Public Safety Minister Vic Toews chided Canada's courts Tuesday for striking down mandatory sentences for gun-related crime after a deadly shooting in Toronto that killed two people and sent nearly two dozen others to hospital.
"We are very concerned about the courts doing that, because illegal firearms — especially those smuggled in from the United States … minimum prison sentences are absolutely essential to create a strong deterrent against that kind of activity," Toews said in an interview with Prairie network Golden West Radio.
"These guns are being used by gangs in order to perpetrate the kind of violence that we've seen on our streets."
'We also have to be balanced and not think that we're going to hell in a handbasket, because we're not.' —Former Toronto police chief and current cabinet minister Julian Fantino
Speaking to guest host Hannah Thibedeau on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Tuesday, former Toronto police chief and current Conservative cabinet minister Julian Fantino was more measured in his reaction to the shootings and the impact of government policy in tackling the problem of gun violence in cities like Toronto.
"I don't know that any one thing can ever stop an individual from going offside, acquiring or appropriating a gun and using it and committing the kinds of crimes that they do," Fantino said.
"But I'd also like to say, though, that things would be much worse if some of these things had not been put in place," he added, referring to recent laws passed by the Harper government to crack down on violent crimes.
Earlier this month, an Ontario Court judge struck down the automatic three-year sentence for firearms trafficking, saying it was disproportionate. Justice Paul Bellefontaine said a crack dealer who offered to sell an undercover police officer a non-existent gun should not have to face the mandatory minimum sentence.
In February, another Ontario judge said sending a first-time offender to prison for three years for possessing a loaded gun amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" and declared the minimum sentence unconstitutional.
Though Toews did not mention any specific cases by name, those two in particular appeared to be on his mind.
"I am concerned that some courts have been striking down mandatory prison sentences for those who have illegal firearms," the public safety minister said.
New laws having 'desired impact': Toews
The shooting at an east-end Toronto neighbourhood party Monday night left two people dead and injured 22 others in what police described as the worst incident of gun violence in the city's recent history.
Toews acknowledged that some disputes escalate very quickly to lethal violence.
"The access to firearms from illegal sources — especially firearms from south of the border — simply make that type of 'dispute resolution' so available," he said.
Toews defended federal actions to combat gun crime, noting the government had ushered in mandatory sentences for all serious firearms offences.
The Conservatives have also taken steps to ensure gang-related killings result automatically in a first-degree murder, while also singling out drive-by shootings and bolstering the fight against cross-border gun smuggling.
"We believe that our firearms legislation and the mandatory minimum prison sentences are having the desired impact," Toews said.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson also defended the government's record on trying to rid the streets of smuggled handguns.
"We have taken steps to ensure that the border is open to legitimate business but closed to criminals and gun smugglers," Nicholson said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "And there's better security at our borders today than there ever has been.
"The government of Canada has made it a focus to tackle gangs, guns, drugs — we've been consistent throughout our mandate on that."
In his CBC News Network interview, Fantino tried to put this week's shootings in Toronto into a greater context.
"We've had spikes [in gun violence] before," he said. "It can't be left to governments alone. It can't be left to the police alone, certainly.
"We also have to be balanced and not think that we're going to hell in a handbasket, because we're not," Fantino acknowledged.
"We [the Harper government] have a nucleus of law enforcement, or former law enforcement people there that are very much plugged in, and in fact we've been at the table making suggestions for upgrading some of the gaps in our criminal justice system to the prime minister," he added.
"We've been shouldering a lot of these things that have been brought forward, not only by police chiefs or organizations … but also by victims and other people in the community," Fantino said.
All parties condemn violence
The opposition parties largely steered clear of politics following the Toronto melee.
"The people of Toronto have too often faced gun violence recently, something that should never become acceptable for any community in Canada," NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said in a statement.
"Our communities and neighbourhoods should be safe places where families can gather for a summer barbecue without fear of this kind of violence."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae encouraged those with any information about the events to speak and be heard. "We must honour the memory of those we lost by working together to ensure such an event never happens again."
Conservative Senator Don Meredith, a pastor, youth advocate, and community organizer, called the shootings "absolutely sick."
"It takes a village to raise a child and it will take a collective effort to solve the problem of gun violence; the police can't do it alone," he said.
"This isn't the time to point fingers — we all have a part to play."