City suffering consequences of inaction on youth gun violence, activist says

As the age of people involved in shootings in Toronto continues to trend younger, the founder of the Zero Gun Violence movement says combatting youth gun violence has not been enough of a priority for multiple levels of government, and now the city is suffering the consequences.

Toronto police data shows age of people involved in shootings is getting younger

An assortment of guns and magazine clips.
Toronto Police display guns seized during a series of raids in July 2018. The City of Toronto says work is beginning this year on developing a 'comprehensive' gun violence reduction strategy. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

As the age of people involved in shootings in Toronto continues to trend younger, one prominent community activist says combatting youth gun violence has not been enough of a priority for multiple levels of government, and now the city is suffering the consequences.

"Now we're ending up chasing bullets. Now we end up being shocked and acting surprised when this was predictable because it's been trending this way for years," said Louis March, the founder of the Scarborough-based Zero Gun Violence Movement, which connects community organizations and programs in Toronto in an effort to address gun violence.

March spoke on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Wednesday, after Scarborough was stunned by the shooting death of 18-year-old Jahiem Robinson at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate school earlier this week.

A 14-year-old boy has been charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder after allegedly running up behind Robinson and shooting him at point blank range, before chasing down another 18-year-old.

The boy, who cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, then assaulted the second teen and pointed the gun at him, police say, but the gun didn't fire.

The area around the school is a "vibrant neighbourhood," March said, but it has challenges in terms of programs, support and outlets for young people.

Listen | Louis March discusses Toronto's gun violence problem:

Those problems were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, as community centres and schools shut down, leaving kids more isolated and separated.

"As a result, we didn't know where they were hanging out anymore — hallways, in apartment buildings, underground parkways, street corners, we just didn't have our eyes on the youth anymore," March said.

"The community was not functioning the way it usually does."

Age of people linked to shootings dropping

This also isn't a problem confined to any one community.

At a news conference Tuesday, Deputy Chief of Police Myron Demkiw said young people being involved in gun violence in Toronto has become "all too familiar," with one third of homicides in 2022 so far involving victims or accused people who are under the age of 20. Two shootings have even involved accused people under the age of 15.

The average age of those linked to gun violence in Toronto between 2015 and 2020 was 25 years of age, Demkiw said. But in 2021, that average dropped to 20 years of age.

"This fact is disturbing and demands that something must change," he said. "There is no rational explanation for why a 13, 14 or 15-year-old child should have access to illegal firearms, let alone feel compelled to use them."

Police say Toronto's Jahiem Robinson, 18, was the victim of a fatal shooting at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate on Monday. (Toronto Police Service)

Age isn't the only factor that's changing when it comes to gun violence — Toronto police say investigators are also seeing a greater number of bullets fired at shooting scenes this year, with an almost 50 per cent increase in shell casings found compared to last year.

That's on top of a threefold increase in the seizure of higher-capacity magazines and an increase in the modification of guns to "fire bullets in rapid succession," Demkiw said.

The culture around teen gun violence has changed "dramatically" in the last few years, March said. Back in 2005, which became known as the "year of the gun" in Toronto after multiple high-profile shootings, there would be one or two guns in a given community that would be shared, borrowed or rented, he said.

"Right now, the kids have one and two guns themselves," he said.

There's also a brazenness and unpredictability in youth violence that didn't exist years ago, March said.

"We have not responded as necessary to interrupt this violence. So this is not shocking anymore unless it hits you directly in your community, in your family, or with your friends."

City implementing new strategy

Police and city officials who spoke about Robinson's death this week frequently mentioned the city's "SafeTO" strategy, which focuses on creating an alternative model for crisis response and shifting the focus from reacting to violent incidents to preventing them.

It's a 10-year "community safety and well being" plan and as part of its ongoing response to gun violence, the city says it is working on a "comprehensive, multi-sector gun violence reduction plan." The strategy is being developed through collaboration among a number of different city departments, Toronto police, Toronto Public Health, community organizations, and other levels of government.

The city also plans to expand a program that helps Toronto residents who have been impacted by violence and traumatic incidents, including shootings, stabbings and gang-affiliated activity.

Louis March is the founder of Zero Gun Violence Movement. He says Toronto is a 'resourceful, rich, capable city' that can do more to address the root causes of gun violence. (CBC)

It also plans to establish the Toronto Office to Prevent Gun Violence to co-ordinate gun policy and prevention measures. A new SafeTO data centre will share and analyze information collected by multiple city departments to help with developing policies and planning services, the city says.

The city has earmarked $1.4 million for these initiatives in 2022.

March, however, wants to see more on this front and stressed things need to happen far faster.

"Sometimes I think we need a ten-day plan, not a ten-year plan," he said. "There has to be a sense of urgency, there has to be a willingness for the key stakeholders and government levels to work together in a collaborative way, and stop working in silos.

"This should not be a surprise to them, what took place. And any attempt to act surprised or shocked means they have not been doing their job for the last few years."

With files from Ryan Patrick Jones