'Protection' is the key reason Toronto youth turn to guns, a new report finds

A new city report suggests youth are turning to guns to protect themselves, and in many cases nobody is there to steer them in a different direction.

'If we want safer streets, we need to protect the young people who feel that they need guns,' report says

A new report finds youth who possess firearms often come from communities with a lot of violence, and feel like they need a gun for protection. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Young people are turning to guns to protect themselves, and in many cases there are few people there to steer them in a different direction, a new city report says.

The report, called Look at My Life: "Sparks" for Firearm Possession among Young People in Toronto, is based on 10 interviews with 15- to 30-year-olds, who have been charged and incarcerated more than once for having a firearm.

The goal of the project was to identify the factors in their lives — which the authors call "sparks" — that led them to picking up weapons in the first place.

"The cycle of gun violence will be broken," the report says, "if the right people are reached at the right time with the right intervention."

Toronto is currently grappling with a spike in gun violence punctuated by several deadly incidents that have happened in busy public spaces. Toronto police are deploying some 200 additional officers to help curb the violence, but many have been calling on the city to do more to tackle the underlying causes.

Guns 'only way' to protect themselves

Young people who get involved with violence and crime often face several barriers, including poverty, trauma, undeserved neighbourhoods, racism, and a lack of positive peers and family supports, the report says.

After being released from prison, the youth interviewed experienced many negative factors — and few positives — which lead to them getting charged and incarcerated again, the report said.

The young people interviewed for the report "unanimously" cited protection as their reason for having a gun. They spoke about growing up in neighbourhoods where they often saw friends, family and neighbours "get shot or caught up in violent incidents," the report said.

"This put them in a mindset that equipping themselves with a firearm was the only way they felt they could protect themselves." 

Once they were out of prison, participants said they continued to have a firearm because they still felt like they needed protection.

"If we want safer streets, we need to protect the young people who feel that they need guns for protection," the report said.

Poverty, racism, negative environments

Fiona Smith, the report's author, says it's important to help these young people access the opportunities and circumstances they didn't have growing up.

"Locking people up and keeping them there isn't likely to change their lives around," she said.

Fiona Scott, the report's author, says young people who get involved in crime and violence are exposed to several risk factors. (CBC)

The participants experienced a similar set of negative life circumstances before getting charged, the research found, including trauma, poverty, issues with the criminal justice system, and a lack of positive parental figures and peers.

Racism was another common theme. "Many young people have internalized what behaviour is expected of them," the report said. 

Participants often brought up images in the media, the report said, and how they felt police and other people perceived them based on their neighbourhoods.

Negative peers, lacking parental support

Several of the participants did not have one or both parents to help guide them down the right path, hung out with a negative circle of peers and lacked activities and community programs, said the report. 

A youth worker might be there for a for a short period each week, but the rest of the time, "friends are getting shot, police are harassing you, you need money to do this and that...We didn't grow up with a lot of programs," said one participant. 

Before being incarcerated, participants discussed supportive teachers, youth workers and coaches as positive "sparks" in their lives, as well as positive relationships with their family. 

Employment was also a "spark" in several young people's lives, the report said, because it gave them money and something positive to do.

"If I never had my job I'd literally be right in the community standing around," one participant said.

Many participants also talked about how they often hung out with nothing to do, the report said, leading them to become involved in or exposed to violence.

Lack of support in and after 

While they were incarcerated, participants said access to education and support from family and mentors had a positive impact on their lives.

However, negative factors in prison included a lack of rehabilitation opportunities and feeling like they had little support from professionals in the legal system.

"One participant spoke about how it was a mistake to put so much money and trust into a lawyer because it felt like they did not care to win the case," the report said.

Once they were out of prison, young people often returned to the same environment with little support, the report said.

After incarceration, they not only faced discrimination, but also had the label of "criminal." They fell back into a negative peer group, participants said, could lack family support, and had difficulty getting employed with a criminal record.

"Young people leaving prison are going back into the same situation that lead them to the circumstances where they ended up getting a gun," the report said. "Providing young people who are leaving prison with the range of services to address their needs can address the challenges they face and lead them to more positive opportunities and experiences."

Promoting resilience

The report says programs that address the root causes of gun violence crime can foster resilience. This includes access to health, housing, family education, employment, mentorship, positive peers and community-based activities.

While many of these services exist, the report says, they are often fragmented or not coordinated or accessible.

Interviews for the report took place from June to December 2016. Ninety per cent of participants identified as Black and 10 per cent identified as Latino. The majority of participants were male (90 per cent), with an average age of around 24.

The study was done by the City of Toronto, Humber College - Applied Research and Innovation, Laidlaw Foundation and Amadeusz.