City urged to consider new approach to address gun violence

When violence hits a community, public health approach means considering the impact not just on family and friends of the victim, but everyone in the neighbourhood traumatized by violence.

Use public health methodology on sudden spike in city shootings, report suggests

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil held for slain rapper Jahvante Smart, known in the industry as "Smoke Dawg", in Toronto. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Zya Brown says she's been to too many funerals lately.

"Oh my gosh, it's so much. It's so many, I'm tired of them. It's like one after the other after the other," says Brown.

Over the weekend the Founder and Executive Director of Think2wice attended a funeral for one of two men shot and killed in Rexdale last month.

There have been 212 shootings so far this year according to Toronto Police.

Brown, whose organization works to break the cycle of violence, is hoping city officials are about to try a different approach.

"We've been trying to explain there is a grief issue — unresolved grief and trauma in our community — which is one of the reasons these things are happening," she says.

Zya Brown, founder of Think2wice, wants to see programs that focus on crime prevention, including for youth who are behind bars. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

A report that goes before Toronto's Board of Health today outlines a plan to reduce gang violence by approaching the problem as a public-health issue and less as a policing problem.

In the spring, NDP MPP Chris Glover (Spadina-Fort York) proposed this new direction as a member of the Toronto Board of Health, and is supported by the city's Social Development Finance and Administration.

"Now they are looking at the health impacts of gun violence of community violence," says Glover.

"Every time there's a shooting in this city it affects not only the immediate family and friends. It affects entire neighbourhoods."

The board approved his motion to consider treating gun violence as a public health issue as a way of taking a new approach to a problem that persists in the city. The decision also means researching root causes and effects.

"There's anxiety, depression, PTSD. The research shows all this. One of the most startling things that came out of the research is there's shortened life expectancy," says Glover.

"A lot of young people living in low income communities where they are exposed to violence all the time don't expect to live well into adulthood and that changes their behaviour patterns."

Glover says a public health approach means treating gun violence like a virus that spreads and needs to be interrupted. He says communities traumatized by gun violence can be trapped in a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks and retaliation.

"If we don't deal with the trauma that comes out of shootings, if we don't help the young people who are losing friends and losing family members to this gun violence and are living in fear in their communities, then that trauma feeds back into the cycle of violence."

NDP MPP Chris Glover (Spadina-Fort York) wants the Toronto Board of Health to look at the health impacts of gun violence (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

And he says looking at it as a crime and punishment issue hasn't worked. 

"The police alone cannot solve this," says Glover.

"If we pursue a public policy that is all about enforcement, all about arresting people, we are not going to solve this problem. We are just going to feed back into it."

The public health perspective asks the foundational questions about root causes of the problem and looks at prevention rather than policing and enforcement.

The police alone cannot solve this.- Chris Glover, NDP MPP (Spadina-Fort York)

Glover says organizations, such as Brown's Think2wice will have a role to play in the new public health approach.

"Throwing all these people in jail without no rehabilitation support, so no programming whatsoever, and now it's coming back again. And it's only going to get worse," says Brown.

She says long term solutions acknowledge that  gun violence is a symptom of much deeper problems — which has to involve looking at the growing gap between rich and poor in the city. 


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.