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January 05, 2006


In Liberal leader Paul Martin's new stump speech, he insists that Canada's prime minister must defend the Charter of Rights. But then only a few seconds later, he calls for a law that would set aside the right of Canadians not to be imprisoned without just cause.

Mr. Martin's continuing overreaction to Toronto's supposed epidemic of gun violence now includes a plan to require people accused of gun-related offences, in order to be released on bail, first to prove that they're not dangerous to society. The way it usually works is that the onus is on the Crown to show that granting bail would be too risky; an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Reversing that onus means violating a rule that predates the Magna Carta, let alone the Charter, as Mr. Martin, the constitutional champion, doubtless knows. Rather than respect the Charter, though, Mr. Martin says a police allegation that the accused had a handgun in his glove compartment is good enough. Worse, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Toronto Mayor David Miller are on his side.

Mr. Martin will protest that reversing the onus in bail hearings has been done before: in Quebec, as part of a crackdown on biker gangs in the 1990s. As now, that rule was adopted in the midst of a moral panic when certain citizens felt threatened and were prepared to sacrifice just about anything to feel safe again.

But there's nothing special about gun crimes, nothing that makes them different from knife murders, sexual assaults or robberies. Anyone charged with possessing a knife or club or crossbow for violent purposes can be kept without bail only if the Crown can prove he, or she, must be. Alleged gun criminals should be treated the same way: with respect for the Constitution.

Dan Gardner, a Canadian journalist with an impressive track record on carefully researched criminal justice stories in his most recent article takes issue with the alarmist political rhetoric that is fuelling new “get tough on crime ” policies. The death of a young girl in a Yonge Street shootout is tragic and alarming, but it has fed some unfounded fears in the country's largest city. While it's true that gun killings were up in 2005, every other kind of gun crime was down, quite significantly. In the following article Dan Gardner looks at the real numbers:

Gun Crime by the Numbers

by Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen, Wednesday, January 04, 2006

When a series of shootings rattled Toronto, officials sounded the alarm. "We're seeing more and more gun violence and serious violent crime in Ontario, particularly Toronto," a spokesman for the Ontario attorney general said. Causes and solutions were debated, but it seemed that everyone was agreed on one point: Gun crime was spiralling out of control.

It was March 2004. By the time the year ended, the city had seen 61 homicides -- one fewer than the year earlier. Of these, 25 had been committed with firearms -- one fewer than the year before and just three more than a decade earlier.

Toronto is again witnessing a spate of horrific shootings, including the Boxing Day gun battle that killed 15-year-old Jane Creba as she walked amid the crowds of shoppers on Yonge Street. And the media, politicians and the public are again in agreement that gun crime is soaring. The alarm is so great that gun crime has even become a major issue in the federal election, with the Liberals vowing to ban all handguns. And today, senior bureaucrats from the federal and provincial governments, as well as the City of Toronto and the Toronto police force, will meet to discuss strategies to curb gun violence. Prime Minister Paul Martin, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Toronto Mayor David Miller set up the meeting.

But is there anything more to this scare than there was in 2004? In part, yes. Toronto ended 2005 with 78 killings, including a record 52 including firearms. In 1992, by comparison, there were only 17 killings involving a firearm. That much is well known. But to get a fuller sense of gun crime, more information is needed.

The Citizen asked Statistics Canada to compile the numbers on gun crime in Canada's biggest city. The picture that emerged is certainly not that of a city on the edge of chaos.

By far the most common crime committed with a gun in Toronto is robbery. In 1992, there were 1,111 robberies involving firearms. In 2004, the latest year for which Statistics Canada has data, there were 625. That's a 44-per-cent drop. (Note that the Statistics Canada data err on the side of inclusion: Any incident in which a firearm was present is recorded, even if the firearm wasn't used in the crime.)

The next most common gun crime is "assault with weapon." In 1992, there were 185 such incidents in Toronto. In 2004, there were 77. That's a 59-per-cent decline.

In 1992, there were 44 kidnappings involving a firearm. In 2004, there were 21. That's a 53-per-cent decline. In 1992, there were 31 aggravated assaults with a firearm. In 2004, there were 26.

In 1992, 46 common assaults occurred in which a firearm was present. In 2004, there were 32.

Several other categories of gun crime -- including sexual assault and "discharge firearm with intent" -- were rare and showed little change in either direction. The same was true of attempted murders with a firearm: In 1992, there were 41; in 2004, there were 41.

It should be noted that these numbers make things look worse than they really are because they don't take into account Toronto's population growth since 1992. If that were accounted for, the declines in gun crime would look even bigger and the numbers that stayed flat would actually reveal declines in the rate of gun crime. But leaving all that aside, we are still left with the horrendous toll of 52 gun killings in 2005, a record high and a dramatic jump from 17 such killings in 1992. It is important to realize, however, that this increase is not a long-term trend. The 2004 total of gun killings was just 24. And in each of the three years leading up to 2005, the number of gun killings actually dropped. So the rise in gun murders in 2005 is a very sudden spike.

There are two ways of looking at that spike. One is to see it as evidence of a broad shift -- proof that gun crime and violence are exploding across the city and that people are in more danger. If this is true, it deserves to be a major political issue and it may require major changes to the criminal justice system. But there isn't any evidence to support that view and plenty to suggest it's wrong. For one thing, the spike is totally out of line with the trend in gun murders. And since there have been no reports of spikes in other gun crimes, it also seems to be out of line with the trend in other gun crimes as well (although we won't know that for sure until Toronto's 2005 data for other gun crimes are gathered by Statistics Canada.)

It's also out of line with a decline in gun crime that has been going on fairly steadily for decades. In 1977, 39 per cent of all robberies involved a firearm; in 2004, just 14 per cent of robbers carried a gun. Gun murders dropped even more dramatically: In 1974, the rate of such killings was a little more than 1.2 per 100,000 people; in 2004, it was less than 0.6.

This leads us to the second way of looking at Toronto's homicide spike.

Twenty-eight murders account for the jump. Each is a horrible crime, particularly the killings of innocent bystanders like Jane Creba, gunned down on a busy street in the middle of the afternoon. Each calls for concerted action to catch, try and severely punish those responsible. But still, they are only 28 incidents in a city of 2.5 million people (five million in the greater Toronto area).

It takes only a relative handful of gangsters, battling for turf and control of the drug trade, to inflict that toll. That little band of thugs is a serious problem. But it does not reflect a general trend toward "rampant" gun crime, as many are carelessly saying. It does not mean the city, much less the country, is facing a growing menace. And it certainly does not say, as so many have concluded, that the criminal justice system is broken.

The facts are clear: Gun crime is not soaring and Toronto is safer today than it has been in years.

How could perceptions be so out of line with reality? In fact, this often happens with violent crimes. A killing like that of Jane Creba is so tragic, so wrenching, it triggers the most primal emotions. It could be your daughter, your sister, you. Like terrorism, it spreads fears that make strangers look stranger, shadows darker, and city streets more threatening. Reason and evidence are overwhelmed.

That much is forgivably human. But if we really want to understand the realities of crime, it is precisely to reason and evidence that we must turn.

Michael Jackson