On gun violence, Jim Watson and John Tory shoot from the lip

July 7, 2018

If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, it seems that the mayors of Ontario’s largest cities have been very, very consistent — at least when it comes to gun crime.

The problems in Toronto and Ottawa are similar: an increase in shootings. And like moths to a flame, John Tory and Jim Watson took to their bully pulpits recently to spitball solutions. Unfortunately, those solutions relied on the same tired trope that has failed our communities again and again: It’s time to get tough on crime.

Watson was responding to the release of the Ottawa police’s 2017 crime trends report, which indicated violent crime was up a staggering 20 per cent in the nation’s capital.

Watson was quick to call for more severe punishments for gun offences because harsher punishments would “act as a deterrent.”

All gun crime is serious but the statistics do little to make the case that Ottawa is a dangerous city. In fact, despite a small increase in “shootings” – which includes incidents regardless of whether someone is actually shot or not – Ottawa’s murder rate actually decreased in 2017. It appears most of the increase in violent crime was due to an almost doubling of uttering threat charges, not firearms offences.

It may be too much to expect statistical nuance from Watson. But we should insist that his proposed solutions have a basis in reality. So, the question is: Do more severe punishments actually deter crime? The answer is a resounding no.

In 2018, law professor and legal scholar Janine Benedet testified before the House of Commons Justice Committee that the biggest deterrence to criminal activity is the likelihood of apprehension, not the severity of punishment. This was not an earth-shattering revelation. Over a decade earlier, Canada’s pre-eminent criminologist, Dr. Anthony Doob, testified before the same committee, that “for more than 25 years, the overwhelming weight of evidence has been consistent with the conclusions that harsh sentences, in legislation or in practice, will not have any consistent or appreciable impact on levels of crime in the community.”

So, if there is no convincing evidence to suggest harsher sentences prevent crime, why is Watson peddling misinformation?

Things were no better in Toronto where Tory released a statement decrying Toronto’s shootings. Tory’s solutions were just as simplistic as Watson’s. Tory wants to “toughen up bail guidelines” for gun crimes. Tory doubled down on his bail rhetoric, saying, “We can’t have people getting out on bail 20 minutes after they’re arrested for using a gun.”

I’ll let you in on a secret, no one accused of a gun crime is released on bail 20 minutes after their arrest – not unless the accused is a police officer. Tory’s strawman argument is the height of irresponsibility and only serves to baselessly decrease confidence in the justice system. Tory presented no evidence that the recent Toronto shootings were committed by suspects who had been released on bail. And it is a fact that bail for firearms is always subject to the strictest of conditions and monitoring.

Tory says that “the answers are easy if we work together to deploy more police and support the police to actually get these thugs behind bars and keep them there.”

These “easy answers” won’t work. History has shown that more police officers, reduced civil liberties, and harsher punishments won’t reduce gun violence. In reality, these easy answers are merely seductive political tripe to be fed to a scared public desperate for solutions.

Real solutions involve building relationships with communities. Heavy-handed and racially charged police investigations techniques, such as carding, have been shown to erode the public’s willingness to report crime or to cooperate with the police. Real solutions mean tackling the hopelessness and poverty that plague our cities. Real solutions can be found in progressive drug policies and robust addiction treatment.

But Watson and Tory did not talk about any of these real solutions. Explaining and justifying evidence-based approaches to complex social problems is never easy. And so, we are left with Watson’s and Tory’s foolish consistency, which might help them get re-elected this year but won’t come close to making our communities safer.

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This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen