Spate of Toronto shootings setting off the 'panic button'

​A recent series of brazen shootings in Toronto, some that have hit the downtown core, has raised questions as to whether gun violence has increased at a significant rate in the city and how much a role street gangs are playing.

There have been more than 200 shootings in the city so far this year, 24 of them fatal

A recent spate of shootings in Toronto has officials and residents looking for answers. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

A recent series of brazen shootings in Toronto has raised questions about whether gun violence has increased significantly in the city and how much of a role street gangs are playing.

There's no doubt the number of shootings in Canada's biggest city are on the rise, but the reasons why remain hard to pin down.

According to the Toronto Police Services website, which has data going back to 2014, police recorded:

  • 177 shootings in 2014.
  • 288 in 2015.
  • 407 in 2016.
  • 395 in 2017.

So far this year, there have been more than 200 shootings in the city; 24 of those have resulted in death. (In comparison, there were 24 gun-related deaths in all of 2016, and 16 in 2017).

The city's mayor, John Tory, has blamed the wave of violence on a "combination of a whole lot of things," pointing to  guns and drugs, gang activity, turf wars and retaliation as the main culprits. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, in an interview with CP24, also noted that the "vast majority of the gunplay in the city can be associated somehow with a street gang."

Since Saturday, at least eight people have been struck by bullets in downtown Toronto, in areas not often associated with gun violence.

'Located in these little pockets'

A man suffered serious injuries after a shooting in the city's entertainment district early Tuesday; four men were injured Sunday night in a shooting in Kensington Market, and one of them died on Wednesday; and  two men were shot and killed, and a woman injured, in a Saturday evening shooting on Queen Street West.

The founder of  the anti-gun violence organization Think 2wice predicts it's going to get worse.

Toronto rappers Smoke Dawg, right, and Koba Prime, left, were victims in a triple shooting June 30 in Toronto's Entertainment District. (Jake Kivanc)

"The gun violence is such a problem now because it's not located in these little pockets," Zya Brown said. "Now it's anywhere. These young people are moving in retaliation, and they're moving in unresolved trauma and grief and they can't see anything past that."

In 2005, the year of the so-called summer of the gun, 52 people were killed by gunfire, with a spate of shootings occurring in the summer months. That year also included the shooting death of teenager Jane Creba, who was killed on Boxing Day outside the Eaton Centre.

Louis March, founder of the advocacy group Zero Gun Violence Movement, said there has been a dramatic change in the nature of gun violence in recent years.

He told CBC Radio's The Current that shootings have become more brazen, and the shooters indiscriminate. 

Last month, for example, two sisters, aged five and nine, were injured when a gunman opened fire at an east-end playground during the afternoon.

'Virtual turf wars'

Social media can also play a role as a platform where rivalries can escalate and perpetrators can be egged on.

"You didn't have to deal with that in 2005." March said. "The turf wars are no longer physical turf wars. They are to some extent, but the turf wars now are virtual turf wars.

"You can disrespect somebody through your social media outlets, and there's going to be a response. And what we're seeing right now is how immediate it is."

Jeff Pearce, author of the book Gangs in Canada, said gang dynamics are complex, and there isn't enough information to determine exactly what's causing the violence in Toronto and what role gangs are playing.

"Just because you have shootings doesn't really mean they are all gang-related, nor does it mean that one shooting necessarily ties to another."

Some are a result of gang-on-gang warfare or someone with a personal grudge, for instance. And then there are shootings of innocent bystanders that get caught in the crossfire.

"How about a better question is: How are we going to respond?"

Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said whenever shootings happen in a cluster and the city is still reeling from one shooting before another happens, that can set off the panic button.

But people need to realize that Toronto, for its size, is one of the safest cities in North America, he says. While people should care about reducing gun violence, the recent events are not necessarily indicative of how the city is going to be in the future. 

Louis March is the founder of Zero Gun Violence Movement. He started it nearly five years ago in response to a flare up in shootings in the city. (CBC)

"I don't agree with a lot of the moral panicking at this point because there are these kind of aberration years," he said. "It may end up becoming a year that is an outlier."

Lee said the timing of shootings varies across different years — there may be a series at the beginning but taper off by the end of the year, he said. 

Summer, too, can see an increase in shootings because there are more opportunities for people from various parts of the city congregate for festivals, events and the like. Lee said. 

"They're intermingling with a variety of different people, and these interactions are often fraught with uncertainty because you don't know if a person is a friend or foe," he said. "Routine ordinary encounters with people who you're uncomfortable around or uncertain around can quickly escalate if a person is carrying a firearm."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from CBC News


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