As horrifying as the recent wave of shootings has been, we have to guard against being led down the garden path of believing an extreme situation demands an extreme solution.
The fact is, Toronto's homicide rate is consistently lower than those in the lawless cities of Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Fortunately, for the past decade only approximately 30 per cent of all homicides in Canada have been shootings. The sad truth is that far more people use guns to kill themselves than to kill others.
Gun violence is not epidemic in Canada, but every year or two Toronto erupts like a war zone. On October 27, 2002, four people were killed and three others wounded in three shooting incidents, all within 90 minutes. During the week of October 26, 2003, Toronto residents were subjected to seven shootings, a few deadly stabbings and three armed home invasions.
As expected, these past eruptions triggered calls for a task force, a public inquiry, stiffer sentences, specialized gun courts, more cops, more prosecutors and more power. This broken record is being played once again this summer.
I would agree that cowards who strut around with guns like little Napoleons with low self-esteem deserve harsh punishment. However, the public is being duped if they are led to believe that making the existing harsh penalties even more draconian will curb gun violence. The institution of criminal justice was never designed to reduce the incidence of crime - it was designed to punish crime. There is a difference.
Severe punishment does not deter. I have yet to see a convincing empirical study demonstrating that get-tough policies lead to a reduction in crime. In theory, the threat of severe punishment could deter the Enron or WorldCom type of offender, because corporate criminals calculate and factor into their cost-benefit analysis the consequences of being caught.
But for most other criminals, the crime is just an expression of character and circumstance, and harm is caused without any real consideration of the looming presence of a punitive institution.
Frankly, the current empirical evidence just confirms what the anecdotal evidence from our common law past has told us.
Until the 1830s, there were over 200 capital offences. People could be executed for murder and rape as well as pickpocketing and stealing sheep. Ironically, the best place for pickpockets to ply their trade was at bustling public executions.
If the very sight of a fellow pickpocket having the life squeezed out of his body on the gallows could not serve as a deterrent, why do we think a modern Criminal Code would have greater impact today? The law will not solve the gun problem, because good people will be good regardless and bad people will continue to harm in spite of the law.
Reliance upon increasingly severe sentences to address a serious social problem has a serious downside. First, it leaves the public with the false impression that the problem has been solved, and in the spirit of naive optimism we believe it unnecessary to undertake the more difficult task of exploring the root causes of gun violence and other predatory criminality. Second, knee-jerk reliance upon sentence severity can actually serve to increase the incidence of crime.
For example, in a seemingly unrelated show of bravado this past month, the feds increased the maximum penalties for methamphetamine use, production and sale.
Like the deterrence myth, this is another example of state officials wanting to believe, and wanting us to believe, that severity of punishment is an effective tool for controlling what people do with their bodies. Illicit drug use will ebb and flow from year to year without regard to increasing criminal penalties, but greedy dealers armed with handguns thrive in this atmosphere of get-tough criminal justice policy.
We've become so blinded by the allure of tough talk and prison as a panacea for all social ills that we've failed to realize that getting tough on drug crimes will inevitably lead to increases in gun violence. The formula is rather simple: when the state prohibits the consumption of a desired commodity or service, it plants the seeds for the growth of a black market that relies upon weaponry to protect its investment.
Increasing the maximum penalties will only give dealers an excuse to raise prices on the pretense of the increased risk of doing business. Greater profits and greater risks lead to the need for greater firepower.
The police are convinced that much of the gunplay in Toronto is gang-related. We know that gangs play a large role in the illicit drug market and that on average 10 per cent of all homicides in Canada are related to the drug trade. It stands to reason that eliminating, or reducing, the black market by legalizing and regulating illicit drugs could potentially bring about a substantial decrease in our murder rate.
Even though harsh sentences do not deter crime, there is one criminological truth underlying the get-tough response. Empirical studies do suggest that the certainty of punishment may be able to deter crime even if severity cannot. If gunslingers and illicit drug users believe they will be always be caught, this will deter pretty much all the budding criminals except the savagely incorrigible.
This is the logic underlying the deployment of 150 new officers in crime-ridden neighbourhoods. But 150 will not be nearly enough. The only hope of creating crime-free zones in Canada is to construct a police state in which Big Brother is always watching. But who would agree to that?
A strong police presence will never be an adequate substitute for community involvement and addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour. While a large contingent of police on the beat may be comforting for some, for others it is reflective of a dangerous modern phenomena: too many soldiers and not enough peace, too many laws and not enough justice, too many police and not enough liberty.