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Firearms: Making sense of Toronto’s cycle of violence

The number of shooting events this year – 162, as of Aug. 20 – is now on par with the number on the same date in 2012, the year police previously noted a spike in gun violence.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The number of people killed or injured by guns in Toronto so far this year is already higher than 2014, reversing a recent downward trend. But while gun violence appears to be going up in Ontario's capital, criminologists say this apparent increase in gun violence doesn't necessarily mean the city is becoming more dangerous.

This week alone, there have been seven shootings over a span of four days, two of them fatal, Toronto Police spokeswoman Caroline de Kloet said Friday.

Shaka Reid, 36, died Wednesday after being shot in the downtown area of Sherbourne Street and Dundas Street East, and another person, who police have not yet identified, also died Wednesday after a shooting near Jane Street and Maple Leaf Drive in the city's north-western limits. Three of the other shootings resulted in a total of five people hurt, some seriously, while there were no injuries reported in two of the incidents.

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Even before those shootings, the number of deaths or injuries caused by shootings this year sat at 103. That number compares with totals of 103 last year, 129 in 2013 and 147 the year before.

At a media conference earlier this month, Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Sloly brought up what he said appears to be an increase in shootings.

"It seems that we have a cycle going on in this city," he said. "We're doing the analysis to find out what's contributing to these cycles."

According to Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash, the cycles are an "observation" police have made by examining internal statistics – with two years of decline in gun crime, followed by a spike – repeated three times over approximately the last 12 years. Those numbers include all recorded shooting events, whether or not the shootings hurt or killed someone.

Mr. Pugash said the number of shooting events this year – 162, as of Aug. 20 – is now on par with the number on the same date in 2012, the year police previously noted a spike in gun violence.

Police don't know the reasons behind this year's increase, Mr. Pugash said, and it's an issue that could be impacted by an "infinite number of factors."

The numbers sound alarming, but experts say rates of violent crime in Toronto are still very low.

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Scot Wortley, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, said the number of homicides in a city tends to be the most reliable figure for police departments to measure crime rate. An increase in the number of shootings that don't result in injury or death could be attributed to an uptick in reporting.

"Gun incidents related to civilian reports of guns going off may more reflect civilian co-operation with the police, and calling in these incidents, than they reflect an actual increase in gun violence," he said.

Jooyoung Lee, a U of T assistant professor of criminology, has studied gun violence in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He echoed that homicides "tend to be the gold standard" for measuring the prevalence of violent crime.

"The most useful comparisons are ones that look over time. And if we look over time, we see a pretty striking pattern starting in the early '90s until now, which is that in general, there's a downward sloping curve," Dr. Lee said. "Violent crime rates in all U.S. and Canadian cities are going down."

Neither criminologist said they were familiar with data that would indicate a repetitive cycle of spikes in gun violence.

Dr. Lee noted that compared to cities of a similar size in North America, such as Chicago, Toronto's homicide rate is so low that it might be considered "exemplary." According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, the homicide rate in Toronto was 1.34 per 100,000 people. The city with the highest homicide rate in the country that year was Regina, at 3.84 homicides per 100,000 people.

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While it's important to recognize the trauma gun violence inflicts on victims and the surrounding community, Dr. Lee said the sense among the public that violence is getting worse is often not based on evidence, but "the fervour and the panic that's generated after tragedy happens."

"There's always a constant eye towards the U.S. and what's happening there," he said. "People get worried that when something similar happens [in Canada] that somehow reflects a broader transformation."

Comparing Statscan data with police statistics can be problematic because of different data collection methods, but the numbers can provide insight on trends over time, such as homicide rates.

Statscan data also show that firearm-related homicide rate in Toronto has been in steady decline since 2008, decreasing nearly 50 per cent over five years to 0.47 per 100,000 people in 2013.

Toronto Police spokesperson Mr. Pugash said the police examination of gun violence takes any incidents involving guns into account, even when they don't injure anyone, because any use of an illegal gun poses a threat to public safety. He said police are planning a gun amnesty, where people can voluntarily turn over unwanted guns and ammunition – an initiative he said has been successful in the past.

"Any increase in the use of guns is concerning, by definition," Mr. Pugash said. "But we also want to remind people how safe this city is. One of the dangers of unrealistically high fear of crime is people don't go out; they don't use their public spaces. We want to ensure that people get a balanced impression."

With a report by Terra Ciolfe

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