The gunfire that interrupted Monday’s Toronto Raptors celebrations and sent a surge of panicked fans scrambling for cover has the “ear-markings” of a targeted shooting, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said Thursday.
“I don’t think it was a ‘let’s shoot out the public’ type thing — I think it was specific,” Saunders said at a news conference at police headquarters, noting that he couldn’t provide detailed information about the possible motivation for the shooting.
Four people sustained non-life threatening injuries after gunfire erupted mid-celebration, as more than 100,000 people packed into Nathan Phillips Square at the culmination of the Raptors victory parade.
Investigators made three arrests and seized two guns soon after the shooting. But police don’t believe either handgun was the weapon fired Monday, and the men now in custody face charges in connection to firearm possession — not to the shooting itself.
The investigation is ongoing, Saunders said, and police are still seeking a person of interest in the case, a white male with a heavy build. He is not considered a suspect.
The high-profile shooting has reignited calls for greater action to curb gun violence in the city. One day after the shooting, city council held a previously scheduled vote to have the federal government ban the sale of handguns in Toronto, and for the province to ban the sale of ammunition.
Toronto police have faced mounting pressure to tackle gun crime, particularly in the wake of increasing numbers of fatal shootings: of last year’s 96 homicides, 51 were gun-related. There have been 27 homicides so far this year, 14 of which were fatal shootings.
One part of a larger gun violence strategy was the Toronto police’s recent gun buyback program, the results of which were on display at the news conference at police headquarters Thursday.
Spread out were some of the 3,100 guns surrendered during its three-week buyback program last month — 2,200 long guns and over 900 handguns, all to be destroyed. Funded by the City of Toronto — which set aside $750,000 dollars — the program saw citizens compensated $200 for long guns and $350 for handguns.
“I really feel that our homes and neighbourhoods are a little bit safer with 3,100 operational firearms removed from (Torontonians’) homes,” said Insp. Chris Boddy, who spearheaded the program.
Asked about the timing of Thursday’s news conference, and if it was in response to Monday’s high-profile shooting, Saunders said it had taken a month since the program’s end to work through the buyback’s administrative tasks, including issuing payments, which has just begun.
Saunders said the types of guns returned in the buyback program are ones that hold the potential to be used in a crime — mostly because they could “fall into the wrong hands through theft and be sold on the street.”
“I’m confident that we’ve kept some of those guns out of the wrong hands through this program,” he said.
The program was “not the solution to gun crime violence across the city,” Saunders added, but part of a larger strategy to reduce the supply of guns available to criminals, which also includes using intelligence to go after networks of gun suppliers.
Critics say gun buyback programs provide good optics while doing little to crack down on the root causes of gun violence. Among those voicing skepticism this week, in the wake of Monday’s shooting, was Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack.
“Still waiting for @TorontoPolice plan with sustainable gun violence strategies,” he tweeted. “Tangible results to date? Gun buyback nets guns largely from law-abiding citizens.”
There’s mixed evidence that gun buyback programs work, said Kate Puddister, a University of Guelph professor who researches policing. Most of the research comes from the United States, and concludes that such initiatives are ineffective in reducing gun violence.
“The main findings are that gun buyback programs don’t remove the crime-involved guns from circulation and don’t attempt to intervene in the factors that lead individuals to engage in gun-related crime,” she said in an email Thursday.
She notes, however, that the U.S. can be “an exceptional case” when it comes to gun policy.
Saunders acknowledged that the guns handed over in the buyback were unwanted weapons owned by citizens. But he noted that police did seize over 900 handguns — the weapon used in 90 per cent of the shooting occurrences in Toronto — and some guns with their serial numbers removed, suggesting they were “designed for criminal purposes.”
Jooyoung Lee, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies gun violence, said gun buybacks are popular in the public because there is an “overarching logic” that the fewer guns that are out there, the less likelihood that a criminal will get a hold of one.
“That’s true at a theoretical level, but at an empirical, everyday, practical level, firearms that are turned into these programs aren’t often the kinds of guns that we see used in shootings,” he said.
Asked if the $750,000 set aside for the program was money well spent, Lee said he doesn’t think many gun violence researchers would say a gun buyback program would be the most effective way to reduce shootings.
Saunders said the cost of saving lives — or potential criminal offences — is a lot higher than the money spent on the program.
“I think that the money factor doesn’t weigh out the safety factor that this has created,” he said.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis