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politics

What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Guns

Recently Olivia Chow called for a handgun ban. It seems like a standard bit of progressive policy. It isn't—not in Toronto today. This is why.

A mural at Regent Park. Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.

A few years ago, my sister’s classmate was shot dead in a field. Adrian Johnston was 15 years old, and a student of Runnymede Collegiate. After the announcement was made at school, students who were too shaken up to continue the school day were allowed to leave. I lived only a few blocks away at the time, so when my sister called, I took the rest of the day off work and told her to come by. She didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t ask. We studiously avoided the news, but caught the occasional blip while flipping channels. Setting up temporary camp free from the phrases “gang ties” and “another summer of the gun” was impossible, so we played video games and watched movies until she was ready to go home.

It wasn’t until months later that she first spoke to me about it—after Ottawa native Wesler Fabien was gunned down in Yorkville. With a juvenile sarcasm that I thought she had outgrown, she said, “In the mean streets of Bloor and Avenue. I wonder if it was gang-related.”

The question of gang ties was, in fact, briefly raised after the murder of Wesler Fabien. As with other shootings involving African-Canadian males, and given that it happened the night after the Caribana parade, it was inevitable that it would be. It was raised and then dropped in the absence of evidence. (Usually, reporters will say something along the lines of “It’s unclear whether the shooting was gang-related.” This introduces the thought that it might be into our collective consciousness, and then serves as a kind of baseline that informs and underlies future public conversations about crime.)

But this is what many communities have come to expect in the dialogue on violence. When a serious crime is reported on television, all of us sit up a little straighter and whisper a little prayer that the perpetrator is not of our kinfolk, or our skinfolk. And when politicians talk about creating community solutions to social problems—when they talk about shootings at Runnymede in a way that’s different than they discuss shootings in Yorkville—we know which communities they’re talking about.

So here we are again, with another Toronto politician blowing the dog whistle and driving our communities back into a defensive posture. On the matter of gun violence, we argue over whether a handgun ban will make any difference, but allow the conversation on gang violence to go uncontested. And when we talk about gang violence, it almost goes without saying which communities we’re talking about. Olivia Chow, understanding first-hand how immigrant communities can be unfairly stigmatized, was supposed to know better. Surrounded by young African-Canadian kids, earlier this week she announced that, as mayor, she would lobby the federal government to ban handguns.

Her opponents called it grandstanding and an empty gesture, but the real question is why we even need to have this discussion. Crime in Canada has been in freefall since the mid-2000s, with Toronto leading the way. Despite a continually growing population, reports of violent crime in Toronto are trending downwards. We live in fear of another Summer of the Gun, yet by all measures, we’re safer now than we were in the 1980s.

It seems Toronto’s political class can’t help but repeat tropes that conjure up negative stereotypes of communities of colour, even with the intention of trying to help them. Note Chow’s language in the presser. She proposes this ban to stop violent criminals who will “go out and shoot someone they don’t know,” even though the overwhelming majority of homicide victims know their killers. She referenced the tragic death of Somali teacher Abshir Hassan when she mentioned “drive-by” shootings, but such shootings are increasingly rare in Toronto. Note that Chow made this announcement in the Keele and Sheppard neighbourhood, and not in her downtown core, which has had its own problems with gun violence.

Olivia Chow has repeatedly touted her immigrant roots and first-hand understanding of minority issues, yet when an opportunity for true leadership arrived, she spoke in the same coded language as any other politician, repeating the insulting, false narrative of bullet-saturated life in priority neighbourhoods. That narrative is why we continue to lecture our youth in these neighbourhoods on staying out of trouble, even though the statistics show they are. This is why we continue to tell them to work hard and study, even though they’re matching and outperforming their peers.

What Chow refers to as the “diverse community” has been working on their issues. They’ve been beating the message into their young men’s heads to choose education and entrepreneurship over crime. And the message has been working. For example, those we call “visible minorities” consistently match or exceed the Canadian average for postsecondary education attainment. First-generation African-Canadians between the ages of 25 and 34 meet the national average, with 25.9 per cent in possession of a university degree. Their South Asian peer group claims 56.9 per cent, and nearly 60 per cent of Chinese-Canadians have thrown their mortarboards into the air. We’ve been doing the work. We’ve been getting educated, staying out of trouble, and doing our best to assimilate into the social fabric. Yet let us speak up on the issues that continue to marginalize us, and we are immediately slapped down. Let us ask to celebrate the achievements of the best of us, rather than bemoaning the actions of the worst of us, and we’re told to button it up. Even by progressives who claim to be our allies, and thus deserving of reciprocal support.

As David Soknacki mentioned, Chicago banned handguns between 1982 and 2010. Yet gun violence continued its inexorable climb, turning the city into an urban war zone. In 2013, 2,185 people were killed or injured by gun violence in Chicago. This year, the number stands at 1,129 so far. Chicago’s problems with violence are well documented. As a root of violence, handguns do not hold a candle to the city’s government-sponsored history of redlining and blockbusting, ensuring permanent fortresses of poverty and crime. Yet the public discourse on violence in Chicago mirrors that in our own city, which loses fewer of its people to gun violence in a year than Chicago might lose in a month.

Chicago’s experts and pundits continue the work of compressing racialized social policy, private exploitation and theft from vulnerable communities, and unequal legal treatment into the neat package of “gang violence,” before trotting out shopworn solutions steeped in law-and-order rhetoric, or flat-out martial law. This tactic shifts the dialogue from systemic failures to community failures, and it’s a conversation the communities can never win. For that matter, it’s one the police can never win either, as it forces them into an even more adversarial relationship with the communities they’re sworn to protect. It seems our politicians are taking notes.

Despite Chow’s hyperbole, the facts speak for themselves. Our communities are getting safer. Immigrants to this country are working hard, playing by the rules, and adopting our country’s values. Previously, when I spoke out against Rob Ford’s support within these same misrepresented, under-supported communities, I wrote that his tactic is paternalism. Within a poor area, he doles out favours and dispensations, cultivating gratitude and a sense of dependence. Outside, he threatens more affluent neighbourhoods with the spectre that if he were not there to protect them, the inmates would run amok. This language is marginalizing, and it’s unacceptable.

This is what we have come to expect from Ford, but we can’t continue to allow it to infect our discourse. This is why the dog-whistle politics of handgun alarmism in Toronto is unequivocally unacceptable. It’s time to do better, and I expect better from Olivia Chow—from anyone proclaiming themselves to be progressive, or an ally.

Andray Domise is running for Toronto City Council in Ward 2 (Etobicoke North).

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