Under the gun: Murder in Chicago and Toronto

August 1, 2011

(WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)

It's been a summer of gun violence in Chicago. Non-stop shootings. Weekends with four or five murders, but that's nothing new. Just a long, hot summer in a big city, right?

Today we begin a week-long series comparing gun violence in Chicago with what goes on in another big city, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The two cities are the same size, but their gun violence rates are very different.

Series

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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.

RODRIGUEZ: 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.

TEENAGER: It's like healthy ice cream.

TEENAGER: That's wrong.

RODRIGUEZ: 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. 

By the numbers

  • Toronto and Chicago both have a little less than 3 million residents. Toronto has 60 murders a year. Chicago has 450.
  • There were 179 shooting deaths in all of Canada in 2009. Canada’s Population was almost 34 million people. There were 376 shooting deaths in Chicago in 2009. The population of Chicago was less than 3 million.
  • According to a Chicago Police Department annual report, in 2009 there were 461 murders and 160 clearances.
  • The Chicago police department considers a case cleared when an offender has been arrested, charged and prosecuted or when the police are ready to arrest someone but something outside of the department’s control prevents an arrest from being made. The clearance rate is 34.7%. In Toronto in 2009 the clearance rate was 58.1% but they had fewer murders to solve. They cleared a total of 36 cases.
  • The Chicago Police Department has more than 11,000 officers. Toronto has about 5,300.
  • In 1992 there were 940 murders in the city. 651 of those murders were committed with firearms. The department cleared 683 cases.

    Terrence Rodriguez 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.

    RODRIGUEZ: They're learning software that's professional, either is graphic design, web design, flash, or video production software.

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

    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."

    BRYANT: There was a real sense of anarchy, there was a sense of danger, there was a sense that so many were being killed in our streets that we needed the politicians to do something about it.

    That's Michael Bryant.

    In 2005 he was the Attorney General for the province of Ontario.

    He was the top law enforcement official for the province, which includes the City of Toronto.

    He says, every day, he was being attacked by the press.

    BRYANT: Resign!  They wanted me to resign, wanted me to come up with solutions, wanted me to stop making excuses.  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, here 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.

    BRYANT: Let's put it this way. 

    Once again, Michael Bryant, the former attorney general of Ontario.

    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.

    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.

    CUKIER: Among industrialized countries, the 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 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.

    CUKIER: When you're in the pot you don't recognize that you're going to boil to death.  And it's just shocking, I think, to most people around the world that Americans 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.

    --Bill Healy for contributed to this report.

    Support for reporting on gun violence comes from a grant from John Jay College with the Joyce and David Bohnett foundations.
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