on the toughest part of the work that must be done. This will now lead us into issues of social equity that sound daunting but are just a matter of basic fairness and would go a long way to building trust and respect for public institutions. We need to keep all citizens engaged and offer levels of support where we are now
turning a blind eye. To help counter gun violence, we need to work on building a sense of equitable support, hope and belonging for all of us. And we need to flag individuals that are a risk to themselves and others, especially if armed.
As a policy framework, we think that a public health approach is the right framing for this societal problem. Recognize that gun violence is mostly the product of, and derives harms to, the basic health and security of its victims. Recognizes that individuals that do have guns, have an obligation to the greater public as to lawful, restrained, safe and responsible ownership.
Recently, the federal government has held a series of roundtables involving government representatives and community groups. Of note has been the attendance of the Raptors and its Organizational Culture and Inclusion leadership, who is advocating for a National Day of Awareness as a means of highlighting gun violence issues, and hopefully as a day for reporting our progress as laws and programs take effect. As Masai Ujiri, President of Raptors said at one such roundtable in Toronto, “[the Raptors] are all about winning…” That is the attitude and spirit of a champion, and we need this to tackle the issue of gun violence.
So, on this 4th anniversary for the Danforth Families, we pause to think about our experience and the lessons we learned from being involved in this debate. We need to recognize the special and particular properties of guns and of their potential for harm if abused. We need to ensure that we control the kinds of weapons that are widely held by the public. And we need to look at the particular initiatives that can be put in place to proactively prevent, particularly young men in their late teens and early 20’s, from using guns for crimes or acting on beliefs that promote hatred and result in gun violence.
About Danforth Families for Safe Communities
DFSC is a group of survivors, families, friends and community members impacted by the shooting tragedy on Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Canada, on July 22, 2018, where a young girl and a teenager were killed and 13 were shot by a lone gunman. The DFSC have come together in the wake of our tragedy to share our views and experience, in the hope that others will not have to experience anything similar.
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