Skip to main content

Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology and a faculty affiliate at the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden released a memo urging city and state leaders to use money from the US$1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan Act to fight rising gun violence. Some cities have already taken him up on the offer: San Jose and New York have announced investments in evidence-based community interventions that can help deter young people from becoming involved in shootings, including job programs and prison-release assistance.

But Mr. Biden has also said that relief funds can be used to hire more police officers, a suggestion that’s out of step with a general reckoning around police violence and bias in the United States. Critics, however, have pointed out that this part of his plan is very much in line with the actions of a man who, as a senator, authored a 1994 crime bill that led to the mass incarceration of Black Americans. “This is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement or our communities,” he said last week.

Here in Canada, the federal policy options on offer haven’t led to such blunt tools, but community-based interventions are largely missing in discussions about how to better fight gun violence. Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a federal-level ban of some 1,500 models of “assault style” rifles last May, and this February, the government introduced Bill C-21, which includes a voluntary gun buyback of those newly prohibited firearms. Bill C-21 has not passed – and with Parliament now in recess, and an election possibly looming, it may never become law – but it has received pushback from both gun owners and victim-advocacy groups who argue it won’t effectively reduce gun violence. And the Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the buyback program could cost $756-million – three times the government’s estimate.

Although such buybacks promise to make society safer, the evidence is mixed. Some studies show they can have a modest effect on firearm-related homicides and suicides, but others point to their limitations; for instance, a 2002 study of Milwaukee County found that a city-wide buyback was not effective because the types of guns that were submitted were predominantly older models or revolvers, which are not typically used in homicides or suicides.

Proponents of such programs often point to Australia’s massive buyback of guns after the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996. But there are important distinctions: Australia’s gun buyback was not voluntary. And perhaps more importantly, Australia does not share a long border with the world’s leading gun exporter. Those differences raise questions about the long-term effectiveness of Canada’s proposed program.

Meanwhile, we still do not have reliable Canadian data on the origins of guns used in crimes. Although the federal government launched a study in 2020, there remains no systematic picture of where these guns come from. A large-scale buyback of lawfully owned rifles would not take these glaring data issues into account. Instead of building infrastructure to support communities most likely to be affected by gun violence, our policy-makers appear more interested in superficially mimicking policies that worked elsewhere without working out the finer details.

Given that the federal government had set aside $225-million for the buyback program, one has to wonder: How many after-school arts programs could we fund with that money? How many job training programs? How many re-entry programs for people getting out of prison? How many violence interruption programs? How many more hospital-based interventions? How many more peer-counselling programs for shooting survivors? The list of evidence-based community interventions that reduce gun violence goes on and on.

One example is Kaos Network, a community arts centre in the heart of gangland, “South Central” Los Angeles, which I spent years observing for my book. This centre provided young people from surrounding neighbourhoods with mentoring in a wide array of arts that kept them away from the Crips and the Bloods gangs. Similar programs exist in Canada, but most are in a perpetual cycle of trying to secure funds to keep staff and the lights on. Federal money would go a long way to ensure these kinds of programs continue to support those most affected by gun violence.

To win the fight against gun violence, we must prioritize evidence-based community interventions. Building a robust safety net for the communities most likely to be affected by gun violence is a better way forward than superficially adopting bans and buybacks – or, in the case of Mr. Biden, hiring more police officers – without taking into account the unique needs of cities.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.