Will a public health approach reduce gun violence? Yes
Gun violence in Toronto is reaching epidemic proportions. Over the past four years, the number of shootings has more than doubled from 177 in 2014 to 424 in 2018.
Police alone cannot eliminate gun violence. If it was possible to arrest your way out of this problem, the United States would have the lowest homicide rate in the developed world. Per capita, the U.S. has 50 per cent more police officers than Canada and 500 per cent more people in jail, but its homicide rate is 400 per cent higher than ours.
Last March, a group of concerned citizens, former gang members and parents whose children had been killed, asked the Toronto Board of Health to take a public health approach to gun violence. At the time, I was a member of the Board of Health and supported the approach, which recognizes that gun violence is a symptom of deeper social and economic ills. Those deeper ills begin with the growing gap in both income and opportunities between rich and poor.
In 1970, two thirds of people in Toronto had middle incomes. By 2025, almost two thirds will have low incomes. Research shows that in developed countries, the wider the gap between rich and poor, the higher the homicide rate. So it should be no surprise that as the gap between rich and poor has grown in Toronto, the rate of gun violence has grown as well. The lowest income neighbourhoods, isolated from employment opportunities, transit and community programs, have become breeding grounds for gun violence.
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Opposing view: Will a public health approach reduce gun violence? No
A public health approach also recognizes that gun violence spreads like a virus from community to community. Turf wars have erupted across the city with one shooting leading to another as victims try to get revenge or shooters try to finish off victims or kill witnesses. From a health perspective, when a virus is spreading in epidemic proportions, the goals are to interrupt its spread and to cure it.
During the delegation in March, we asked the Toronto Board of Health to adapt Chicago’s Interrupters program to slow the spread of gun violence. The Interrupters program, which has been successful in some of America’s most violent neighbourhoods, recruits ex-gang members who have the credibility and the community knowledge to negotiate non-violent solutions to conflict.
This program is now being adapted for Toronto, but with changes. In Chicago, Interrupters work with the gang hierarchy, but in Toronto, with the breakdown of gang hierarchies and the proliferation of handguns, we have small groups of armed young men with few constraints. Many youth, who are already gang-involved, are looking for a way out, and the Interrupters can provide a pathway.
A public health approach also recognizes that every episode of gun violence creates trauma — fear, anger, anxiety, depression, PTSD — that, if not addressed, will feed back into the cycle of violence.
Since last summer’s shooting in the Scarborough playground, parents in many neighbourhoods are afraid to let their children go outside to play. Research shows that not having a safe place to play is one of many opportunities lacking in low income communities that feeds into the cycle of gun violence. A public health approach funds programs so young people have safe places to play and mentors who will prevent the next generation from being recruited into gangs.
THE BIG DEBATE: For more opposing view columns from Toronto Star contributors, click here.
Governments at all levels continuously make the disadvantage of poverty even worse with policy decisions that widen the gap between rich and poor. In Ontario, social assistance rates are at a destitution level of $730 per month for a single person.
Recently, the Ford government cut the basic income pilot program, ended funding for employment programs for low-income youth, rolled back the planned Ontario Works rates for 2019 and cancelled the minimum wage increase that people were counting on.
We all need to recognize that with every decision we make at every level of government, we have the opportunity to narrow the gaps in income and opportunities that feed into gun violence.
A public health approach to gun violence provides pathways for gang members to exit gang life, provides programs and mentors so another generation is not recruited into gangs, and pursues policies that reverse the widening gap between rich and poor.
Chris Glover is the MPP (NDP) for Spadina-Fort York.