It occurred just a few evenings after my family arrived for our annual visit with my sister and her husband in the Greater Toronto area. On the warm Sunday evening of July 22, a lone gunman opened fire with a handgun into the window of one of the myriad ethnic and trendy cafés and restaurants on “The Danforth”. He proceeded to walk calmly two blocks west and repeated the action in front of another restaurant. He crossed Danforth Avenue to the south side and shot into yet another crowded restaurant before being pursued by police onto a side street where they exchanged gunshots. It is still unclear whether the gunman was killed by a policeman’s bullet or one from his own handgun.
A recent honors high school graduate and a ten-year-old girl were killed, a miraculously low number of fatalities, thank God. But, to say so will not bring them back.
On the morning after, I wasn’t the only person with familiarity with Toronto asking in disbelief, “How could something like this happen in our city? In “Toronto the Good”? And on the Danforth, for heaven’s sake? Isn’t that the last place you’d expect a tragedy like this to happen?”
But, alas, it did occur on Toronto’s unofficial second main street. The first shots were fired on the corner where I and first to fifth-grade mates used to wait for the walk light to change to green to cross the busy Danforth traffic on our way to Frankland Public School. The second locale was at the corner of the Danforth and the street where my family lived from 1956 to 1959. The last location for violence was beside St. Barnabas Anglican Church where I attended my first Vacation Bible School. The perpetrator’s death took place on the alternate route from school I took from time to time to avoid running into a couple of bullies.
Not only I, the residents of Greektown along the Danforth and the citizens of Toronto, but the whole nation was grieving. Grieving not only for the lives of the two young fatalities with so much potential and life in front of them before the shooting, but, in effect, profoundly grieving for what else Toronto and Canada had lost that evening: our innocence.
In the wake of the relatively few times that mass shootings or gun violence take place in Canada, many Canadians are accustomed to considering that such events are not unusual south of the border, rarely in the True North Strong and Free. However, we know that no nation is exempt.
Living next door to a political, military and cultural power like the United States, Canadians often exhibit an inferiority complex. At the same time, however, Canadians have a typically subtle Canadian superiority when it comes to the matter of violence and crime.
But on July 22, we had to surrender our smugness.
After all, just this past April, a rampaging van on Yonge, the main street, jumped onto the sidewalk killing ten and injuring sixteen more unsuspecting pedestrians accustomed to thinking that sidewalks are safe. And, there have been fifty-eight homicides in Toronto this year, which during the years of my childhood might have been the total for four or five years.
No matter the rate of deaths inflicted by guns in Toronto, we could always say that Buffalo, just ninety miles around the horn of Lake Ontario and a third the size of Toronto, had a rate twice as high. Detroit, at the western terminus of the 401 highway and across the river from Windsor, Ontario, the gun violence count was six times that of Toronto’s.
That’s still true. So, that the national and local news broadcasts for days after July 22 should lead off with stories of a murder by gunfire, much less a mass shooting, felt so alien, well…so un-Canadian.
When Canadians discuss gun control, they do it the way they do just about everything else with the exception of arguments about our hockey teams: they do so quietly, without raised voices. Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that nobody has a right to carry a gun. Rather, the bearing of firearms as a distinct privilege granted only to those who make it through an intense screening process. No one in Canada can protest angrily that to place restrictions on guns is a violation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, because we have no such amendment or way of thinking. Canadian politicians don’t have to kowtow to the power of the National Rifle Association because there is none. What gun-lobby groups exist are still relatively small and the voice of a fringe minority.
Only about 2 million of Canada’s 36 million people own guns. Police report that 50% of homicides across Canada are committed with legally purchased weapons. That leaves the other 50%. Geography is destiny, I’m afraid. because the great majority of that remaining 50% are perpetrated with guns smuggled across the border from the United States.
July 22 held up for all Canadians to see that yes, it can and does happen here. Even without the courageous and admirable advocacy by the students of Marjory Douglas High School to “guilt” them into action, during the week after the incident, the Toronto City Council, the Province of Ontario Legislature and the federal Parliament all put improved and enhanced gun control onto their urgent agenda.
As a Canadian citizen, I’m proud of the rapid political response, which upholds and exhibits Canadian core values. Only in my dreams can I hope for the same in my adopted country, the United States, where guns seem inextricably intertwined with the culture. Over 80% of Canadians favor the elimination of guns from urban areas. A few days after July 22, Toronto’s mayor John Tory asked, “Why in the world does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?” The public’s right to feel safe in public trumps – admittedly, a very bad pun – the rights of legitimized individual gun owners and collectors.
And, yet…and, yet. Will tighter gun control really make a difference in Canada? On my “glass half-empty” days, I sincerely and regrettably doubt it. At the border crossings at Fort Erie-Buffalo and Windsor-Detroit, there is a raging stream of illegal weapons waiting to be purchased by any Canadian who cannot ace the scrutiny of the government officials tasked with stopping its flow.
It appears that the gunman of July 22 was an isolated, alienated son of immigrants. In addition to any support they might give to efforts to reduce the availability of guns, concerned people on both sides of the border need to unite in asking: Why are so many residents of either country, especially young males, feeling so excluded and marginalized? What can we do as individuals, or together as a society, to help such persons feel included and less alienated? What are the psychological and sociological factors that contribute to a person’s feeling totally powerless unless he has a gun in his hand? In the 1960s and 1970s, we made much-needed reforms of the 1960s and 1970s in the care of the mentally ill and the elimination of the practice of hiding them from public view (and compassion) in dark, depressing warehouses. But, are there still serious gaps in our system of providing services for mental illness?
More than gun control, is perhaps what we need more urgently a compassion explosion?
Until next time, live this day to its fullest. Enjoy the summer.