Gun Violence: A Tale of Two Cities


Chicago and Toronto are similar-sized cities—with one very big difference. Chicago averages 450 homicides a year, while Toronto averages just under 60. Why the difference?

It’s been a summer of gun violence in Chicago.

Non-stop shootings… Weekends with 4 or 5 murders, but that’s nothing new. Just a long, hot summer in a big city, right?

This week, WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) began broadcasting “Under the Gun,” a week-long series comparing gun violence in Chicago with what goes on in another big city, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. What follows is a transcript of the first program, broadcast Aug 1, 2011.

The two cities are the same size, but their gun violence rates are very different.

We’re going to spend a fair bit of time in Toronto this week with gun owners, police officers and politicians to see what we might learn from our neighbors to the north.

We begin in a poor community in north Toronto called Rexdale.

The Pro-tech media center is in a somewhat rundown strip mall.

It sits between a storefront medical office and a “Money Mart,” the Canadian version of a currency exchange.

The Center actually used to be a bar with some really shady people. There’s actually a bullet hole in the window frame outside. Inside, though, the walls are bright yellow, there’s clean carpeting, and rows of computers for neighborhood kids.

A half dozen high-school aged kids are in the back sitting around a conference table coming up with ideas for fake products for a commercial they’re going to make.

One young man suggests 10% milk. “It’s like healthy ice cream.”

“They’re going to quickly shoot it and then do a quick little edit so they can see basically, in short, the pre-production and post-production of video production,” explains Terrence Rodriguez, who runs the programs here.

He says this place was started to keep kids off the street. They can just drop in and have something positive to do after school while their parents are still at work.

“They’re learning software that’s professional, either graphic design, web design, flash, or video production software,” says Rodriguez..

WBEZ visited this media center because it was created with public and private money in this hard- up community for a very specific reason.

An Investment in Safety

It was an investment meant to help counteract an explosion of gun violence in Toronto in 2005.

The local press dubbed 2005 “the year of the gun.”

“There was a real sense of anarchy, there was a sense of danger,” says Michael Bryant, who was Attorney General (of) Ontario in 2005—and thus, the top law enforcement official for the province which includes the city of Toronto.

“There was a sense that so many were being killed in our streets that we needed the politicians to do something about it.'

[Bryant recalls] that every day, he was being attacked by the press.

“Resign! They wanted me to resign, wanted me to come up with solutions, wanted me to stop making excuses,” he said. ” There was, you know, a level of, I think, understandable panic that we were no longer safe communities.”

So here’s the thing about Toronto’s “year of the gun.”

That year there were 79 homicides, 20 more than usual.

By contrast, in Chicago, which has the same population as the city of Toronto, we had 448..

And that was a banner year for Chicago, murders were lower than they had been in decades.

“Let’s put it this way,” says Bryant. ” In Toronto, when you hit around 30 gun homicides in a given year, that’s pretty much the media tipping point after which every single gun homicide is front page news, every single one.”

Bryant laughs ruefully at the fact that Chicago has 450 murders in a good year, while in Toronto, a city of the same size, 30 murders had him fighting for his political life.

'Terrible Irony'

Wendy Cukier calls that situation a “terrible irony.”

Cukier teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto and is the president of the Coalition for Gun Control which pushes for increasingly strict gun control in Canada.

“Among industrialized countries,” she says, “Tthe United States, which has almost as many guns as people, has the highest rate of gun ownership, has the most resistance to gun control, and yet has the highest rate of carnage.”

Here’s how Cukier explains it: In countries where there is little gun crime, people are shocked into action when there is gun violence.

Meanwhile, Cukier says Americans are unfazed, or numb to gun violence because there’s so much of it.

The “terrible irony” is that as a result, Cukier says, Americans don’t demand an end to the gun violence even though they suffer from it more than people in other industrialized countries.

To put it another way, the more violence there is, the less attention it gets.

Cukier compares Americans to a lobster in a pot of water that is gradually being heated.

“When you’re in the pot you don’t recognize that you’re going to boil to death,” she says. ” And it’s just shocking, I think, to most people around the world that American’s do not realize that the conditions under which they live are comparable to conditions in developing and third world, post conflict societies, that most people don’t have to worry about their children being shot when they go to school.”

We’ll be back in Toronto throughout this week riding with police and going to gun ranges… finding out more about Toronto’s relationship with firearms, and the rules around owning and using them.

But… tomorrow… we’ll look at what it takes for murder to make the front page of the newspaper right here in Chicago.

Robert Wildeboer is a reporter with WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. His series was completed as part of a special investigative reporting program organized by the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice with assistance from the Joyce and David Bohnett Foundations. The audio and transcript of Wildeboer's report, and subsequent reports this week, can be found HERE.

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