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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 January 2006, 00:40 GMT
Shooting rekindles Canada gun debate
By Sarah Shenker
BBC News website, Toronto

Shrine to  Jane Creba in Toronto
Toronto teenager Jane Creba was gunned down on Boxing Day

On a crisp winter Saturday afternoon, shoppers throng Yonge Street in central Toronto, Ontario, as the temperature reaches an unseasonably warm 0C (32F).

In front of a sporting goods shop near the corner with Dundas Street, gaggles of teenagers occasionally stop to stare.

The makeshift shrine is gone, but they need no sign to tell them that this is where 15-year-old Jane Creba was shot while shopping with her family on Boxing Day.

An innocent bystander caught in gunfire between suspected rival gangs, the teenager's death marked the day Toronto "finally lost its innocence", police spokesman Savas Kyriacou said.

It also marked a 15-year high for gun violence in Canada's largest city.

Of 78 murders last year, 52 were gun-related, sparking fears that US levels of gun crime are creeping their way north.

Toronto mayor David Miller laid the blame for the Boxing Day shooting squarely south of the border.

"The US is exporting its problem of violence to the streets of Toronto," he said.

Election pledges

Whatever the cause, 2006 looks set to be an equally violent year - there have been four shootings across the city this week alone.

UK: 81
Canada: 816
US: 30,242
Figures do not distinguish between crime-related and accidental or self-inflicted deaths

It is proof that matters are out of control, says gun-control campaigner Audette Sheppard, whose 19-year-old son Justin was shot dead in 2001.

"Guns are the weapons of mass destruction in our communities," she says.

Public outrage at Jane's death coincided with the start of a general election campaign, in which all major parties have promised longer mandatory sentences for firearm offences, more police and tougher border controls to combat smuggling from the US.

Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, speaking in Toronto, went one step further with a promise to introduce legislation to allow provinces to ban all handguns, if re-elected on Monday.

"Handguns kill people - that's why they exist, and they're taking too many Canadian lives," Mr Martin said.

His pledge was given a mixed reception in a country where firearms have been tightly regulated since the 1930s.

There are seven million registered guns in Canada, including 1.2 million handguns - which are restricted to police, members of gun clubs or collectors.

The reaction to Jane Creba's death shows that Canadian tolerance of gun violence is relatively low
Wendy Cukier,
Coalition for Gun Control

The emotional tone of the debate also obscures some salient facts.

Firearms deaths in Canada have decreased in the past 15 years. Gun violence rates in Toronto are relatively stable and also significantly lower than in US cities of a similar size. Chicago, for example, recorded more than 400 gun-related deaths in 2005.

The registry itself is highly controversial. Originally set to cost C$119m ($103m; 58.4m), of which all but C$2m was to have been recovered by licensing fees, it is now thought to have cost taxpayers C$1bn-2bn.

The leader of the opposition Conservatives, Stephen Harper, has vowed to scrap the registry if elected, and focus resources on combating crime.

"Gun crime has spun out of control because [the Liberals] have failed to do anything to reduce gun crime," he said.

US comparisons

Gary Mauser, of the right-wing think tank the Fraser Institute and a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, believes tighter gun regulation is not the solution.

Nobody needs a gun unless they live in the woods and hunt for a living
Audette Sheppard,
victim's mother

The Liberal-proposed ban would have a limited effect, he says, because like the registry, it only targets law-abiding gun owners.

"The handguns being misused are illegal. Nobody thinks banning guns will stop violent crime, and there is no empirical support for gun controls working," he says.

Wendy Cukier of Ryerson University in Toronto, president of the Coalition for Gun Control, is a staunch supporter of the gun registry.

"About a fifth of Canadian homes have guns, and the registry has proven to be useful in removing guns when there are threats and to support court cases. It's the only way to prove a gun is illegal," she says.

Jane Creba
Toronto lost its innocence with Jane's death, police said

She points out that the homicide rate in Toronto is lower than in many other Canadian cities. With gun-related deaths dropping across the country since the 1990s, it is the changing nature of gun crime that is responsible for most Canadians' strong feelings.

"We have more random shootings, in public places, with bystanders killed or injured, and that has created a climate of fear," she says. "The reaction to Jane Creba's death shows that Canadian tolerance of gun violence is relatively low."

Although the Coalition for Gun Control says it is non-partisan and has not come out in support of Mr Martin's proposed handgun ban, many of the organisations that are members of the coalition back the move.

Audette Sheppard has no doubt that the registry and the proposed ban would be an effective means to combat gun crime.

"If they get rid of the registry, it is going to be a free-for-all. Nobody needs a gun unless they live in the woods and hunt for a living," she says.

A ban would not immediately put an end to gun crime, she admits, but she believes that fewer guns would make a difference further down the line.

"It is too late for Justin," she says, "but it might stop other mothers going through what I did."

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