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Harper and Martin Making Some Noise About Guns and Gangs
26/08/2005

Both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper have come out with plans to address guns and crime... or, at least, plans to create some plans, maybe.

I do think it is smart of Harper to come to Toronto and present policies that are clearly consistent with what his party stands for at the same time that they address urban needs. It is one of several recent signs that he is reversing his summer tailspin and finally attempting to appeal to voters in the places he needs gains.

On the other hand, Paul Martin's announcement leaves me feeling somewhat cynical. Toronto Liberal MPs are calling for action at a caucus meeting, which just goes to show that they move at glacial speed. Harper's quip was good: "I have my doubts they'll ever actually do anything, they've had 12 years."

In any case, I'll be happy no matter who produces results. Liberal, Conservative or NDP, I'll give them credit.

Toronto

Locally, there has been a lot of hype about the crime issue in Toronto this summer. Odds are that the number of murders will be essentially in line with trends over the past decade or two. However, the hype is a reminder that "the same or slightly more" crime is not good enough at all. The latest (Toronto homicide #48) was a father of 10 and a "Stop the Violence" activist.

Sticks

It would seem to me that guns are the place to start. Sure, "guns don't kill people -- people kill people", but if a thug decides to leave his gun at home he probably won't kill anybody, whether or not an altercation occurs or someone gets dissed. And he certainly won't be able to hit any kids in the crossfire.

I read the book Freakonomics this spring and gave it a poor review, but it did have an interesting chapter on the economics of being a gangbanger. In short, it was not a very rewarding job for anybody below the top tiers. The motivations were brotherhood and desperation, but it sounded like some of them would rather quit if they could land a decent job. Anything we can do to tilt the incentives further away from criminal participation and in favour of something else has got to help.

To that end, I do support stricter penalties for the use of firearms while commiting crimes, as well as possession. The message should be: you'll seriously regret carrying. There's an added benefit to this in that anyone who's arrested for illegal possession of a gun has most likely commited crimes and intends on committing others. Putting him away for a while is bound to do some good.

I've also called for cutting off the supply of guns, including those coming over the border. This idea has been mocked and ridiculed by conservatives, but it can't hurt. I know that Canada Customs will never be able to stop people from bringing over guns in small quantities. But a reduction driven by the threat of penalties, increased and publicized searches, and assistance from American law enforcement can all help to put a dent in supply. The law of supply and demand applies to street guns as much as to any other product.

Carrots

Margaret Wente's column earlier this month is titled "The root cause nobody dares talk about". She pins the rise of gang-related crime on the breakdown of the family: "Maybe the real problem isn't American-style gun violence. Maybe it's American-style ghetto culture -- a culture of fatherless families and chaotic childhoods that traps people in a permanent underclass."

Let's assume for a moment that she's correct, i.e., that young men growing up in fatherless households are more likely to make bad choices that lead to crime and even murder. If it's true, what are we supposed to do about it? Wente seems to be calling for a cultural change. That's one response, but it is one that would be enormously difficult to accomplish. What's her roadmap for acheiving it?

In the meantime, it's the often-ridiculed investment in youth programs and community centres that are the best City Hall can do to answer the problem suggested by Wente. There isn't going to be a law that says you have to marry your baby-mama. In the meantime, these programs (along with schools) do what they can to "socialize [...] children and prepare them to be functional adults".

Programs like the Mayor's Community Safety Plan would therefore seem to be an important part of the solution. No, gang members aren't going to drop their guns for hockey sticks. But today's 12-year-olds are at a turning point, and we can help them see they have some better options than getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. It may not drop the crime rate in 2005, but could certainly help the situation in 2010.

The more things change…

A blog entry from a year and half ago is interesting given the current context. At public hearing on "guns, gangs and crime", I reported that... The Liberal GTA Caucus said they wanted to "get involved". The Ontario government unveiled a task force. Chief of Police Fantino said he supported the Mayor's plans for prevention. Members of the media made jokes about Miller. And the black community was sharply divided between those saying the real issue was racism and others who wanted to work with the police.

At that time, I commented that the financial pressures at City Hall were creating a challenge, but what eventually happened was that the budget committee found a way to give the police force a large increase, and it now claims 23% of property tax revenues.


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